Opinion: Missoula arts continue to inspire, delight, and unite in times of uncertainty

We all know how vital the arts are to Missoula and western Montana. National studies have given Missoula high rankings as a creative and vibrant community, while Missoula’s nonprofit arts organizations are a $54 million industry.

Arts and entertainment play a major role in Montana’s tourism. But with the onset of COVID-19, all this has suddenly been put on hold. Many of Missoula’s artists and other workers in the sector are now unemployed.

According to Americans for the Arts, Montana’s nonprofit arts organizations have already lost an average of $13,000 per organization in the past six weeks — devastating losses that are among the largest in the country. That same study projects a $4.5 billion loss nationally in the industry, which includes 55 million fewer audience members to public performances and art openings.

But beyond the sheer numbers, the arts are crucial to our daily lives. The arts spark creativity and innovation, unify our communities, and tell stories that nourish our spirit during good times and bad, contributing to our personal and collective well-being. And what is most evident right now, the arts feed our human need for socialization.

Think of First Friday Gallery Nights, Out to Lunch, Downtown Tonight, Missoula Symphony performances, the numerous festivals, local musicians at brewpubs, plays, dance classes, art auctions, UM music recitals, summer concerts at our large outdoor venues — the list seems endless. They are all social gatherings centered around art and culture.

Despite the despairing news there are several wonderful responses among the arts community. The ZACC recently held a successful online Mini Show art auction, and is now launching Windows For Hope, calling on local artists for digital art to be displayed in the storefront window.

Sequesterfest showcased several artists in live Facebook concerts, each performing at a designated time, with virtual tip jars. MCPS music teachers posted a YouTube video of “I Will Survive (Distance Learning)” to kick off the new and unusual school term. MCT Playdate offers a way to stage and perform a play similar to their International Tour Program while remaining inside and socially apart. The 43rd International Wildlife Film Festival in late April will be the first IWFF Virtual Film Festival.

In the wake of rapid school closures and the need for social distancing, arts education suddenly became tenuous in the lives of our community’s youth. Missoula’s arts organizations are quickly pivoting and reorganizing their educational programs to be accessible online. Missoula Art Museum (MAM) had coincidentally just completed its first distance learning program, Museum as Megaphone, which is now available, along with other curriculum-based programs, to teachers and home-schooling parents.

The Missoula Writing Collaborative has developed the Cabin Fever Survival Handbook of poetry exercises for parents and students. Arts Missoula has converted intercultural competency classes to interactive online learning units for MCPS students, while SPARK! Arts teaching artists are working on digital and analog arts resources that integrate social-emotional health and well-being for students, families and teachers.

There are undoubtedly more such stories in our arts community, with podcasts, videos, online classes, all designed to connect us through the arts.

All of this leads to an obvious conclusion: While the arts may not be considered an essential service in this time of crisis, they are indeed essential to our humanity and our connection with others. The arts are essential to our emotional health, our sense of community, our creativity, and, of course, our economy.

Through this time of uncertainty, the arts continue to inspire, delight, and unite. As we collectively (and separately) slog through this era of social distancing, please remember to continue supporting Missoula’s arts and artists who provide food for the soul for all of us.

Tom Bensen, executive director of Arts Missoula