A Missoula organization that works to provide students with direct access to the arts will be expanding its scope after receiving a $50,000 donation from Nick and Robin Checota, owners of the Top Hat Lounge and Wilma Theatre.
Chris Neely, the executive director of SPARK! Arts Ignite Learning, said the donation will be used to increase arts education at the Missoula County Public Schools' three middle schools. SPARK! is the Missoula branch of the Kennedy Center’s nationwide Any Given Child initiative, which works to expand the potential for arts education.
Neely said that in its first year, the SPARK! initiative went from a budget of nothing to more than $150,000 to provide students in Missoula with opportunities to have direct access to the arts. That includes $45,000 in funding from MCPS, with the remaining money being raised by grants and donations from local organizations.
“All of that money goes back into the local economy by benefiting local artists,” Neely said.
Her group helps schools increase arts education in three ways: by enhancing primary arts classes, including bringing in vetted guest artists for residencies, helping teachers learn to integrate art into other subjects, and taking students out of the classroom on art experiences like trips to museums, Missoula Symphony Orchestra shows and productions of the Missoula Children’s Theatre.
At the end of its first year, SPARK! had helped to create 51 different artist residencies in Missoula schools, reaching more than 4,000 students in 873 cumulative hours of art experience.
This year, SPARK! – which has programs in all of the MCPS elementary schools – was also conducting a pilot program at C.S. Porter Middle School, with the intent to roll out to the other middle schools next year. Originally, the SPARK! budget for each middle school was going to be $5,000, but with help from the Checotas' donation, Neely said that they will each have $15,000 to work with instead.
“Everyone’s just so excited about it. We’re currently all brainstorming what it will mean for the middle schools,” Neely said. “One of the common ideas being tossed around is media arts, which could include film, photography and different types of alternative and digital music.”