New plates benefit dozens of nonprofit groups, causes

Of The Gazette Staff

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but art may be on the car in front of you.

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 look.

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.

specialty plates

"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 plate.

"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 very interesting."

"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 2,375

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 sold 24.

"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.

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