Big time 

How the ZACC's innovative style helped it move from the basement on up

The basement in the Zootown Arts Community Center has been used for many things over the years, but the cool, dingy space has lent itself particularly well to haunted houses and metal shows, macabre theater and three-night DIY-style rock festivals such as Total Fest. That's the charm of a classic concrete-floor basement—but also, one might think, its limitations.

In 2013, the ZACC decided to host its inaugural fundraiser—a benefit auction and dinner that would help support the center's art programs—in the colorful, light-filled upstairs part of its building. Problem was, the nonprofit needed more space for the gathering, and it quickly became clear the basement was the most practical spot to make it happen.

"The basement was in the worst shape," says Kia Liszak, ZACC's executive director. "It was a crazy and dark place we spent months transforming. The idea of telling people, 'Okay, we're going to have this fancy, fine-dining event for 200 people and have this auction down in our basement.' Everyone was just like, 'What?!' It was nerve-racking."

But there's something about the ZACC that makes it capable of such feats. The center opened in summer 2008 on Missoula's Northside in an effort to bring more art-making opportunities to the community, and especially to kids. It's always run on the fuel of just a couple of staff members and many volunteers. Though it has developed into a prominent and well-respected organization within the mainstream arts community, its originators are steeped in DIY traditions of zine-makers and street artists, as well as experimental and democratic art movements. Those innovative roots become quite the asset when you have to turn a basement into ballroom.

The ZACC pulled off its first fundraiser. The mini auction offered small artworks at relatively affordable starting bids, and the night was supplemented with small plates of food and desserts made by local chefs and voted on in a contest judged by a panel of Missoula celebrities. It was the second year's benefit, however, that really showed what the ZACC could do, when they spent three months transforming the basement into a magical forest, decorated in lights. The space was utterly unrecognizable.

"It definitely took a lot of people being willing to invest their time into making that happen," Liszak says.

Of course, it's hard to live on innovation alone. The past three benefits, plus Liszak's tenacity and all the help from the community and volunteers, has allowed the organization to ramp up its programming. One of its most significant offerings is the girls and boys rock camps, which teach kids how to write songs and put together a band and then ultimately perform their creations on the Top Hat stage. The camps take a page out of the independent music experience; a lot of the instructors, including Liszak, spent their youth performing rock and punk in alternative spaces around the Missoula community—and some of them still do. Harnessing that kind of garage band experience and turning it into art curriculum is classic ZACC strategy. Kids get to be in a band, but they also learn confidence and problem-solving.

click to enlarge The Zootown Arts Community Center’s 4th Annual Mini Benefit includes auction items such as local artisan Sean Kochel’s specially made Vigilante guitar, held here by ZACC’s executive director, Kia Liszak. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Zootown Arts Community Center’s 4th Annual Mini Benefit includes auction items such as local artisan Sean Kochel’s specially made Vigilante guitar, held here by ZACC’s executive director, Kia Liszak.

"It's been one of the most transformative experiences I've had with kids in my life and I've done a lot of work with kids," Liszak says. "It's really incredible to watch the difference between a kid coming into the program at the beginning of the week and then at the end of the week. And for parents, watching their kids on stage at the Top Hat. That's one program where it's not like, 'Oh, we really hope we're building confidence.' We see the confidence. It's very visual."

As with all success stories, the ZACC has moved up from the literal and metaphorical basement. Last year, it held its annual benefit at Stage 112, and this year it occupies the recently renovated, swanky cavern space that is the Wilma. The 4th Annual Mini Benefit show features 10 mini art pieces up for auction and, for the first time ever, four mega pieces (as in, regular-sized art). The silent auction, which began on March 11 in the ZACC gallery, features 60 mini artworks and will continue at the Wilma event. The artists involved include DIY iconoclasts and mainstream gallery favorites alike, such as R. David Wilson, Leslie Millar, Monte Dolack, Adelaide Every, Tyler Nansen, ladypajama and Tim Thornton. Some artists in the auction even represent both ends of the spectrum, like Courtney Blazon, who honed her illustrative works at the ZACC's printmaking station and went on to be one of Missoula's more prominent artists.

The auction benefit recently sold out—two weeks before the March 26 event—in perhaps another testament to the ZACC's rising profile in the community. Liszak and the organization's board, however, decided to allow those who didn't buy a ticket to come down, buy a drink and attend as standing-room-only bidders. (No dinner provided.)

Besides art, there will be other items to bid on, including a Golden Ticket valued at $4,000 that gets the winning bidder into all shows at the Top Hat and Wilma for a year. Sean Kochel, who makes guitars out of things like 19th century barn wood and found metals, donated The Vigilante guitar (valued at $1,000). And eccentric local artist Jack Metcalf has offered a small cardboard box containing a mystery artwork, which he's calling "In Advance of a Broken Heart."

This year's theme is "1920s/Chapel of the Dove," in celebration of when the Wilma was built and to honor its old basement theater, which once served as a weird and "gloriously gaudy" shrine (as Liszak puts it) to a previous owner's favorite pigeon. The ode to a glorious basement is a nice parallel to where the ZACC benefit began.

"I'll always be nostalgic for when we did [the mini show] in our basement and we built a forest there," Liszak says. "And it will never be the same. But it's really neat to watch [the benefit] grow. We take on these big projects, oftentimes with no money and very few resources except for our own will and creativity. But we make it happen. And it's exciting to watch things come to fruition in this big way, when they started on that grassroots level."

The ZACC hosts the 4th Annual Mini Benefit Show at the Wilma Sat., March 26. Sold out but bidders still welcome. Visit for more info.

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