Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but art may be on the car in front
From the grim visage of Sitting Bull to the serene waters of Lake McDonald, a
vast array of images supporting an equally vast array of of nonprofit
organizations are available on Montana license plates.
Dean Roberts, the administrator of the state's Motor Vehicle Division, said
36 specialty plates have already been approved since the plates became available
in 2001, and there are 15 more in the approval process.
That's a lot of plates and a lot of good causes.
But, not all the plates are works of art, and that seems to affect which
groups get the most takers. To sort the classics from the clunkers, The Gazette
assembled a panel of experts:
- Patricia Vettel-Becker, an assistant professor at Montana State
University-Billings who specializes in American art history;
- Renee Giovando, an administrative assistant at the Yellowstone Art Museum;
- Mark Moak, a professor of art at Rocky Mountain College.
They agreed that the best plates created a sense of depth, used the standard
plate elements in a unique or playful way, and provided a simple, uncluttered
Vettel-Becker said the ZooMontana plate was her favorite.
"Graphically, the paw print for the O in Montana, the tiger -- it was
just balanced very nicely," she said. The composition was more complex than
other plates, bringing a "sense of depth into space, with the mountains in
the background and the tiger in the middle and grass in front of the tiger. ...
The tiger counterbalances the letters and numbers in focus and emphasis. The
colors go together well and blend at the same value."
Moak said he enjoys picking out the different plates as he's driving,
"and it's an even better experience for all concerned if I don't have to
tailgate somebody to read the state's name or make out the design." While
he said ZooMontana was a clever plate, "we were behind one of these and it
took forever to figure out which one it was."
The Montana Council of Trout Unlimited drew rave reviews.
"It's simple, yet it gets the point across," Giovando said.
"The illustration of the fish creates angles and the feeling of movement.
There's a nice contrast from the cooler colors of the fish with the hints of red
in 'Montana.' The colors worked well together and it was easy to read, which is
the main point of a license plate, I would think."
While Moak's family liked the Gallatin County Open Lands Board plate, he said
his favorite was the Montana Wilderness Association plate.
"One of the functions of a license plate is to advertise the state. This
plate does that beautifully," he said, integrating the ponderosa pine,
bitterroot flower, western meadowlark and grizzly. The state's name is easy to
read and the numbers and letters are boldly contrasted, he said.
Giovando gave kudos to the Humane Society of Gallatin County for originality.
"It was fun. I liked the use of the red outline and the changed font in
Montana. It doesn't have the name 'Humane Society' on it but with the animals,
it gets the point across without putting all the information down."
Vettel-Becker was stymied to find a reason why she liked The Glacier Fund
"It's hard to say why I liked it," she said. "There's more
aesthetic value than a lot of them without being too busy. ... Glacier is nice
without having the dominating letters and numbers."
A plate of one's own
Dean Roberts, Montana Motor Vehicle Division administrator, outlined
the steps for groups getting a specialty license plate, and how the
plates are made:
The group must be a 501 (c) 3 organization, have statewide or
national significance, and pony up $4,000, which goes to Montana Prison
Industries to design and manufacture the plates. Design requirements
include having "Montana" at the top of the plate between
seven-eights of an inch and 1.5 inches high, room for the renewal tab in
the lower right corner, and a series of three alphabet characters and
three numeric characters.
If the design is approved, the state Motor Vehicle Division and the
Montana Highway Patrol check the plate for readability -- visible in
shade in the daytime from 80 to 100 feet, Roberts said.
Of the additional cost of specialty plates, the sponsor group charges
between $15 and $25. Another one-time charge of $10 goes to the state
and $5 to the county, Roberts said. The group's charge is due each time
the plates are renewed.
All the plates go to benefit good causes, and because of this, the experts
were loathe to produce examples of the plates they liked least. However,
"the gray wolf and grizzly (of the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center), I
call it the 'floating heads' plate," Giovando said. The heads "just
are not placed well. It's not very interesting. You have the feeling that it was
haphazardly put together."
Moak agreed. "The Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Center, whoa, that's bad.
My heart goes out to them because it's a great organization, but the images are
clip art almost. There's no sense of design, it's unbalanced and there seems to
be an awkward space between the numbers and the name of the center."
"I wasn't into many that were too pastel, or busy, or cartoonish, but
that appeals to some people," Vettel-Becker said. "The least
interesting were the youth groups and organizations that just used logos. I can
understand why they use the logos, but from an aesthetic standpoint, they're not
"As an art historian, if I were to choose one as a favorite, it would be
the Custer Battlefield Museum plate," Vettel-Becker said. "It has
history, aesthetic, imagery and a nicely framed license number."
Chris Kortlander, the director and founder of the museum in Garryowen, said a
lot of thought went into the plate's design.
"One thing we focused on was trying to be historically accurate and be
sensitive to the culture of where the museum is located," Kortlander said.
Part of being historically accurate meant using actual photos of George
Custer and Sitting Bull.
"The Custer photograph actually was his favorite pose and was his
favorite photograph," Kortlander said. "We wanted to make sure that
the Sitting Bull photograph, he being one of the brilliant minds behind the
Battle of Little Big Horn and the leader of the Sioux nation, was elevated a
little higher than Custer since he was victorious. We didn't want to get into a
situation where we were not representing one side as equally as another."
Since the photos in Custer's and Sitting Bull's day were sepia-toned, that
made the choice of background color simple, he said. The choice of horses
running in the center of the plate was made both to honor the horse-loving Crow
Tribe and to make the plate appeal to all Montanans who love horses.
As nice as it is to have a pretty plate, Kortlander said the income from the
plate makes up about 20 percent of his budget.
"We're a private, nonprofit organization. We get no federal funding.
What this does is help us meet our budget to stay open 365 days a year, even
when it's December and below zero. We feel we need to stay open because we get
visitors at the strangest times. They come from all over the world and to tell
them were not open, you should see their faces."
Kortlander said he sells more than 100 plates a month, although that doesn't
put him in the top sales for the state, or for Yellowstone County
Roberts said there are about 45,000 specialty plates roaming Montana. The
biggest seller is the Montana Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission plate,
with 13,199 sold. Next is the Glacier Park Foundation, with 10,773 sold. The
Gallatin County Open Lands Board comes in third with 7,604, then the Rocky
Mountain Elk Foundation at 3,410, and Montana Council of Trout Unlimited at
The lowest sellers statewide? The Town of Browning has sold nine plates.
Hamilton School District No. 3 has sold 14 and Great Falls Public Schools has
"Some of these haven't been on the market that long," Roberts said.
"... But, some groups are going to lose their shirts on this thing, no
doubt about it."
Marty Pryor, the Motor Vehicle Supervisor for Yellowstone County, recited the
best sellers so far this year: Gallatin County Open Lands Board, Glacier Park
Fund, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Yellowstone Park Foundation.
The lowest sellers include the Montana Utility Coordinating Council, Girl
Scouts of Big Sky Council in Great Falls, the Student Assistance Foundation, and
the Great Falls Public Schools plates.
In addition to looks, many people buy the plates to make a statement about
who they are.
"Personally, I have the open lands plate on my vehicle," Giovando
said. "It's simple, has a little bit of depth, is easy to read and I like
the color. I'm an outdoors person, so it's something I feel a part of."
But if simply being a Montanan offers enough group identity for you, the
state's general plates will undergo its regular redesign in 2005 and be ready
Jan. 1, 2006, Roberts said.