"Economic times do not permit us to continue," the letter read.
Over the years, the Refuge has had close ties to Missoula's artistic community. Among local artists who had residencies there are poet Casey Charles, beadworker Molly Murphy, author Mark Matthews, musician Caroline Keys, artist Melissa Bangs, artist Jonathan Marquis, painter Nancy Glover, and artist Carson Ellis, just to name a few. Author Debra Magpie Earling once sat on the Refuge’s National Advisory Board and Missoula Art Museum Executive Director Laura Millin was a long-time MAR board member.
I wrote a cover story in 2008 for the Indy about the Refuge and its connection to Missoula. A year later, I joined its board of directors along with Casey Charles and Melissa Bangs, and served through 2010. The Refuge, like most arts organizations, operated hand-to-mouth, but had a devoted following willing to donate time, energy and money to continue its mission.
That mission was simple: to provide a setting in which artists could create work. The buildings were grandly rustic, with basic accommodations for artists staying a few weeks or a few months. They were originally purchased in the early 1970s by a group of artists from Helena, later known as the Montana Artists Refuge's "founding mothers." Those founders, including noted jazz trombonist M.J. Williams and artist Nan Parsons, slowly carved an artistic community into the former mining town.
Aside from offering space, the Refuge held community events in Basin and nearby Boulder. It was particularly well known for its semi-annual American Indian Artists Symposium, a free, two-day event organized by Native artists, for Native artists, to discuss the past, present and future of Native art. Last year's event attracted the likes of Bently Spang, Vic Charlo, Jenesse Hilton, Corky Clairmont, Joe Feddersen, and, from New York, Kaye WalkingStick. The future of the symposium has not been determined.
Few places offer artists such a complete escape and opportunity to create new work like the Montana Artists Refuge. When I was writing the story for the Indy I found journals written by past refugees and was able to read about what Basin, and the Refuge, had meant to them. One unsigned entry from December 31, 1999, reads in part: “You can walk away. You can be alone. You can burrow into some places in yourself and there are wonderful, wonderful clever people who will encourage you to do your thing.”
Another undated entry read: “Thank you for your kindness, generosity, your vision, all your hard work to make this place a reality…My work got started.”
Here's hoping someplace