By TOM BENSEN
Last week 6 members of the Washington, DC-based Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), the national nonprofit membership organization for presenters of the performing arts, came to Missoula to meet with 25 local artists, presenters, nonprofit leaders, and University of Montana administrators. Included in this group were APAP CEO Mario Garcia Durham and Board President Michael Blachly, and Montana Arts Council executive director Arni Fishbaugh.
APAP’s reason for coming here was to learn about some of the driving forces around how the arts are being integrated and connected with the Missoula community in terms of civic life, education, technology, and economics. Among the Missoula attendees were Top Hat and Wilma owner Nick Checota, Missoula Downtown Partnership executive director Linda McCarthy, Missoula Economic Partnership director James Grunke, Destination Missoula director Barb Neilan, Native American artists Corky Clairmont and Joseph Grady, ZACC director Kia Liszac, Tell Us Something director Marc Moss, Montana Repertory Theatre director Greg Johnson, Dennison Theatre director Tom Webster, Terri Elander from MCT, Gita Seadi Kiely from Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and John Driscoll from the Missoula Symphony Association. In other words, many, but certainly not all, of the drivers of arts and culture in Missoula.
APAP had its own agenda for coming here, and Missoula was a test case for a project they have embarked on to engage more closely with mid- and small communities across the country. In fact later this summer the same APAP team is going to Durham, NC for a similar meeting. But this meeting was of great benefit to Missoula as well.
We have realized for a long time now that we have a strong arts component here – Caras Park seems to hold a different festival each weekend, along with regular summer Out to Lunch and Downtown Tonight events, while monthly First Friday Gallery Nights are immensely popular for locals as well as seasonal tourists.
The University of Montana is home to the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, one of the largest art collections in the northwest, and UM hosts the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival, KyiYo Pow Wow, Montana Rep’s Colony, and the International Food and Culture Festival. The Missoula Children’s Theatre is known the world over for the Little Red Trucks that arrive in a town loaded with props, costumes and scripts, a week later producing a play with local children, and transforming their lives in the process. The Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre performs all over the world. The Missoula Art Museum, Missoula Symphony, Rocky Mountain School of Photography, International Choral Festival, Montana Book Festival – I could go on forever. Yet we haven’t found a way as a community to harness all of this into one consistent message, for our residents, tourists, or people looking to relocate.
We know we are an arts-rich place, but we don’t know just how to better define it, to ourselves as well as to anyone else. This is a challenge, and certainly a welcomed one, for all of us in this industry. And it is one that the Missoula Cultural Council is eager to help lead.
This meeting with APAP comes as Missoula is entering its third year in partnership with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a member of their Any Given Child initiative to enhance and improve arts education in Missoula County Public Schools and to ensure an equitable arts education for all students.
The Missoula version of this initiative is called SPARK – Arts Ignite Learning, and is a collaborative effort between MCPS, the City of Missoula, Missoula Cultural Council, UM College of Visual & Performing Arts, as well as other business, arts, and philanthropic organizations.
Chris Neely, SPARK’s executive director, is currently preparing another year of implementing and coordinating arts experiences and arts integration in Missoula’s K-8 classrooms, while the College of Visual & Performing Arts is quickly becoming the regional arts integration training site, developing certification programs for local educators and teaching artists.
Meanwhile, beginning in January, the Missoula Cultural Council will be collecting data from local arts organizations and audiences for the National Arts and Economic Prosperity report led by Americans for the Arts, another large DC advocacy group. The current study, released in 2012 (now considered “old” in this industry) painted a favorable picture of Missoula as a thriving and healthy arts community. The annual economic activity for Missoula’s nonprofit arts groups that year was $39.9 million, while the national average for cities our size came in at $11 million. Impressive, eh?
So here is what is truly impressive. Three national and influential arts advocacy organizations – Americans for the Arts, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters – have all recognized Missoula as a force in this field. We are a national model for a strong arts community, in economic development, education, and community-building. APAP chose to bring its big guns to town for their meeting, which is even more impressive. For years many of us have thought Missoula is poised to go to the next level as a recognized arts destination. I think we’re beyond that – we are already there, but sometimes we still don’t recognize it. Meanwhile the big three in our nation’s capital have already recognized it.
Tom Bensen has lived in Missoula since 1986, and has been the executive director of the Missoula Cultural Council since June 2004. He has directed First Night Missoula each New Year’s Eve since 1997. He is a member of Missoula’s choral ensemble Dolce Canto, and enjoys being outdoors, whether it is hiking, biking, skiing, walking the dogs, or mowing the lawn. His wife Susan works for Montana Public Radio, and their son Peter attends Hellgate High School.