In case of emergency break glass 

Missoula’s vibrant arts community could hold the key to an economic turnaround

Leslie Millar knew something was amiss. A Missoula artist since 1972, Millar was used to making a living from selling her paintings and photographs. The Christmas art show she’d hosted at her Brunswick studio for the last 20 years always managed to gather enough income to pay for her health insurance and several other bills, without fail. But in December 2007, her sales dropped a whopping 80 percent from the previous year.

“I made almost nothing,” she says. “It was dramatic.”

When Millar’s daughter heard the news she asked reasonable questions: What did you do wrong? What did you change? But Millar hadn’t changed a thing. Nothing was different. Without any clear answers as to what had happened she started to question her own work, wonder if people had suddenly lost interest in her. Then she took action.

Over the next several months, Millar began gathering data from other artists, talking with them about what they were seeing in the marketplace. New information trickled in. Friends—artists like herself who had consistently sold for years—reported similar gaps in sales.

“Somebody would have a show and they wouldn’t sell anything” says Millar, “or instead of selling out they’d sell just three pieces.”

Stephanie Frostad, a Missoula artist known for her large-scale narrative oil paintings, said her Seattle gallery sales dropped considerably in 2008. Nancy Erickson, another established local artist, watched the Tacoma, Wash., gallery representing her work struggle through its 2008 year-end show. Kristi Hager, a photographer and fine artist used to steadily selling her work, saw a significant decrease in sales even as she dropped her prices.

In addition to individual artists, Millar heard of arts organizations and galleries feeling a similar pinch. Dudley Dana says October was one of the worst months ever for the Dana Gallery, a cornerstone of the local gallery community that first opened in September 1996. Laura Millin, executive director of the Missoula Art Museum (MAM), had witnessed a rise in membership ever since a multi-million dollar building renovation in 2006. But she adjusted her budget last fall—mid-way through the fiscal year—to brace for expected donor and membership plateaus, if not declines.

Millar had plenty of evidence that she wasn’t alone in her struggles. The final piece of the puzzle came when the National Bureau of Economic Research announced in December that the official start date of the U.S. recession was, in fact, a year earlier, in December 2007. Millar breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t her work that kept sales low. She was part of an entire nation of artists feeling the impact as art lovers tightened their belts.

But identifying the bleak circumstances was only the start. Millar considers herself part of a vibrant Missoula arts community that is actually turning the situation to their advantage. Rather than adhering to a so-called “practical” approach to tough economic times—hunkering down, scaling back, changing career paths—she’s helping to step up and discover inventive solutions to the hardship.

“It’s not an across the board tragedy,” says Millar. “You’ve got artists who are already thinking outside of the box, so our problem-solving skills are honed, and our ability to be creative about solutions is strong.”

In fact, a wave of new business models, bold expansions and brave programs has artists and arts organizations rallying around the belief that they may hold the key to an economic turnaround.

Recession psychology

Dudley Dana listened to ESPN Radio one morning as he drove to work. The commentators discussed an emerging problem with major sports franchises: Companies and individuals who could afford luxury boxes weren’t buying them anymore because they made the business look too extravagant in bad economic conditions. It struck Dana as another bizarre reaction to an already unpredictable economic climate.

When he walked into the gallery that same morning, he took a phone call from a business that had commissioned a painting from one of his gallery’s artists. “They had decided they didn’t want to do it after all,” he says. “It was the same thing. They didn’t want to give their customers the wrong idea that in a tough time they were prospering.”

Dana remains cautious when he talks about the impact of the recession on his business. He prefaces his answers by saying he thinks the gallery is doing better than most and that Missoula’s support of the arts has helped it weather the storm. But he’s still noticed changes. Three out of the last four First Friday Gallery Walks turned up zero buyers. He says October was a “horrible” month for sales, but September was up 27 percent from the previous year. Sales rebounded in November to 20 percent higher than 2007.

“Then December was just plain weird,” he says. “The Saturday before Christmas there were five people in here. Nobody was around and that’s maybe when the psychology was the worst.”

Dana, who also works as a clinical psychologist, describes a mindset among his customers that psychologists call a “double bind.” On one hand, spending money when recession fears are high induces guilt and can create financial stress. On the other hand, not spending money creates that very recession people feared. Dana sympathizes with people in this conundrum, and says most lean toward the not-spending option for self-preservation.

At MAM’s 37th Benefit Art Auction in late February, signs of consumer cautiousness simmered under an otherwise lively affair. MAM’s longtime auctioneer, Jerry Toner, seemed to awkwardly draw out the bidding several times to entice higher sales. Artists in attendance noticed and admit they were thankful for the extra push.

MAM Executive Director Laura Millin recognized the elephant in the room and addressed it head-on. When she stood at the podium in front of 400 people—only 30 less than last year’s event—she stated that now was the time to support artists.

“I was so nervous going into it and I felt that I had to give a little pep talk,” she says. “But I do think the auction was a testament to how much people in our community value art and do want it to be a part of their lives.”

The auction netted more than $92,000 in sales, down from last year’s $135,000. Millin says the recent death of ceramicist Rudy Autio left a void in this year’s catalogue since his work normally attracted the event’s largest bids. In general, Millin says smaller, lower-priced pieces received bids above their retail value, while the big pieces were often below.

“It was a combination of circumstance and caution both on the part of artists and the museum to present a show that was a little bit more affordable than years past,” says Millin.

Millin anticipated the drop. The museum doesn’t charge admission, which helps keep attendance high but puts a premium on fundraising efforts.

“We looked at where we considered ourselves most vulnerable,” says Millin. “And that, of course, included the auction, private giving and membership, and we really reduced our expectations and made corresponding cuts in the expense budget.”

The Dana Gallery is also making changes to adapt to the current economy. Dana just hired someone dedicated to connecting gallery artists to commercial opportunities. He’s offering a new financing program in which customers can make a 25 percent payment on a piece and take it home; the gallery pays the artist immediately, then collects the rest of the money from the customer over the course of a year. Dana’s also exploring an art rental program as another new way to make ends meet.

In some ways the national recession and the subsequent closure of big city galleries may help Dana in the long run. He represents one nationally renowned artist who’s had two prominent galleries close recently—one in San Diego after 31 years in business and the other in Oklahoma after 45 years. Closures like these bring more top artists—and paintings—to Dana’s doorstep. And though it’s a benefit for him, it’s bittersweet.

“It’s great when you’re doing really well and the artists are doing really well,” he says. “But when your artists are hurting and you’re not doing as well as you were, and some other galleries are closing, you know, it’s like, I wish I could help more.”

For now, Dana’s watching and waiting, and trying to stem fears about the current economy. Reversing that “double bind” mindset will be key.

“You can’t talk people out of being scared,” he says. “But I was talking to someone the other day about the same thing and she said, ‘What else can you put your money into as an investment that you can also enjoy?’ She’s a person who loves art, though. It’s hard to explain that to somebody who’s trying to feed their family.”

Economies of art

You’ve heard the term “starving artist.” But the idea that art feeds—rather than is fed by—the economy isn’t quite so commonly heard. A 2007 study conducted by the independent nonprofit Americans for the Arts found that arts and culture in Missoula is a $34.37 million industry, supports 1,174 full-time jobs and generates $2.78 million in local and state government revenues. Those numbers only count nonprofit arts and culture organizations, and don’t include spending by individual artists or the for-profit arts and entertainment sector.

Tom Benson, director of the Missoula Cultural Council, says he showed those figures to Dick King, president/CEO of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation (MAEDC), who immediately compared the impact to that of DirecTV.

“That the economic output of the nonprofit arts industry is comparable to DirecTV in terms of its economic impact on the community is significant,” Benson says. “The nonprofit arts put together—while decentralized with no CEO—is pretty powerful.”

Benson says that cultural tourism drives a major part of Missoula’s economy. In other words, people travel to Missoula as much for our bountiful arts and entertainment as for our Big Sky scenery. With tourism being the second largest industry in the state, he says the arts need to be supported, especially in tough times.

“I’ve been thinking recently that Missoula is a cultural destination, but it doesn’t know it,” he says. “There’s an image of what it is to be a tourist destination and people go, ‘I don’t want to be that, I don’t want to be manufactured.’ But the fact is, people are coming here and we’ve got some great galleries for a town this size.”

Benson says immediate relief will come from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Funds received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are slated to go to state arts councils, and Montana’s share of the funding is $291,000 for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. The state arts councils may use up to $50,000 of that money to pay for in-house jobs and contracts, but the rest goes to one-time sub-grants that support local projects. Though no funding goes directly to individual artists who aren’t associated with an arts organization, the NEA believes that keeping the arts organizations afloat will benefit all artists in the long run.

Some dispute that government funding of the arts benefits the greater economy. During congressional testimony on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Republicans like Virginia’s Eric Cantor lobbied against arts funding. He argued the stimulus package should be geared to “common sense” sectors like highway infrastructure—not arts.

Local economist Tom Power says that our culture still has a long way to go when it comes to accepting the arts’ role in the economy. He sees it as an antiquated masculine view in which only an austere life and industrial-type growth makes sense in a recession.

“The fact is we spend the vast majority of our income in good times and bad times on things that aren’t necessities,” he says. “Somebody needs to sort of slap us about the head and say, ‘C’mon, snap out of it.’ Whether you have a large budget or a small budget you want to live a balanced life. And quality of life, whether you’re rich or poor, hard times or good times, is maintaining that balance. You don’t just throw all of one thing away because your budget is a little tighter.”

No recent economic impact study has been released about individual artists and their importance to Missoula. But a 2005 study done by the Center for Applied Economic Research in Billings revealed an interesting trend in state employment. At the time the mining industry accounted for 4,800 statewide jobs, wood manufacturing employed 5,700, and 4,900 people worked in building retail. The same study showed 5,840 full-time artists making their living in Montana.

Donor drain

Corporate sponsors and major donors often support local arts organizations more than the box office. That means when budgets tighten during a recession, attendance numbers may not tell the whole story.

Benson says that was the case with the Cultural Council’s largest event, First Night, an alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebration featuring more than 100 local performances in 30 different venues. Attendance was high, but sponsorship and grant money dropped 10–12 percent from previous years.

“The word we got from those donors and sponsors was, ‘I’d love to help you this year, but I can’t,’” says Benson.

The trickle down effect of that drop-off hit those most in need. Benson says the council usually receives grant money to fund free buttons for low-income families and agencies like WIC, the Missoula Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity, but that money didn’t come through this year. 

“So the demand was more and the supply was less,” Benson says. “It was sort of a double whammy year. The grant organizations had less money and the agencies had more people who needed buttons.”

The Missoula Symphony Orchestra (MSO) also reports high attendance during its 2008–2009 season. A new deal that offers first-time season ticket holders seats at half price resulted in packed performances. But members—people who donate beyond buying season tickets—did not contribute as much as in past years. John Driscoll, executive director of MSO, says the organization hasn’t finished its end-of-year fiscal assessments so he can’t give exact donor statistics. But he knows numbers are down.

“If we sold out every concert we presented,” he says, “we still would not have a balanced budget. The concerts don’t pay for themselves through tickets. If [they did] we wouldn’t come close to selling out because our ticket prices would be too high and a lot of people wouldn’t be able to afford to come. As a result, donations are critically important to our survival.”

Part of Driscoll’s responsibility is emphasizing to donors just how important their donations may be. “All those things that make us good souls, that make us good parents, that make us good community citizens,” he says, “if those elements of life are gone then our society is a disaster. And that’s what arts bring to a community.”

The Missoula Children’s Theatre (MCT) finds itself in a slightly different position. The organization’s budget consists of 94 percent earned income, with donation and grant money making up the remaining 6 percent. That may seem like a petty amount, but MCT Executive Director Michael McGill says if that money didn’t come through—approximately $300,000—things could get scary.

“Most arts organizations are not anywhere near that [earned income percentage], which over the years has been one of the things that’s so interesting,” McGill says. “They go, ‘Well, you seem to make your own money, why do you need grants?’ It’s kind of a catch-22. But still, if we didn’t have that support, so many things we do wouldn’t happen. We wouldn’t be able to run if that completely dried up.”

MCT relies on their national tours to provide the bulk of their funds. So far, McGill says, even with national recession problems, their organization has only experienced slight impacts with tours. But he insists that the organization’s foundation is rooted in Missoula theatergoers.

“If it wasn’t for the support we have out of the Missoula area I think that things like community theater could have a really hard time,” McGill says.

The Montana Rep, a touring operation affiliated with the University of Montana Drama/Dance Program, has felt a pinch from other organizations’ diminished donations and sponsorships. No matter the audience size, venues that annually book the Rep can’t support theater tours without extra funding. The Rep’s current national tour of To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, is selling out to 1,600 people a night, according to Greg Johnson, the Rep’s artistic director. But Johnson says they’re cutting their upcoming summer tour of Leading Ladies short because of crumbling national circuits and in order to cinch their own belt.

“I’ve made it a commercial business model as opposed to a grant-oriented business model,” Johnson says. “So live by the sword, die by the sword. For 19 years we’ve had an incredible run of very successful national tours, but there’s a huge drop in the national touring market right now. I mean, precipitous.”

Cutting back on a tour has its own ramifications. Shorter tours mean less money for the Rep, which mean less money for things like their educational outreach tour and their annual summer playwrights’ conference, the Colony. Additionally, Leading Ladies would have had a guest director, but the Rep cancelled and Johnson will direct it to save money.

“We’re cutting back on every line of our budget [and] that’s a sign of the times,” says Johnson. But he adds, “People go out in Missoula, thank God! They go to art shows. They go to the symphony. That has been the case up to now, so we are in a brave new world. I think it’s starting to trickle into Missoula, slowly but surely, the recession. But we’ll get through it as a community and that’s what I’ve always felt is remarkable about this town. We always find a way.”

Risky business

The Zootown Arts Community Center (ZACC) on Missoula’s Northside has, from the beginning, defied conventional wisdom. For starters, the fledgling arts organization opened last summer in the face of a recession. Recently, sales in the ZACC artist shop have gone down, and so has enrollment for various kid and adult workshops and classes, decreasing the income from vital fees. ZACC founder Hanna Hannan reacted to the downturn, however, by hiring a new staff person—artist Debby Florence of Slumgullion printing. Florence is charged with helping Hannan run the center and expand its programming.

“I read this article the other day about how artists should swap places with business executives,” says Florence, “because artists not only know how to pinch pennies, they know how to reuse the same penny over and over again.”

Currently, Hannan and Florence see a solution in taking risks, diversifying programs and looking to the city as a partner. They’re opening their printing press so community members can design and print their own T-shirts. They’re also offering more do-it-yourself activities and holding art workshops where people bring their own materials and only pay for instruction. The two agree that while at one point they might have applied for big grants, lack of funding has led them to rely on several different approaches to staying viable.

“By putting our money into lots of different baskets—running the after school program, evening classes for adults, having the shop, the pottery studio, glass fusing, memberships and the print lab—we’re hoping to stay sustainable,” says Hannan.

ZACC is also working with Montana Community Development Corporation of Missoula (MCDC) and the city on how to integrate art into new Northside development. “And as a community center why shouldn’t we?” says Florence. “We are actually more viable and authentic if we are serving our community for real.”

Florence reads business trade magazines frequently and says she’s noticed a trend in economic projections, saying that we’re going from an industrial economy to a service economy to an experience economy. Again, that change puts artists in a position to succeed.

“People want experiences,” she says. “So the big corporations are like ‘How do we package our product so people think they’re having an experience?’ We’re not trying to create a pre-packaged experience, we’re just trying provide a facility where people can create their own experiences.”

One ZACC studio artist, Courtney Blazon, took her own risk when she quit her day job a few months ago and started working on her drawings full-time.

She’s sold more original pieces total since the beginning of 2009 than she did in all of 2008. At the MAM auction her piece didn’t sell much higher than minimum bid—Blazon says the piece was huge and a smaller one might have fared better—but all in all, she’s been successful in supporting herself through the work.

“I’m at a good point personally,” she says. “I think it does come down to needing to take those risks, but I’m also in a position where I don’t have as many responsibilities. I don’t have children. I don’t own a home. And, in a way, its a positive thing for me to do right now because it gives me an idea of what it’s like when the economy is bad. I sort of feel like, what better time to see if I can actually make it.”


During the Great Depression, artists were supported by government funds to continue making art. According to economist Tom Power, poets, writers, musicians and painters were seen as vital to the economy. Some writers were even commissioned to write the histories of Montana communities.

“It was during the Great Depression that the [Bonneville Power Administration] hired Woody Guthrie to visit all the dams on the Columbia,” says Power. “And it was during that time that he wrote ‘Roll On Columbia’ and actually a bunch of other songs. We knew that just to keep the cultural life of the country alive some of the stimulus funds ought to be aimed at the arts.”

That doesn’t just mean funding artists and arts organizations, but supporting art that involves the public. That’s especially important in a place like Missoula.

“I don’t want to compete or get in the way of basic needs because that is terribly important,” says Benson, “but I also think there is a reason that people choose to live in a place like this and it’s quality of life. You need artistic inspiration whether you’re flush or not. It doesn’t matter what you have to give to it, if you can support it it’s good in the long run. It’s food for the soul.”

The solution comes from both ends. While specific government funding and an emphasis on maintaining local sponsorships and donations certainly help, the artists themselves are also making tangible changes.

Adelaide Every makes experimental artwork that she admits caters to alternative tastes. In other words, her plexiglass boxes filled with colorful materials or found objects—including cigarette butts—have a limited market in Missoula. When her hours were cut at a local restaurant and her tips took a hit from cash-strapped customers, Every had a more difficult time affording art materials, especially plexiglass, a fairly expensive petroleum-based product that has recently risen in price by 15 percent.

Every, who works out of Ceretana Studios, started making earrings to help offset her costs.

“At first I was making [earrings] I liked but that nobody was going to buy and wear,” she says. “It’s a compromise. I still have some artistic input but I also needed to create something for the market. So I mean there’s an element of hustling involved as far as that goes. But as far as the art I’m creating I have had to think specifically about the things I need, how much money I have, cutting out other areas, trying to make it work.”

Kristi Hager, the local photographer who had seen a steep drop in her recent sales, took the opportunity to find other sources of arts-related income. She’s currently traveling throughout rural Montana to teach photography. Along the way, she takes her own pictures.

As for Leslie Millar, she felt so discouraged after her alarming 2007 Christmas show that she almost considered not having another one. But in 2008, instead of giving up on it, she re-examined her work and decided to try something new. Not willing to lower the prices for her large-format encaustic works, she instead made smaller, unframed pieces that would naturally garner a more affordable price.

“I just said to people, ‘Now you see them, now you don’t.’ As far as I’m concerned they’re…worth two to three times what I’ve got as a selling price.”

She’s recently applied for grants and shows out of state, which includes writing essays justifying why she should get picked. In the process she’s been forced to look at what makes her stand out as an artist.

And instead of focusing solely on her own work, isolating herself for personal preservation, she’s rediscovered her leadership skills. She says she has to work more on promotion and marketing, thinking innovatively about how to position herself in times like these. She’s talking to younger artists to get a sense of their creative ideas and becoming a mentor for them.

“It’s this funny thing where on a practical level there’s this crisis going on, which is certainly getting my attention and making me nervous,” she says. “Yet I’m feeling more confident about my abilities as an artist, about my impact on the Montana arts scene, about my ability to survive. I don’t know if I’m in a fool’s paradise, but I’m not feeling as desperate. It’s galvanized me. Now my role is to be a rabble rouser for the arts.”
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