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Artist Corky Clairmont (right) leads Jane Chu (middle), chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, on a tour of the the Salish Kootenai College art department in 2016. At far left is basket weaver Eva Boyd.

A Salish contemporary artist, a retiring schools superintendent, a storytelling advocate, an arts philanthropist and a theater educator were all honored on Tuesday.

The Arts Missoula Awards drew a full crowd to the DoubleTree ballroom for the annual event. The nominations are open to the public and then selected by the Arts Missoula board of directors.

Among other activities, Arts Missoula produces a First Friday gallery guide, puts on events like GermanFest and New Zealand Day (to recognize the sister-city relationships with Neckargemünd and Palmerston North) and the First Night New Year's Eve festival, and helps lead the SPARK arts learning program.

Arts educator

Matt Loehrke, the education director at the Missoula Children's Theatre, won this award, which "honors an outstanding educator of any age level who has devoted a career to teaching a craft and making a significant impact on the artistic community," said emcee Tom Bensen, the Arts Missoula executive director.

Loehrke has 11 years' experience with MCT, including four on the international tours.

"In the last three years, he has grown the number of local kids that MCT serves through the education programs over 200%," Bensen said. He's also worked with Missoula County Public Schools, and with outside group Fourth Wall Theater Company of Detroit, Michigan, to expand special education programs for the MCT tours.

"From the very beginning of my teacher career, I've been asked the same awful question time and time again: Why teach theater, especially children's theater, when you could make a living doing real theater?" Loehrke said. Last month, he got a letter about an MCT touring team's work. It was from a parent, whose young child had serious heart surgeries and procedures for hip dysplasia.

"MCT gave our daughter the chance to put herself out there and be brave. She got to choose to be brave this time," the letter writer said, which gave her child "confidence, joy and passion for theater."

Individual artist

This award honors "someone who has shown exceptional achievement in theater, music, visual art, dance film theater or literature," Bensen said.

The winner is Corwin "Corky" Clairmont, a Salish conceptual artist, printmaker and educator who established the art program and degree at Salish Kootenai College. Clairmont has shown his work around the country, including a major exhibition at the Missoula Art Museum last year about the tar sands in Canada that took four years.

"Corky's images discuss and explore the situations or issues that affect tribal people such as sovereignty and colonization, giving a cultural and historical perspective," Bensen said.

Clairmont said "the arts are about the only way to express who we are as human beings," so they're "vital, absolutely vital to communities."

In particular, he said, "it's especially important for tribal people to be a part of contemporary art, because it reminds you that we're alive and well today. We have thriving communities that are very vital. And we have a lot of things inside of us, and the history that we can share through the arts."

He added that diversity is important and keeps communities whole and healthy, comparing it to a forest with many types of trees instead of a mono-culture that is more vulnerable to threats.

"If they were all the same, what would happen? They would die off. There wouldn't be anything left. But because of the diversity, there will be those that survive that continue to grow and nourish and support all the other life around them. That's the strength of diversity."

Business Support for the Arts

The award "honors local businesses that have made a significant contribution to Missoula's art and cultural organizations," Bensen said.

The winner this year is Kimberly Roth, a senior vice president at Merrill Lynch. Some of the groups she "personally and professionally supports" are the Missoula Symphony Association, the International Choral Festival, A Carousel for Missoula, Dolce Canto, First Night Missoula and events at the University of Montana. She is a past president of the MSA and the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Destination Missoula). She helped create the "Hallways to History" display of historical photographs at the Southgate Mall when she was marketing director.

Roth said her mother encouraged her interest in arts and culture from an early age. After a few awkward attempts at music and dance, her mother shifted to "culture," bringing her to museums, dance performances and more around Los Angeles. When Roth moved to Missoula, she immediately got involved with the symphony to get then-conductor Joseph Henry a proper podium for concerts.

"I've been very blessed to be associated with businesses that supported the arts," she said. 

Cultural Vision Award

This honor goes to "a person or organization that has developed a special project or program demonstrating a unique artistic vision," Bensen said.

The winner is Marc Moss, who runs the Tell Us Something live storytelling series, in which everyday residents share true anecdotes. 

He took over the storytelling series, originally known as the Missoula Moth, in 2011. It's grown from crowds of 75 to sell-out audiences at The Wilma. He also holds workshops for local groups, nonprofits, corporations and youth camps.

Moss shared a story about a woman handing him a letter on his way into a Tell Us Something event. He didn't have a chance to look at them until he was backstage. The writer said that she often felt suicidal, and hearing a Tell Us Something story about a sexual assault survivor had a profound effect on her. After hearing it, she stayed up all night writing in her journal and brought it to her psychologist the next day. She said "storytelling saved my life."

Moss said he often reads the letter when he's feeling overwhelmed to remind himself that in "the simple act of sharing our stories and listening to other people's stories, we become better people, we become more empathetic, we can change our community, we can change our world."

Cultural ambassador

This award "is given to an individual or couple who has supported Missoula's arts community or helped to advance cultural diplomacy through volunteer, administrative, philanthropic, professional or legislative efforts," Bensen said.

The winner is Mark Thane, who has served as superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools for the past four years, and will retire in June after 39 years in the district as a teacher and principal.

He was nominated for his work on the SPARK arts education program, and his advocacy for music education and professional development for teachers.

He said "thousands of students in Missoula have benefited" from SPARK, which began five years ago. The City of Missoula, the University of Montana, Arts Missoula and MCPS partnered with the Washington Foundation to get recognition as an Any Given Child Initiative city from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. That led to professional development for teachers who use the arts to teach STEM lessons. Bensen said the effort now has 38 local teaching artists and 82 artist residencies completed or planned.

Thane said the award is "reflective of the collective capacity of our community and our school district and it's truly on their behalf that I accept this award."

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