Practical arts 

Zootown Center aims for pennywise creativity

When the Zootown Arts Community Center (ZACC) unofficially cracked its doors this summer for an open house, founder Hanna Hannan says the big, brick Northside building sat virtually empty.

“The only thing done was that it was painted and we were just standing in this empty place,” she says. “[But] people started coming in from the neighborhood and in a matter of a week I was getting 50 to 60 e-mails a day. I realized at that point, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be a go.’”

In the time between painting for the open house and preparing for their upcoming official grand opening this weekend, Hannan and other ZACC artists filled the walls with art, moved in boxes of supplies and started teaching classes on drawing, painting, ceramic decorating, publishing and photography, among other things. Four artists besides Hannan currently rent out work studios in the converted paper mill: Debby Florence of Slumgullion Publishing Co., Chris Johnson of Zoo City Custom Apparel, Jamie Halvorson of POR Art, and Carol Lynn Lapotka of ReCreate Designs. Hannan created ZACC to provide a venue for people of all ages to engage in artistic ventures, and because many of the artists are cut from the DIY cloth, they’re all learning to ride that fine line between creative fluidity and creating a business plan that will fund them. In order to start ZACC, Hannan quit her job, got a loan from the Montana Community Development Corporation (MCDC) and spent the last two years working to get where she is now.

“A couple of [other artists] just recently decided to quit their jobs too and devote themselves to their projects,” she says. “I knew then that now I wasn’t the only one just being crazy and quitting my job…I wasn’t alone anymore. Now it really is a community project.”

Each artist brings a different set of ideas to ZACC. Halvorson’s goal is to provide a curated art space for artists who don’t have shows elsewhere. There are a lot of galleries in town but he says there’s still demand for space.

“Artists bring work in and we’ll get a couple pieces on the wall and work toward getting a show,” he says. “It can be a place for artists who might not have that resource at the University or in their professional careers.”

Reality dictates ZACC be practical with its vision. It funds things like artist shows through two main classes, one of which is the Children’s After School Art Experience. The program buses kids from school to ZACC, where they work on art projects.

“We’re not a stationary program, though,” says Hannan. “We travel all around with the kids. We go to a gallery and look at photography…and they take photographs in the street and of each other. Then we go to the darkroom and they develop the photos and then we go back [to ZACC] and we mat them and the kids help hang them and then they have a show. It’s a beginning to end [process].”

ZACC also funds itself through artists’ rent: $200 per month, which includes a room, wireless Internet and other amenities. And for ZACC and community artists, too, there is a way to make extra money through what’s called “The Shop”—an area in the front lobby where artists can sell their wares.

Slumgullion’s Florence used to work mainly out of home, from the group’s bookmobile or at the People’s Market where she and the other publishing artists could share and sell their publications.

“It’s been great to have an actual location,” she says. “The other cool side of it is that we’ve had so many people who had wanted to volunteer with us and now we can finally give them jobs to do.”

For instance, Florence says a handful of University of Montana students have started organizing the ever-growing library of zines. And in their new site they can accommodate a color copier and hope to, very soon, invest in a letter press. That’s because, although Slumgullion has historically focused on zine-making and other DIY publishing projects, Florence and another Slumgullion contributor, Violet Olsen, are working toward a literary journal called Mulligan (a name derived from a kind of soup, like slumgullion).

“Slumgullion is really fun and raw and zany and the idea is to empower voices and get people in the practice of seeing their stuff in print,” says Florence. “The literary end of it kind of gives us an opportunity to be more discerning…[It’s] what will help us support our other programs because we’ll be able to do higher-end stuff.”

And that’s the key for ZACC—finding the moneymaking projects that will fund everything else, from creating art and fostering a place where art can survive economically.

Hannan says ZACC will continue to obtain art grants and bring on as many artists as possible. Another art organization, Mindbox, for instance, will be renting out the ZACC basement and Hannan estimates that by October there should be at least 20 artists working out of the building.

“Somehow things have just come together,” says Halvorson. “It shows that in Missoula there’s a lot of support and interest and participation in artistic endeavors, especially community-related [ones]. It’s kind of like throwing a magnet in a pile of iron filings.”

Hannan agrees, but she also sees a long road ahead, a few scary months where ZACC will be finding its sea legs.

“There are people like Bob Oaks of the [North Missoula Community Development Corporation] or Tom Benson of Missoula Cultural Council who are just waiting for a team of people to take on these projects that everybody dreams about.

“I hope it works out,” she adds, “because I invested a lot of money and time. But, you know, whatever. If not, somebody out there will save it.”

The Zootown Arts Community Center, 235 N. First Street W., hosts its grand opening Saturday, Sept. 6, from noon until 8 PM, and features music, vendors and a graffiti wall. Free.
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