The past several months have been a time of rapid growth for Powder River Art Gallery, and things don’t look to be slowing down in 2022.
Even when she was little, Anna Bilderback, owner of Powder River, has always attacked the art business head on.
Her mother was a painter, and today Bilderback still has two of her artworks hanging in her office at the gallery in Cheyenne. Paintings like these are the reason that she opened her first location in Buffalo, Wyoming years ago.
“When I was a little girl I used to go door to door knocking on doors trying to sell her art,” Bilderback said.
When she was older, she tried to take the paintings to local galleries, all of which turned her away. If no one was going to take her mothers art, then she was going to do it herself by opening her own gallery years ago.
Now, she’s starting to reap the benefits of her mindset.
Much of her focus has been on Powder River’s new location on the busy N. College Avenue in Fort Collins, Colorado, leaving the original Cheyenne location open by appointment only. The reason for this vacancy is simple, Bilderback is waiting for someone like herself to leave the original gallery in good hands.
This, however, has proved hard to come by.
She’s looking for a self starter, a creative, someone with knowledge and pride for the art that hangs within the walls of Powder River. The search for a trustworthy hand has been slow going. She has no problem doing things by herself, although it doesn’t make things much easier.
The good news is that as of this past week, Powder River returned to regular hours as Brenda Treuthardt, president of the Cheyenne Artist Guild, will step in every Thursday and Friday for anyone who wants to wander in.
Foot traffic was a huge advantage on the opening day of her Fort Collins location, but this was something she expected and even planned. Selling in person is tedious, as many only come in to walk through and admire the works, rather than purchase.
Bilderback is business oriented. With an eye for good art, she must curate her gallery with a critical precision in the interest of creating positive results. She is the dealer, the salesperson, a former interior designer that can determine how creations go together in the bigger picture.
“The spiritual side is within me, it got me here doing this,” Bilderback said. “When I look at art, I’m doing a lot of different calculating. I have to believe in every single piece. Because if I don’t, then it won’t sell.”
Over the past several months, half of her business has come from online ordering, and while this method is impersonal, it has significantly expanded her business reach. Just this past week, she surpassed the 10,000-follower mark on social media, and received more business inquiries through Facebook.
Online business allows for art that would never sell locally to be purchased by collectors of all backgrounds, things like buffalo hides and antique ledgers.
Out of her entire collection, the most important pieces are those she has collected by indigenous artists from the southwest, the most notable being Jeremy Salazar. Her gallery, however, extends beyond that.
Hanging in the Cheyenne location is a collection of mixed media pieces from Ivan Lee, who uses colorful graffiti to create unique street art portraits of indigenous figures. While Bilderback loves the pieces, she is yet to see a significant response from buyers.
Custom furniture completely designed and created by Blackfeet designer Ernie Apodaca has been the most popular item in recent months. Debuting the furniture at the Cheyenne Frontier Days exhibition hall in 2020, online orders now come in from across the west, with Powder River being one of only three businesses to sell Apodaca’s work.
Good business is her drive, but the ultimate goal is to help underrepresented indigenous artists gain recognition.
Interest in indigenous art has grown, and as a result, interest in Powder River Art Gallery and the artists that Bilderback features has too. Judging off online orders, there’s one place in the country that is seeking indigenous art more than anywhere else, and that’s the state of Texas.
So in 2022, Bilderback is making a Texas-sized move as she works out a proposed business plan for a 5,000 square foot location in Dallas. The team is still very early in the process, though the entire endeavor looks promising.
“What we’re trying to do for our plan in Dallas is to fill that gap of indigenous art, because so many people want the art and they want it produced by indigenous artists,” Bilderback said.
Besides artistic exposure, last month Bilderback introduced a goal of donating 2% of all profits to Salazar’s “W.I.S.E. Outreach” program, which raises money to provide Navajo reservation families with wood, insulation, stoves, and other essentials.
In a way, this is striking while the iron is hot. Buyers want art from indigenous artists, while indigenous artists want to be seen and heard, and Powder River Art Gallery is doing what it can to make sure that happens.
“They’re better than most, and they don’t get the recognition,” Bilderback said. “A lot of times their work is underpriced, but the truth of the matter is that a lot of their work is better than most Western and native art.”
Bilderback gets choked up when discussing the topic of indigenous artists and their struggles. The work that hangs in both locations stirs emotions of wisdom, power, strength, and love.
In all their work, she sees heritage, sadness, and culture. Even more important is the fact that presenting their art stimulates an important conversation around the struggles of indigenous peoples.
“It brings it to the forefront and it shows they’re the best, they know their culture the best.” Bilderback said. “They can compete, like Jeremy says. That’s his thing too, to show that they can compete.”