Arts Missoula to hire cultural director to expand city’s global view

Missoula residents have repeatedly raised their voices in support of refugee resettlement in the city and state. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Arts Missoula will hire a director of global and cultural affairs to help the city become more welcoming to refugees who resettle here.

In a 9-2 vote Monday night, City Council members amended the city’s fiscal 2018 budget to provide $34,424 for the immediate hire. In fiscal 2019, the full-year budget implication will be $79,000.

As described by Arts Missoula executive director Tom Bensen, the new global and cultural affairs director will develop programs in sensitivity training for local schools, city and county employees, and other public or private groups.

Also on the new director’s to-do list: expanding activities and initiatives with Missoula’s sister cities, and possibly adding others; and implementing community outreach programs specific to global issues.

Mayor John Engen said the unusual mid-year budget request came because Arts Missoula “had an opportunity to pursue a candidate who is uniquely fitted to this position, and we wanted to make sure that opportunity wasn’t lost.”

“There is some urgency around this request,” he said, “or we would not be coming to you now.”

Engen also said the position will fill “what we believe is a significant gap in the community, given some changes at the University of Montana.”

Missoula is home to about 120 refugees in 30 families who resettled here over the past two years, under the sponsorship of International Rescue Committee.

Their home countries include Iraq, Syria, Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

“These are brave, brave people who have come here,” Councilwoman Gwen Jones said Monday night, lending her support to the new position.

The transition is incredibly difficult, she said, no matter how welcoming the host city.

Councilwoman Julie Armstrong hailed Arts Missoula for providing programming “that is one of the great equalizers in our community.”

Armstrong said she’d support the new position Monday night, but also next summer as the city works through the fiscal 2019 budget process.

Funds for the 2018 budget amendment will come from the city’s cash balance and will not affect other departments or obligations, or raise taxes, according to the mayor.

Two council members objected to the amendment on procedural grounds, saying the city should not add a position mid-stream, thereby setting up an expectation for the next budget cycle.

Debate over the merits of a new position should come in the context of all the other requests that come before City Council during its budget hearings, said Councilwoman Michelle Cares.

“I don’t think we should add staff outside of the normal budget process,” she said. “Every year, we make many difficult decisions during that process – and this request should be one of those we consider.”

Added Councilman Jesse Ramos, “We’re in the middle of a budget crisis right now. This request should come as part of the budget process.”

Ramos added that Arts Missoula should raise funds for the new position in the private sector.

According to Bensen, Arts Missoula has a three-year contract with the city, with local government providing $116,000 of the nonprofit’s $515,000 budget.

With the addition of a global and cultural affairs director, the city’s annual contribution to Arts Missoula will increase to $195,000.

Arts Missoula currently has a staff of 3.5 FTE.

The nonprofit arts agency provides a variety of services, including a community events calendar, administering the Missoula Public Art Committee, and overseeing the Sister City Program, the Montana Book Festival and Spark! – Arts Ignited Learning.

Arts Missoula also produces First Night Missoula, coordinates First Friday Gallery Night information and conducts periodic economic impact studies related to the arts.