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Art and culture playing a bigger role in driving Missoula’s economy

Posted at 10:05 AM, Jan 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-28 16:18:43-05

MISSOULA — In the 14 years since the Missoula Art Museum completed an addition to its contemporary art gallery, the city’s arts scene has come alive, placing it among the top mid-sized cities in the country on a national index of the arts.

But that’s hardly news anymore, and those in the arts community see big things on the horizon as Missoula’s arts sector continues to grow, carving out an ever larger piece of the city’s economic pie.

“It’s been building,” said Laura Millin, executive director of the Missoula Art Museum. “We can say right here in Missoula how amazing it is – it’s a huge economic factor.”

According to a 2015 study by Arts and Economic Prosperity, Missoula’s nonprofit arts sector represented a $54 million industry, one that provided more than 1,900 jobs and contributed more than $39 million in household earnings.

But that was so yesterday, and those observing the growth in the city’s arts community believe those numbers have and will continue to expand.

A number of recent additions have helped drive that growth, including two new amphitheaters. The company behind the KettleHouse Amphitheater now plans to build a world-class events center in downtown Missoula starting this summer, one that’s expected to provide more than $15 million in direct economic impact to the city each year.

The University of Montana also is moving forward with plans for a new museum to showcase its vast art collection. The Zootown Arts and Community Center recently unveiled its new $3 million facility on Main Street, and the Radius opened its $3 million contemporary gallery on Higgins Avenue just last week.

“I think we’re having a sea change in the economy of the arts here,” said Brian Sippy, who funded the gallery’s new building. “Be it visual arts, the performing arts or the amphitheater, at the end of the day, we’re all part of the story and trying to raise all ships.”

The Radius Gallery holds its grand opening in downtown Missoula. The new facility represents an investment of roughly $3 million.

While the arts help drive the economy, Sippy believes they have flown under the radar in past years, though even that’s beginning to change. Increasing investment in new facilities have given the arts – the concerts, plays and exhibits – the venues they deserve.

Sippy said that collective effort will elevate the city’s arts community as a whole.

“We all know the arts can and do drive the economy, but it doesn’t always seem to bubble to the top,” said Sippy. “As that becomes more apparent, we’ll be on more tour maps, more driven by regional tourism and more of a destination. I truly believe we can be there with (the events center) coming and this corridor evolving and everything growing up a little bit.”

The elevated status could also help put more money into the pocket of the actual artists and the people who sell their work. Lisa Simon, who co-founded the Radius Gallery with Jason Neal in 2015, sees the growing investment in new facilities as an opportunity to sell more art, and at a price beneficial to the artists.

“When we started the gallery five years ago, we couldn’t have prices very high and designers wouldn’t work with us, because they said their clients wouldn’t work with locals,” said Simon. “If they wanted good art, they’d go to Seattle or Salt Lake City. They weren’t going to Missoula for fine contemporary art. But now they are. I do think the level is rising generally.”

The level may be rising in other genres as well, convincing private investors to go big on Missoula. Seeing an opportunity, Nick Checota assumed the development rights for a piece of downtown property, where Clark Fork Riverfront Properties plans to break ground on a $100 million hotel and events center this summer.

Checota, who also owns Logjam Presents, sold 250,000 concert tickets at his other local venues last year. More than 45,000 of those were out of market. The new events center will help grow those numbers, bringing more money into the community.

“You’re looking at 3,000 to 4,000 people four to five times a month at this facility,” Checota said recently. “You’re looking at multiples of economic impact. We’re confident it will be one of the nicest events centers in the Western United States.”

Millin attributes the resurgence of Missoula’s arts and culture in part to MAM and the $5 million addition it completed in 2006 at its downtown facility. That and other recent projects around Missoula have helped push the arts sector to a new high, one that’s gaining attention across the country.

“That’s been a wonderful change,” said Millin. “It’s about the culture and stories and how that interweaves to make Missoula a unique place. Culture and tourism isn’t about going to every town and finding the same greatest hits you saw somewhere else. It’s about being unique.”