Three years ago this week, I wrote about a nationally touring children’s theater group from Missoula, Montana, that was stopping in Waco to stage a play that would be performed by local children. It had already overseen performances that summer in several small Texas towns, and I was impressed. But I wondered at the time why on earth the organization would be headquartered in Missoula, of all places.
Last weekend, I returned home from a quick trip up to Montana (for an unrelated purpose) during which I discovered the answer: Missoula is one of the most impressively energetic art towns I’ve ever visited. It’s a picturesque city situated at the intersection of several valleys in the far western part of the state and also home to the main campus of the University of Montana. Like Waco, it’s a county seat but has a population of about 71,000. (The university’s enrollment is about 13,000.)
Missoula was one of the first cities in Montana to create a municipal Public Art Committee and to adopt a “percent for art” program for all new construction, similar to those that operate in much bigger cities like Fort Worth. The committee publishes an annual guide to all of its public art, which currently lists almost 50 pieces ranging from sculptures to murals. A large number (but by no means all) are within walking distance of each other in the downtown area. Some are realistic works, while others are abstract. Most are outdoor pieces, but a few are inside public buildings. A couple of them are
memorial sculptures and two are the most artistically designed bicycle racks I’ve ever seen.
One of its most appealing public art programs is what it does with traffic signal boxes — those big, gray control boxes that you see off to the side of every intersection with a stoplight. For eight years now, the city has enlisted local artists to use them as canvases and create “vibrant, colorful, interesting and engaging public art pieces that emphasize our talented and creative artists.” By the end of August, they’ll have 55 out of 72 existing boxes painted.
I saw several of them and they were wonderful to look at and brightened the streets. I saw none that was vandalized or defaced in the least. This is a small but extremely visible project that any city interested in having public art could easily undertake.
One of the more striking single pieces of public art is actually a carousel, the story of which speaks volumes about community spirit. In 1991, an artistic local cabinet maker told the city council that “if you will give it a home and promise no one will ever take it apart, I will build a carousel for Missoula.”
Over the next four years, he and a team of local artists whom he instructed carved 38 carousel ponies, two chariots and 14 dragons. Local stained-glass artists created windows for the carousel and the specially constructed building in which it operates. It’s just a couple of blocks off the main street and near the picturesque Clark Fork River that runs alongside downtown.
In explaining the city’s art programs, the mayor said that all these choices “reflect our dedication to the visual arts as an important part of Missoula’s environment.”
What one sees here is proof that having a successful art scene doesn’t have anything to do with a city’s size. Instead, it has everything to do with whether a sufficient portion of the citizens and leadership of a community care enough to support the arts and make them a part of civic life.