It had stopped snowing, but flakes kept right on falling on the 150 or so people gathered in the courtyard of the Missoula Art Museum Jan. 14—flakes of ash from the bonfire thawing the ground around it and making it steam. The 15 honorary diggers turning the first clods of frozen ground for the museum’s new wing—just beyond the fire perimeter—would have a tougher go of it.
The late-afternoon event was a fairly quiet one, except for the drumming of the Missoula Indian Center drum group Nowa (the name is Assiniboine for “song”) that marked the beginning of the ceremony. Museum Director Laura Millin and Curator of Exhibitions Steve Glueckert made brief remarks before handing the mic over for a blessing by Corwin Clairmont, an artist and member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes who earlier in the afternoon had performed a tobacco ceremony on the grounds.
It was a big day for blessings: “We can certainly use [them],” said MAM board member J. Martin Burke, who invoked images of another groundbreaking more than a century earlier, when the first spadeful of dirt was turned for the 1903 Carnegie Library building. No one gathered here today would have been present for the original groundbreaking, Burke quipped, but consider how many people have found inspiration in the building’s contents in the interval—first as a library and later, since about 30 years ago, as an art museum. “A great city with a great museum,” is how Burke described Missoula, adding that the new and improved version would surely inspire “who knows what artist” in generations to come.
Burke also joked that every bit of frozen soil dug by the 15 honorary shovellers—mostly MAM patrons, board members and City Council members—would knock down the final bill for the estimated $4.3 million renovation: “The more you dig,” he urged, “the more we save.”