The Impact of Arts in a Blue-Collar Economy

By Beacon Staff

Ostensibly, beauty brought artists to Northwest Montana. Literally, railroads did.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Great Northern Railway launched a program called “See America First” to promote Northwest Montana as a resort destination, instead of Europe, which was the popular getaway of the time. The program helped establish Glacier National Park in 1910.

The goal of “See America First” was to allow people to glimpse this mountainous region’s beauty and thus encourage them to visit. The crux of the campaign was the artist. Whether they wielded brushes, cameras or pens, these artists were hired to show the rest of the world the beauty they were missing out on.

So the artists came in droves and, in a blue-collar region, laid the foundation for a vivacious arts tradition. Then in the middle of the century into the 1970s an artistic resurgence occurred, led by Ace Powell, Joe Abbrescia, Elmer Sprunger and a host of other Western-themed artists. These are some of the biggest names in Montana’s 20th-century art movement and they called the valley home.

Also around that time, the Bigfork Summer Playhouse emerged, helping open the doors for the arrival of modern theater mainstays like the O’Shaughnessy Center and Whitefish Performing Arts Center. This year, the Bigfork Summer Playhouse celebrates its 50th anniversary and it recently unveiled a major renovation. Meanwhile, the Hockaday Museum of Art, the epicenter of the valley’s visual art scene, was established in 1968.

While Powell and his peers were gaining national recognition, painters like Mark Ogle were waiting in the wings, making sure the reinvigorated art movement didn’t lose momentum in the 1980s and beyond. Other evidence of a thriving arts community existed at that time as well: Art West Magazine, a major cultural publication; the massive Kalispell Art Show and Auction; and the Hockaday’s Beaux Arts Ball, one of the biggest social gatherings of the year.

But the magazine left town and the art show and ball faded out. Yet by that point, the Flathead Valley had cemented its reputation as an artist community. Painters and photographers wanted to live here. So did actors and musicians. Perhaps the most widely recognized band to ever come from Montana – the Mission Mountain Wood Band – was based out of the Flathead. Original members Rob Quist and Christian Johnson still live and perform here.

Marshall Noice, a local painter and photographer, said he senses another resurgence of sorts happening now. While he feels the number of galleries in the area has nearly reached its maximum, there is plenty of room to grow elsewhere in the arts, particularly in Kalispell. There is no performing arts center outside of the high schools – which are impressive – and the live music scene is lagging.

So Noice has his eyes set on the dormant Liberty Theater downtown, which he said, if turned into an event venue, could be “the single most significant change in entertainment in the valley.”

Gregg Davis, a longtime economist in the Flathead who now works at the University of Montana, believes any boost to the arts sector would be significant for the community, as he said the arts have a “major impact on the economy.”

In Bigfork, the playhouse is the town’s heartbeat during summer. In Whitefish, art walks pack the streets, its theaters consistently sell out shows and it is home to the respected North Valley Music School, the only nonprofit community music school in the state. In Columbia Falls, there’s an effort underway to revitalize downtown – providing more opportunities for the arts – and its “First Friday” music celebrations at Coffee Traders are wildly popular. Kalispell is one of the premiere bronze foundry centers in the nation, and it has a number of quality framing shops and galleries. The list goes on.

Lucy Smith, director of Hockaday, said the impact of the arts scene on a local economy is “nebulous.” It can’t always be easily quantified, though if it’s removed or diminished, the reverberations are felt. Davis said the arts aren’t big employers, nor do they generally offer large payrolls, but the tourist spending they encourage is substantial.

“It adds to the cultural enrichment of the valley; it’s a catalyst,” Davis said. “We’re well known for the arts.”

But even as Noice envisions a reinvigorated arts movement, economic realities can’t be ignored. When people aren’t feeling flush, the arts are often hit hard. They prioritize their spending and a painting isn’t usually on the top of the purchase list.

“The fallout from the economy is going to decimate some of the artists,” Ogle said.

On the other hand, in rough times, people look for comfort. Going to a play, enjoying a concert, touring a new art show at a gallery – these things can be precisely what people need. Smith said her museum’s attendance has remained steadily busy over the past year and she expects a good summer.

Already scheduled at the Hockaday is a star-laced lineup of exhibitions, as well as the annual “Arts in the Park” at Depot Park on July 24-26. Also, the Kalispell City Council recently granted permission through a zoning change for the Hockaday to expand its gallery space from 2,800 square feet to 7,100 feet. The museum doesn’t have enough room to display its large collection.

Meanwhile, the music scene has felt the absence of Flanagan’s, a venue in Whitefish that once attracted big-name groups but was shut down due to alcohol violations in 2007. Every weekend, there are shows at local bars around the valley and occasionally venues like the Majestic Valley Arena hold a larger concert. But they are few and far between.

In Kalispell, there’s not much outside of the historic KM Building. Red’s Wines and Blues hosts touring bands, as does the KM Theatre through a concert series organized by Noice and Scott Johnston, owner of the Montana Radio Café. That space is donated by the owners, Bill and Jana Goodman, prompting Ogle to say, “Thank God for them.”

All of which makes it clear to Noice that his dream of turning the Liberty Theater into a performing arts center should be pursued. He said not only is it an ideal music venue, it could also be used for special movie showings, lectures and any other notable events.

At one point in late 2007, Liberty’s owner Phil Harris announced he was turning the theater into a sophisticated 425-seat concert venue, but that hasn’t yet come to fruition. Noice, who plays in a band called the Can’t Hardly Playboys, said he and Goodman have had discussions with Harris about what needs to be done to make the Liberty concert venue a reality. Noice believes it might require financial help from the community. He feels it’s the last major piece of the arts puzzle for the Flathead Valley.

“It’s a really good arts community,” Noice said. “It’s not quite a great arts community, but it’s getting close.”

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