In an effort to bring public art to the streets of Missoula, organizers of a new rotating outdoor urban mural space downtown have expedited their program and are set to debut their first exhibition this weekend.
Opening Friday, Allez! Missoula, located in the alleyway between 120 N. Higgins Ave. and the Mercantile, will feature longtime Missoula printmaker James G. Todd’s “Jazz Icons” hung along the length of the new building that houses the Radius Gallery, Art Vault and the forthcoming Relic Gallery.
“We just thought it was a great thing for the Missoula public since we’re so starved for any art right now,” said Lillian Nelson, Allez! program director, adding the space wasn’t supposed to be completed until the fall but is opening early as businesses start to welcome customers back in the wake of closures due to COVID-19.
Pronounced "Allay," the name "Allez!" comes from the French word that's often used as a colloquialism to say, "let's go!"
Nelson, along with the owners of 120 N. Higgins, Brian and Karen Sippy, had the idea to use the building’s brand new red brick wall for an outdoor gallery space as a way to bring more mural art to the city.
“Mural outdoor art is a global emerging art form being more recognized as fine art and not just street art,” said Brian Sippy. “We want to promote that in Missoula.”
The project also fits with part of the Downtown Master Plan to activate the alleys and make them more safe and welcoming for pedestrians, he said.
“We felt, being on the first block of the Missoula (original) town site and the first paved alley of Missoula, that it would be a great ground zero.”
The space is divided into four sections and includes steel framing and permanent lighting so the art can be viewed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The art will be prepared for the elements so the program can hang murals through all seasons.
“The beauty of it being outside, (people) can come down whenever they want and take a look at these,” Nelson said.
The art will be rotated every four months, and while the first exhibition, called “See the Light,” features Todd’s well-known wood engraving prints of famous jazz musicians, the plan is to hire artists to create original murals for the space that will be put up for sale. As a not-for-profit project, any sales will go back into the program to pay for the next exhibition.
“Murals are not typically for sale, they’re typically permanent structures,” he said. “Our innovative system will allow art to not just be one and done, but it will allow it to continue on in some form on someone’s wall, barn or rodeo stand, depending on who’s interested.”
Nelson said they’re looking to showcase new and emerging local artists and said it’s important for them to be able to pay them a good wage for their work.
“We’re hoping this is just a great way for somebody who maybe isn’t known that well can get their work up on this wall in such a huge scope to the public for the first time,” Nelson said.
Sippy said opening the space with Todd’s work is a way to publicly acknowledge his contributions to the local arts scene, calling him a Missoula icon.
Featuring images of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and others, Todd’s print series celebrates the innovation of jazz music.
“They highlight the beauty of humanity in a way,” Nelson said, adding this first installation will be up through August, with a new exhibition set to open in the fall.
“We’re planning for September First Friday to hopefully have our first public gathering. We’ll see how everything works out,” she said.
The next installation will feature original work that merges Missoula’s history with the current-day Garden City and will be up through winter.
“That will be a selection of seven different Missoula-based artists that will have work up,” Nelson said.
While there’s no official in-person event for the public Friday, Mayor John Engen will perform a ceremonial ribbon-cutting in the alley and organizers are encouraging anyone present to practice social distancing.
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