What do the arts mean for Missoula?

Wild Blooms: team helping an artist to create a Traffic Signal Box

Guest post by Tom Bensen, Executive Director, Arts Missoula

The National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) at Southern Methodist University in April released its newest annual Arts Vibrancy Index, a ranking of the nation’s most vibrant arts communities. This past June, Washington, D.C. based Americans for the Arts released Arts and Economic Prosperity 5 – the Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts Organizations and their Audiences (AEP).   In both studies (available at www.artsmissoula.org), Missoula looks good, to put it lightly.  The NCAR study names Missoula as the 4th most vibrant mid-sized cities in the county, while AEP reveals that our nonprofit arts sector is a $54 million industry, nearly three times that of communities our size.  The 1,913 FTE jobs in the nonprofit arts industry is a comparable number to those of other better known and more recognized employers, specifically the University of Montana and our two hospitals. 

Indeed this is impressive, but is it surprising?  Missoula has a strong history as a vibrant arts community.  Each month First Friday Gallery Night packs the downtown streets, and every weekend there are “too many events to attend” say many residents. Just this summer, Missoula has seen the opening of two major live music amphitheaters, each producing sold-out shows.  Some of the biggest names in popular music history – The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Elton John, and most recently Paul Simon – have all performed in Missoula in recent years. 

Meanwhile Missoula is known across the country and around the world for the Little Red Trucks of the Missoula Children’s Theatre, the international competitions of the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre, and most recently the highly successful tour of the Montana Repertory Theatre’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in China.  All this exporting of art and culture is reciprocated.  Destination Missoula reports that their web site traffic saw nearly 665,000 visits last year, an increase of 20% from the previous year, while telephone inquiries increased 50%, from 95,000 to 143,000. While it is impossible to determine how many tourists visited Missoula, the increased inquiries suggest serious growth in tourism.  Looking at specific arts events, the 2017 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival drew 2,817 out-of-town event participants and spectators from over 20 cities in seven countries, staying in Missoula an average of five nights, and spending an estimated $135,000.  The 2016 International Choral Festival saw 1091 out of town and foreign visitors to Missoula for the four day festival that occurs every three years.

What does all this arts activity mean for the city and its inhabitants?  Looking beyond the raw numbers, it seems clear that a healthy arts and cultural community provides tangible benefits to its citizens beyond the entertainment value.  Construction seems to be at an all-time high downtown, and soon we will see new hotels, housing, and bridges all within a few blocks.  Businesses want to build here.  People want to move here.  That means they buy houses, pay taxes, send their children to our schools, and become contributing members of our community.  A recent poll by Americans for the Arts indicates that 87% of citizens believe arts and culture improve their quality of life, and Missoula provides a fine example. 

At the recent ribbon cutting for the new Kettlehouse Amphitheatre, Montana Governor Steve Bullock mentioned that this project brings together three great things about Missoula and western Montana: local breweries, performing arts, and a stunning landscape.   And he specifically mentioned the economic importance of each.  At the same event Mayor John Engen said, “The arts community is incredibly significant to a place like Missoula.”

The arts inspire, delight and unite us, making us all more creative, productive and interesting.  Many have said that the arts are food for the soul.  In Missoula, the arts are also food on the table. 



"Missoula is the arts hub of the Northwest for a reason: in a day, you can see modern art and classic works of masters, Broadway-quality theater, dance, concerts in unique, world-class venues all while enjoying a friendly, funky, safe small city where tourists and citizens happily mingle and take advantage of the abundance of arts opportunities, many of which are free."

- John Engen, Mayor, City of Missoula