Vibrant: Missoula among the nation’s top 40 cities for art and culture

When it comes to cities known for their arts and culture, the Rocky Mountain West is holding its own, and Missoula again is near the top of the list.

The annual “Arts Vibrancy Index Report: Hotbeds of America’s Arts and Culture,” released this week, placed Missoula in the No. 4 spot for medium-sized cities, just behind Santa Fe, New Mexico; Pittsfield, Massachusetts; and San Rafael, California.

It ranked within the top 40 of all U.S. cities, including the nation’s major metros, and was the only Montana city to make this year’s list. But that doesn’t come as a surprise to members of Missoula’s arts community.

“It suggests what a lot of us know already and have known for a long time,” said Tom Bensen, executive director of Arts Missoula. “It’s just one more measure of how strong the arts community is in Missoula. This is the fifth year they’ve had a report, and we’ve been named one of the most vibrant arts community every year.”

The rankings, produced by Southern Methodist University, are based on a number of factors including individual artists, cultural organizations, community venues and government support.

The report noted Missoula’s wide range of events, including the International Wildlife Film Festival, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, the Festival of the Book, the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival, and the River City Roots Festival, which takes place this weekend.

It also highlighted Missoula’s private art galleries, the Montana Museum of Arts and Culture, the Missoula Children’s Theater, the symphony and the Downtown Dance Collective, among many others.

“Missoula has an engaged and active population, who are just as likely to participate in outdoor recreation as they are to go to the symphony or attend a theater production,” the report noted. “Although there is no designated arts district, more than 60 nonprofit arts and cultural organizations operate in Missoula.”

The “Arts and Economic Prosperity” report, released in 2017 by Americans for the Arts, found that the nonprofits behind Missoula’s arts and culture generated $54 million in annual economic activity in 2015, supporting more than 1,900 jobs.

Of that $54 million, more than $20 million is considered direct impact, while $33.6 million represents spending by audiences beyond the cost of admission. The number grows higher when for-profit art and cultural venues are added to the list, including Missoula’s growing music and entertainment industry.

“The growth of the entertainment industry has been the biggest and most obvious growth,” Bensen said. “For a town this size, it’s pretty remarkable.”

Missoula’s burgeoning entertainment industry didn’t elude those behind this year’s vibrancy report. In it, they wrote, “The entertainment industry has grown dramatically in recent years,” noting both the KettleHouse and Big Sky amphitheaters, along with the renovated Wilma.

Along with the city’s long list of writers, traditional and non-traditional artists, and musicians, Bensen isn’t surprised by Missoula’s high ranking and its growing national reputation as a hotbed for the arts.

It adds economic value beyond the city’s outdoor offerings.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Bensen said. “Being a university town has a lot to do with it, along with being more and more of a tourist destination. A lot of these ranked communities are all in the Rocky Mountains. There’s an attractiveness to communities like ours beyond simply the scenic attraction.”