How to prepare for transformation in Missoula's arts scene
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Missoulian editorial

How to prepare for transformation in Missoula's arts scene


Of all of Missoula’s many claims to fame, nothing sets it apart like its vibrant arts scene.

Sure, we have unparalleled outdoors opportunities, and certainly many longtime residents first fell in love with Missoula through the one and only University of Montana. Our “hub of five valleys” counts several spokes of international renown, and happens to be the home base of a handful of nonprofits with national impact as well.

Yet it’s hard to name a Missoula attraction that doesn’t somehow tie back to its roots in arts and culture. From authors to films based on those authors’ books, to poets, sculptors and painters, musicians and makers of fine crafts, all have helped put Missoula on the map for fellow artists who want to live and learn in a welcoming community, as well as for those who appreciate the results of their work.

All this hasn’t happened by accident. Missoula has consistently demonstrated its support for the arts for a long time, and our local arts agency, funded in part through public dollars, has played an instrumental role in focusing this support.

As Missoula’s arts community faces several significant transformations and challenges, this role is bound to become even more important.

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival just wrapped up after 10 days and 150 films, with several sold-out shows despite the organizers’ best efforts to expand the offerings to keep up with audience demand. Just a few months ago, Zootown Arts Community Center celebrated the grand opening of its new location downtown. And just a short walk away, a new “art bar” opened in the Mercantile. That’s only a small sample of recent happenings in the local arts sector.

Meanwhile, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra is interviewing impressive candidates for its new director even as it collaborates with community partners to put on productions like the recent “Sleepover at the Museum” Family Concert.

And on the horizon, a plan to build a monumental $100 million development on the Riverfront Triangle in downtown Missoula promises to radically reshape the arts landscape. Just as new concert venues have expanded the array of acts that can be brought in for local audiences, the addition of a new “community-oriented space” of the size and scope of this proposed development will only add to the draw.

The new events and conference center, named The Drift, is designed to hold 5,500 people standing, 3,000 seated or 1,000 at banquet tables. Renderings show a building oriented toward the riverfront, inviting visitors to outdoor views that highlight Missoula’s best natural features.

The most recent feasibility study for a conference center on the property projected an economic impact of more than $27 million a year from out-of-town visitors. It also expected the addition of more than 350 permanent jobs with decent pay. That study was completed in 2015; the economic boost would likely be even greater now.

There’s no doubt the arts play an outsize part in keeping Missoula’s economy humming. A 2017 report on “Arts and Economic Prosperity” found that Missoula’s nonprofit arts and cultural sector alone has an economic impact of $54 million — which is three times the national average for a town our size.

Numbers like that keep Missoula at the top of national lists ranking communities of all sizes for their arts vibrancy. It’s the lone city in Montana to be named a Top 40 Arts-Vibrant Community by SMU DataArts, the National Center for Arts Research, in its 2019 report — as in the four previous years’ reports.

We have good measurement of this abstract concept thanks to the local arts agency, Arts Missoula, which partnered with Americans for the Arts to conduct the economic impact study and helpfully rounds up other arts-related statistics.

That’s only one of several critical functions performed by the agency, which has helped knit Missoula’s multi-faceted arts scene and provided leadership for the general arts community for nearly 30 years. In February 1991, the Missoula Cultural Exchange was officially formed following two years of public discussion on forming Montana’s first nonprofit local arts agency. It was later renamed the Missoula Cultural Council, and was ultimately rebranded with as Arts Missoula.

Now, it serves a variety of functions, from providing administrative support to fledgling arts nonprofits to organizing an array of community events and partnering on education programs.

First Night? That’s an Arts Missoula-supported event. The Montana Book Festival? That, too. The upcoming Arts and Culture Awards? GermanFest? All those and more are programs affiliated with Arts Missoula.

Further, there’s the Spark! Arts Ignite Learning initiative with Missoula County Public Schools, the City of Missoula, the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, and local arts organizations and artists to teach about the arts in local classrooms.

And of course, there’s the collaboration with Global and Cultural Affairs to forge stronger relationships with sister cities in Germany and New Zealand, bring in international speakers and host community events that broaden international understanding.

As the arts environment in Missoula continues to evolve, the agency whose mission is to serve the public through the arts is seeking to evolve as well, not just to keep up with a booming arts sector, but also to continue to provide leadership that addresses its shared challenges.

For one, as housing costs rise and wages lag, how long can emerging artists continue to afford doing what they love in Missoula, let alone make a living at it? Are Missoula’s big, attention-grabbing arts endeavors overshadowing its reputation as a welcoming place for new artists?

Arts Missoula provides a way for Missoulians to start answering these and other pressing questions. Visit to get involved.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Editor Gwen Florio and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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