The Lifestyle Levy 

Putting Missoula’s “heart, soul and memory” on the ballot

It’s not every day that the turning wheels of bureaucracy are scored with a suitable musical accompaniment. But there was something almost symbolic about the polyphonic, xylophone-like tones of the “Conloninpurple” exhibit, which reverberated through the halls of the Art Museum of Missoula Tuesday afternoon, shortly before Missoula County’s three commissioners voted unanimously to approve a resolution putting a three-mill levy on the June 6 ballot that would fund the Art Museum and the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula.

The interactive exhibit, a sound installation by Seattle-based artist Trimpin, is a tribute to composer Conlon Nancarrow and is described as a “five-octave, room-sized metal and wood instrument … [that] incorporates compositions based on time and space.” What better way to characterize the very mission of an art museum and a historical museum: artistic, interactive compositions based on time and space.

Explaining why both our local museums should continue to receive public funding is akin to explaining why art and history are vital to the social, economic and spiritual health of any community—if you have to ask, you probably wouldn’t understand the answer—though plenty of people took a stab at it.

“We’re asking the people of Missoula to remember how important museums are to them,” says Bob Brown, director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. “We think that museums are the very heart and soul—and the Historical Museum, the memory—of this community.”

“I know it’s important to have streets and roads and law and order. That’s basic. But many other things are basic too,” says longtime Missoula County resident Fern Hart, who says she’s watched in frustration as four consecutive state Legislatures have reduced the county’s ability to tax and provide basic services. “We don’t live by bread alone. Museums make us whole.”

Although formal approval of the resolution to put the levy on the ballot was all but assured going into Tuesday’s public hearing—all three county commissioners had already expressed their support for the measure, and a quick show of hands in the Art Museum revealed its near unanimous support—continued government funding for the two museums remains anything but a done deal. With each legislative session lawmakers in Helena have imposed new state mandates on county governments for basic human services without allocating the funds necessary to pay for them. This will likely force Missoula County, through no choice of its own, to cut an estimated 8-15 percent out of its current budget, cuts that in all likelihood will be leveled against non-vital services such as the two museums.

“We are faced with a very dire situation with the county budget,” explains County Commissioner Bill Carey: “I can’t tell you for sure what would happen to these museums [if the mill levy doesn’t pass],but it won’t be good.”

According to the county commissioners, passage of the mill levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about 93 cents per month, or a little more than $11 a year. If approved by voters, the estimated $449,000 raised annually by the levy would be split equally between the two museums.

For that investment, both museums attract about 70,000 visitors combined each year, with their educational programs serving nearly 10,000 local elementary and high school students. The Art Museum of Missoula, which itself serves about 25,000 annually, is the only community art museum within a 100-mile radius of the Garden City. The Art Museum relies on county funds for about 40 percent of its operating budget, while another 40 percent comes from private corporate support. The remaining 20 percent is divided between city, state and federal funds.

“As a boy I can recall Cub Scout tours, school class tours almost every year, to at least one museum in our community,” says Missoula resident Jim Leiter. “I think it was really important in my upbringing to have that exposure as a child.”

As for those who would prefer to measure the intangible value of art and history in purely economic terms, Gary McFaddin, a board member of the Art Museum, quoted a September 1999 study of the recreational habits of Montanans, conducted by the University of Montana’s Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research. That study showed that Montanans visited museums and took part in other cultural events more often than they went fishing, skiing, boating and other outdoor pursuits. Among the 38 activities studied, museum visitations ranked 10th, ahead of fishing, which ranked 15th, golf (22nd), and downhill skiing (31st). And with “cultural tourism” now identified nationally as a major determinant for 35 percent of travelers, museums can reflect a sizeable portion of the tourist dollars that pour into Missoula County’s economy, which in 1998 amounted to about $166 million.

“We are the sum total of our history, and it’s important to maintain it,” says County Commissioner Barbara Evans. “Some of it is good history, some of it is not so good. But it’s still part and parcel of the fabric of this community.”

As Andrea Clark, puts it, “I’m a new homeowner in Missoula, and I can’t wait to raise my taxes for museums.”

The June 6 election will likely reveal how many other Missoula County residents are such dedicated patrons of the arts.

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