Visible, accessible, intergenerational: ZACC opens on grand scale in new venue

Kia Liszak, Zootown Arts Community Center director, and capital campaign co-chairwoman Robin Checota cut the red ribbon at the ZACC grand opening Thursday in its new location, 216 W. Main St. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

The Zootown Arts Community Center joyfully opened the doors Thursday at its new 17,000-square-foot, $3.5 million home in the historic Studebaker Building on West Main Street.

As eight-year ZACC director Kia Liszak cried tears of happiness and accomplishment, about 100 board members, staff, artists and supporters gathered tight to celebrate a major arts achievement for downtown Missoula.

“A lot of people laughed at us when we first started talking about this,” Liszak told the crowd. “It takes a lot of dedication, hard work and vision, but it also takes a couple people in the beginning to say, ‘I believe in this.’ “

A “leap of faith” combined with resiliency in meeting “every little challenge” and a power team of fundraisers to move the new multi-use center from its previous location on North First Street West to the high-profile venue. 

“This is an added benefit to downtown,” said Robin Checota, capital campaign co-chair with her husband, downtown entertainment mogul Nick Checota, who collected the $3.5 million needed to bring the project to reality. “It’s a critical piece to our community. I love living in a community that values its arts and culture so.”

“We are now just $350,000 away from being completely funded,” said Liszak. “We’re almost there. That means that little old ZACC raised $3.1 million.” 

An emotional Liszak persevered with the project, despite losing her mother and art-teacher inspiration during the process. Her son, father and husband were on hand to watch her cut the open house ribbon. 

“We own this building downtown,” said Liszak to joyous cheers. “We are strong enough that nobody can break us down now that we have our own building. We’ve been able to make it completely accessible and design it to fit the programs that we’ve been building for years. We couldn’t have done it without each and every one of you. It really is a dream come true.”

The crowd of supporters makes its way into the Main Gallery and pottery room Thursday. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

The three-story center includes a bright, spacious pottery and multi-art room with various Art Deco tables and chairs; a gleaming, curving wood cabinet; plenty of shelves and natural lighting.

Adjacent is a Main Art Gallery and a Youth Art Gallery, already featuring kids’ exhibits, a dedicated kiln room still under construction and a ZACC T-shirt rack for art aficionados.

Staff offices and specially named art rooms will go upstairs, which is still under construction. 

On the main floor, Liszak said a donor wall will eventually go up in the inviting hallway that draws back to a sitting area. Further down is a tucked-away Bill and Rosemary Gallagher Hands-On Youth Art Experience Center – featuring a whimsical Dr. Seuss-type crooked house for kids to romp in. 

At the back are entry doors that widen into a large Theater and Event Center that will hold up to 350 standing capacity and 175 seated, said ZACC director of operations Heather Stockton.

“It’s everything you need and nothing you don’t need,” said Chris Baumann, full-time staff event technician who helped design the theater space. Concerts, plays and eventually the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival will be held in the events center.

Baumann was “firing up the sound” system in time for several free events celebrating the grand opening on Friday, Oct. 25, including:

  • 5th annual Missoula Monster Project opening in the Main Gallery, 7 p.m.
  • CoEd Rock Campers’ first performance in the Event Center, 7 p.m.
  • Inaugural Monster Mash Bash for adults in the Event Center, 8 to 11 p.m.

On Saturday, Oct. 26, ZACC will host the ROCKtober Volume II cover bands event from 8 to 11 p.m. for adults. Doors open at 7:30 p.m., with a cover charge. Alcohol will be served.

Master potter Dana Childs, who ran a private artist studio at the previous ZACC location, said visitors can either sign up for a class or make something from clay for free. 

“I was the kiln guru at the old ZACC,” said Childs, anxious to teach molding, drying and glazing. 

“We’re bursting at the seams with ideas,” added Liszak, who grew up in Missoula. “We have so many things we want to do. And now that we get to be downtown, we … are going to do some hard-core community building, accessible to all people and have a free, safe community space, no matter what happens in Missoula. We’ll continue to listen to people’s needs.”

Ron Liszak, ZACC director Kia Liszak’s father, and Martha Kimmich check out art in the Youth Gallery on the first floor. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Monica Grable, arts education director of the Montana Arts Council headquartered in Helena, seemed in awe of the new digs.

“It’s exactly what Missoula needs – more space to be creative,” said Grable. “The particular thing about ZACC that requires more space is that it’s intergenerational learning that is the hallmark of programming here.”

Reaching across all ages and generations remains a key mission.

“It makes sense that a space like this would be created so those ideas can be shared across generations – and so the olders can learn from the youngers and the youngers can learn from the olders,” added Grable.

Lisa Simon, Radius Gallery owner and Public Art Committee member, agreed with Grable’s assessment of arts as an economic driver.

“We need to create an arts economy and a community activist area,” said Simon, keen on rebranding Missoula as an arts town – with colleagues Liszak and The Clay Studio, 1106 Hawthorne St.

Downstairs lies a fresh Music Recording Studio that has education director Lukas Phelan hyped for the endless possibilities, starting with the upcoming CoEd Rock Campers performance. 

“This is the music school,” said Phelan, who had a hand in designing the space with supporters Jeff and Pandora Ament. A roomful of shiny donated guitars, a front-and-center drum set, tables and a corner recording studio make up the basement.

“It’s going to open up possibilities of what we can do,” said Phelan, holding sleeping Arthur, his 4-month-old son. “We’ll be much more accessible. On the North Side, nobody knew we existed because we were kind of tucked away over there near the train tracks.”

“Now we’re right in the public eye and anyone who wants to come in, create something and get involved can,” he said. “We’re accessible to anyone. A lot of our camps and classes are pay-for, but we offer scholarships, too – for kids and adults.”

Robin Checota counts among the supporters those who gave in-kind donations, volunteers who helped move equipment and anyone who spreads the word about ZACC and Missoula’s booming downtown arts atmosphere. 

“We want to be on the forefront, to show our support and to encourage others,” said Checota of her campaign team’s ongoing mission. 

For more information on ZACC programs, see

Contact Missoula Current business reporter Renata Birkenbuel at and 406-565-0013.