The place that artists fly over
When Jen first suggested that we call this blog "Flyover," I couldn't have thought of a better metaphor for the place I live and the peculiar circumstances of our local arts culture.
My chosen home of Missoula, Montana, sits next to Interstate 90, which is the northernmost east-west corridor in this part of the country. To give some sense of perspective on how sparse the population is in this part of the country, the closest city to the west that boasts a population over one million is Seattle. That's about an eight hour drive, if traffic works in your favor. To the east: Minneapolis. Estimated driving time to get there, while staying within the speed limit: about 16 hours.
Look north, and the closest city of that size is Edmonton, Alberta. That's a ten hour drive. South? Salt Lake City, which -- only if you count the metro area -- barely qualifies. It's about 7 1/2 hours of driving from here.
My point is not to one-up Missoula on the remoteness scale. Rather, it's to point out a noteworthy factor in the world of touring arts: Missoula simply isn't convenient to other cities where arts events can be counted on to draw a paying crowd.
Over the years living in Missoula, I've talked with promoters of rock concerts and classical arts, museum directors and theater fanatics. What I've learned is that our local exposure to touring shows is limited severely by the logistics of bringing those shows here. In a nutshell, the prevailing wisdom is that artists and shows only stop in Missoula when they happen to be driving between Minneapolis and Seattle, and could use a little gas money.
Needless to say, this puts limits on the types and quantity of shows that stop here. Small-time bands that need to play every night for gas money will usually stop. Big-ticket rock bands rarely bother to stop; it's easier to just have their gear trucked the distance, and fly the performers right over Missoula and the rest of the sparsely populated Pacific northwest.
For Broadway shows, this is a netherland, a vast swath of costly mileage between here and there. Most seem to avoid I-90 like the plague.
Orchestras? Forget about it...It's been years since a touring orchestra came through this part of the country.
Visual arts? Well, we get a smattering of touring shows (there's a fine exhibit of works by Faith Ringgold at the Missoula Art Museum right now); but there's only one museum in town, it has limited gallery space available, and -- to its great credit -- its primary focus is on important art from the nearby region.
So what we have in Missoula, in terms of art you can reach out and touch, is primarily locally made art. And in the same sense that nationally touring arts shows are rare in this town, so too is it logistically challenging for our local artists to grow their reputations beyond the local arts scene. Locally "famous" artists are our greatest treasure, but -- with a few exceptions -- you've surely never heard of them if you don't live here.
There are myriad issues that these facts raise. Locals seem to fall into two camps: the people who believe that Missoula is the "Paris of the 1990s" (to quote author John Updike) and "the next Athens, Georgia;" and the people who turn their noses up at anything that reeks of local origin.
In this milieu, not surprisingly, the cultural role played by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, the Missoula Art Museum, and other local cultural organizations is much different from that played by orchestras and museums of similar budget size and artistic caliber in larger cities. After all, they're quite literally the only show in town. They must embrace at once the educational, artistic, and civic roles that are often split between complimentary organizations in larger cities.
Is this good, bad, or indifferent? I answer the question differently every day. But one thing's certain: assessing the accomplishments of these organizations against a scale calibrated by the accomplishments of arts organizations in major cities is a fool's errand that serves no-one.
So the Missoula Symphony isn't the Cleveland Orchestra. So what? Does that begin to tell us what's actually interesting about our local orchestra? I think not.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program