Bikes and trees: Missoula Art Park celebrates Earth Day opening

Laura Millin, executive director of the Missoula Art Museum, celebrates the grand opening of the Missoula Art Park on Friday evening and its inaugural exhibit, “By the Bike.” On the eve of Earth Day, trees – both human and real – also played a role in the celebration. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Several hundred people gathered under a balmy evening sun on Friday to open the city’s newest central attraction, one adorned with bicycle art in a nod to the partnerships that made it happen.

The new downtown plaza has already been coined the “MAP,” a catchy little acronym for the Missoula Art Park. It sits between the Missoula Art Museum and Adventure Cycling, and saw its grand opening on the eve of Earth Day 2017.

“It’s a pretty fabulous piece of business,” Mayor John Engen told the throng of supporters who gathered for the unveiling. “Art feeds the soul, it feeds the spirit, and it ensures we speak a common language. As long as we speak a common language, there’s hope for this world.”

Back in August of last year, a group of community leaders and artists gathered on this patch of ground to sink their golden shovels into the grassy earth.

Many of them returned on Friday to celebrate the work that has taken place over the past nine months, transforming a blasé downtown intersection into a new central attraction. The effort capped a collaboration between the MAM, Adventure Cycling and the city of Missoula, among other partners.

Brandon Reintjes, senior curator at the Missoula Art Museum, lends insight on the Missoula Art Park’s inaugural exhibition, “By the Bike.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“The artwork you’re standing next to, or sitting on in some cases, is part of the inaugural exhibition, By the Bike,” said Brandon Reintjes, senior curator at the MAM. “The artists were encouraged to make an artwork that responded physically or conceptually to the idea of the bike – the bike as the highest pinnacle of human evolution. We’re excited about the pieces they came up with.”

The inaugural pieces can be left to interpretation, though their ode to the bicycle is undeniable. Some tower high overhead, spinning in the wind. Others are welded from the remnants of twisted bicycle frames.

The exhibits include the work of Ann Appleby, Kim Reineking, Whitney Ford-Terry, Keith Goodhart, Jeremy Hatch and Patrick Zentz.

Clad in a blazer and sunglasses, Zentz said he commissioned his first piece of public art in Seattle many years ago. His final piece, commissioned last decade, involved a board of 37 people who had little understanding of public art, and that soured him on the process.

The opportunity to start fresh in Missoula, unencumbered by an overbearing board, brought joy back into the effort of imagining art in space. The result, Zentz said, has impact in its subtlety.

“It puts art in your way, in an incidental way, in the daily course of your life,” said Zentz. “If it inspires you, it works. If it doesn’t, you can walk right by and it doesn’t matter. It gives you the option of having a change in your perspective on things.”

Some may be a little more impressed with the new Missoula Art Park as the years go by. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In a nod to Earth Day, the new downtown plaza also includes the latest technology in urban forestry. Chris Boza, the city’s urban forester, said the park sits atop silva cells, allowing additional topsoil that increases the rooting area available to urban trees.

The technology represents the first installation of its kind in the state of Montana.

“If you look at some of the trees in the downtown area, for as long as they’ve been here, they’re a quarter of the size they’d typically be at the age they are now,” said Boza. “With silva cells, we can increase the amount of rooting space for those particular trees, allowing them to grow to meet their full potential and provide us with the shade, ambiance and aesthetic qualities we’re looking for.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at