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July 1, 2007

The place that artists fly over

Joe Nickell

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.

Posted by Joe Nickell at July 1, 2007 10:54 PM

COMMENTS

That's a great point, Joe: these solitary institutions play multiple roles, roles that would be shared by counterparts in larger cities.

The Telfair Museum of Art here in Savannah has for a long time denied that it has any civic obligations, but as arts funding from local governments has come under increasing scrutiny (what are the city and county getting for their investment?), the museum and its new director have begun making the case that its more than a museum but a community center as well.

One thing I would add to your post, which warned against applying non-local standards to local institutions, is the problem in some cities in the American Outback of trying to attain standards they are not ready for.

What I'm thinking of is a push last year among Savannah politicians for voters to approve a sales-tax referendum that would set aside more than $80 million to build a new arena in the next decade.

The building would take the place of the old Civic Center which is functional but horribly out of date (it was built in the 1970s and looks like it). The rationale is that a larger, modern, state-of-the-art arena would start attracting the big-name acts that the current Civic Center can't.

There may be some basis to this rationale, but proponents were slow to elaborate on their reasoning. Better to push the idea with few details than reveal too much and threaten to whole enterprise.

What we do know is that the current Civic Center has a hard time keeping acts from canceling once they've booked a date. Taylor Hicks, the gray-haired Alabaman who won last year's "American Idol," canceled last month.

The reason was a "scheduling conflict," but I've covered entertainment here long enough to know that's code for weak ticket sales. And weak tickets are commonplace here because Savannah is a walk-up market: People don't buy tickets until the last minute, not three months in advance.

If we build it, perhaps the entertainment acts will come. But no building is going to make people buy tickets sooner, reassuring iffy promoters in the process.

I'm afraid this new arena will be a lot of money for an idea that won't pan out as expected. I fear we're trying to be bigger than we are.

Posted by: John Stoehr at July 2, 2007 12:54 PM

Cheer up! Willie Nelson is coming to Choteau and there's no way he will cancel! By Montana standards, Choteau is a skip and a jump. And "George" is a lot closer than Seattle. If your passport is in order, you can find the big cities to the north -- how far a drive is Calgary from Missoula?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver at July 2, 2007 10:55 PM

I live in Toronto, which has it's own sizable population base (pushing three million if it hasn't already passed that), but somehow civic boosters can't seem to shake the kind of cultural insecurity that comes from being a provincial backwater. For the past five virtually all fundraising efforts of six or seven (and I may have missed some) major cultural institutions -- from the Art Gallery of Ontario to the National Ballet Company -- have been channelled into capital building funds, thanks to a no-longer-in-power Ontario government that decided to "fix" a situation that may not have been broke by inventing a very generous if-you-build-it-they-will-come matching funds funding model. On the up side, Toronto has a lovely new opera house (our first and long overdue, and maybe the Canadian Opera Company really was being held back by the crummy acoustics at O'Keefe/ Hummingbird Centre). On the downside, the AGO hadn't fully completed one expansion when it started the next; the Royal Ontario Museum (closed for 13 years in the 70s/80s, and spent another decade gradually remounting permananent installations that need to be redesigned all over again) shut down again for long enough that I really have to wonder if my community even needs this insitution at all, since we seem to do just fine without it. I'd have an easier time buying the "we are making Toronto an architectural destination" argument if the municipality weren't loosing many of its historic gems to make way for an endless sea of condos. Billions of dollars have been poured into bricks and mortar for organizations that remain starved for cash to fund programming and acquisitions. Imagine what might have been...

Posted by: Deirdre Hanna at July 3, 2007 7:34 AM

Joe Nickell wrote: "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."

Living in a "dive around," unincorporated, mountain town, Idyllwild, Calif., proclaimed to be "one of the 100 best small arts towns" in America. Indeed the arts organizations are the only game in town, and they know it.

While I run an online arts site, GalleryGuide.tv, my efforts to open a gallery in town apparently conflicts with the members of the "'arts boards," who also are local gallery owners ... and the communities self-appointed "social engineers."

This translates into "black-balling" the gallery and "blacklisting" me.

The two local artists -- who were excited to be part of the opening -- mysteriously pull their works from the gallery just weeks before the show.

I am offered a part-time driving job at the local arts highschool by my neighbor, who is the manager, who later informs me that the schools VP instructs him not to hire me because "he is blacklisted."

A month ago, seven months into my lease-option, the building owner/seller calls to inform me she has taken a local "cash out" deal.

So no gallery, no job, no home. That'll teach this black man to stay away from small white "flyover" arts communities.

Happy Fourth, America! (The guy at the end of my block will be having his annual mock lynching, along with fireworks, to celebrate his American heritage; no. I'm not kidding.)

Posted by: Claude Rallins at July 3, 2007 10:29 AM

Living in a small town may be a disadvantage for seeing the "best" art, but there are definitely compensations. Specifically, barriers to participation in art can be much lower. I hail from Bozeman, Montana (pop. 35,000 or so), where I'm just beginning to show my photography. I could be wrong, but I suspect it was easier for me to find starter exhibit opportunities, which are instrumental in artistic growth. Similarly, with good but not great singing ability, you can probably audition into the Symphonic Choir, practice new pieces regularly, and sing with the Symphony twice a year. The list goes on...

And let's not forget that appreciation of art is not just seeing excellent art works. If you can go to a show, meet the artist, have a conversation (with the artist or someone else), and maybe see them next week in the grocery store, you will end up with a richer experience and a better feeling about art. It's not automatic, and conflicts like Claude describes, when they happen, are harder to work around or escape. But if the atmosphere is clear and we keep in mind the whole gamut of art-related activities, smaller towns and cities may have the advantage over larger ones.

Posted by: Steve Durbin at July 3, 2007 3:20 PM