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ZACC and Arts

Kia Liszak, executive director of Zootown Arts Community Center, talks recently in the organization's basement, where alcohol-free all-ages music events are often staged. The nonprofit is moving to a building downtown, and with renovations the new space should have room for more of ZACC's music shows, practice rooms and visual arts programs.

When a Missoula nonprofit community arts center moves downtown, its staff and a chief supporter envision a hub for visual and performing arts and education. Some members of the arts community, meanwhile, think it could be a game-changer.

The Zootown Arts Community Center's new digs in the Studebaker building on West Main Street will be a place where anyone can walk in and start making art with free supplies. Or they might catch a concert by a local or touring indie band. Or see a play, a dance performance, or take an art class, or stop in for a First Friday gallery exhibition.

It can be a "connecting force" for the arts community, said executive director Kia Liszak. At their current location, organizations contact them every day about participating in events. Once they're downtown, they imagine there will be even more opportunities.

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First, of course, comes the fundraising.

"We'd love to start out our journey in this building debt-free so that we can really focus all of our energy on the programs that we provide for Missoula," Liszak.

To pay for the building, with 17,000 square feet, and the necessary renovations, the ZACC has launched a capital campaign to raise $3.25 million.

Nick and Robin Checota have donated $500,000 through the Logjam Foundation, the philanthropic organization they formed recently. The couple own Logjam Presents, the entertainment company that comprises the Top Hat Lounge, The Wilma, and the KettleHouse Amphitheater.

The two have signed on to serve as chairs of the capital campaign.

Their donation places the total at about $1 million raised through gifts. Pearl Jam bassist and part-time Missoula resident Jeff Ament and his wife Pandora Beatty gave a large donation for music practice rooms.

That leaves the ZACC with $2.25 million to raise through its campaign.

Liszak said grant opportunities for organizations like the ZACC are limited and competitive. They're not seeking public money and hope to meet their goal through private donations.

"The ZACC belongs to the whole community, we hope the whole community will invest in it," she said.

Nick Checota said he and Robin got involved to help support arts education, and believe the ZACC serves as an incubator for the local arts community. While their venues bring artists to Missoula for people to experience, which has helped raise the city's national profile, grassroots organizations like the ZACC, meanwhile, develop and preserve the character that attracts them to the city in the first place, he said.

"What keeps us unique is what the local arts scene is doing and what the ZACC's doing," he said.

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After the ZACC moves in early next year, it has potential to fill some gaps in the local arts community.

It will have a dedicated performance space that can hold about 145 seats or possibly 300 or more people for standing-room only shows. As it does at its current space, the ZACC will host alcohol-free, all-ages shows.

The touring acts that have stopped there include Jonathan Richman, whose band the Modern Lovers has influenced several generations of indie-rock groups. Younger bands regularly play there, too. Many — such as Pinegrove, a New Jersey rock band, and Jeff Rosenstock, a DIY punk icon — have gained coverage on national outlets like Pitchfork or NPR.

The ZACC stage became much more active after the loss of two music venues last year. The Palace Lounge rebranded as a billiards room and Stage 112 closed entirely. Checota said the younger bands and younger demographic are a difficult market in which to make money, but remain important as incubators for talent.

Liszak added, "It's not a practical business venture for someone to open an all-ages non-alcoholic music space. So really the only way to make those types of spaces sustainable are to put them in the infrastructure of a nonprofit arts community center."

Foster Caffrey and some his friends have promoted shows at the existing ZACC building through Camp Daze, a homegrown indie music festival, and the Basement Fund, a Patreon campaign.

While he's currently taking a break from promoting, he said that he'd book at the ZACC in the future.

"The location's going to do nothing but help," he said. Often people told him that the Northside was too far a distance. The new ZACC will also have bars nearby where people of age can have a drink before or after a show, he said.

He sees demand from touring DIY bands, who email Camp Daze all the time about coming to play in Missoula.

Naomi Moon Siegel, a trombonist-composer who moved here from Seattle, has been performing and booking musicians in non-bar venues for her Lakebottom Sound Series, where the music takes focus over socializing.

She hasn't worked with the ZACC before, but said in general "it's a game changer to have something like that in Missoula."

"I hear from musicians all the time that it's hard to find gigs and places to play. Especially if you're interested in more of an intentional listening audience, then the options are really limited," she said.

She thinks the downtown space would be ideal for events that foster collaborations and support musicians.

Checota said the foundation targets its donations in arts and youth programs, part of what made the ZACC a good partner.

The nonprofit's popular rock camps for kids will remain a fixture of the new building.

Liszak said the camps, which culminate in a performance at the Top Hat, build confidence, creativity and "trust in their own abilities at an early age that's really going to help them shine."

The new building's proximity to the Top Hat will allow for more collaborations. Checota and Liszak hope that some artists who are in town to play the Wilma or the Hat will be interested in leading master classes for students or adults at the ZACC before their show. Pianist George Winston will donate the proceeds of an upcoming Logjam concert to the campaign.

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A new gallery downtown will provide another non-commercial outlet for art right in downtown. The ZACC's current gallery doubles as its classroom and music space.

In recent years, such venues have proven difficult to sustain. The Brink gallery, which was open to installation and contemporary art, closed in 2016. On the Westside, printmaker Jack Metcalf's Real Good Studio was a magnet for experimental and performance art that didn't otherwise have a venue. He closed it in 2017, citing the time commitment and financial cost of staging events himself.

Spaces like these "operated in the vein of taking risks and being responsive to the community in a certain sense," said Brandon Reintjes, the senior curator of the Missoula Art Museum.

"We think this will just increase the quality of exhibitions in our community," he said.

The ZACC concept of "a flexible space that can be used for a variety of activities is a really great idea," he said.

The gallery space alone will make a difference.

"It's a thriving arts community and with the limited spaces that are available, only a small percentage of artists get shown on a regular basis," he said.

The new ZACC will also have a gallery to show children's art. They hope to have a small gallery dedicated entirely to installation art, perhaps the least commercial form of visual art.

***

With more space, the ZACC can expand its revenue-generating programs: the classes for kids and adults; the paint-your-own pottery studio, a separate sales gallery for artists.

They'd like to double the number of affordable studio spaces they rent to artists from five to 10.

"If we want Missoula to be an arts hub, we have to make Missoula a desirable place for artists to live," Liszak said. 

She believes all the activities will help bring more business downtown, much in the way that First Friday is a boon for retail outlets, bars and restaurants.

This early in the process, they're still generating ideas for new programs.

In the arts, she said, "the next amazing creative idea is just around the corner. Having better tools to implement those ideas is really this dream that's coming to fruition. We've done a lot with a little and we're excited to have a little more to do things with."

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.