Arts and Culture in Montana
Known primarily for its cowboys and ranching, Montana has the third lowest population density in the United States. And yet, against all odds, in the last 50 years Montana has become a haven for artists, particularly writers. The best-selling anthology The Last Best Place includes over 230 stories, poems, reminiscences, and reports about Montana. Its eight sections features introductions by some of Montana’s best artists: William Bevis, Mary Blew, William Kittredge, William Lang, Richard Roeder, Annick Smith, and James Welch.
Today, Missoula is known for its booming creative circles. Historically, Helena was a hotbed for the performing arts—traveling troupes and theater companies could conveniently stop there while traveling between Chicago and Seattle from the 1880s to 1920s. As late as the 1960s grand old vaudeville "opera houses" hosted shows by touring companies from all over the U.S. in the state. Montana also enjoys a strong artistic tradition from its Native American population, including the Crow and the Northern Cheyenne.
The three largest orchestras in Montana are the Great Falls Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1958; the Bozeman Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1963; and the Helena Symphony, founded in 1955. The Helena Symphony enjoys a reputation as one of the top symphonies in the Northwest.
The String Orchestra of the Rockies (SOR) is the only professional group of its kind in Montana. It is made up of string players from all over the state, including faculty members of the University of Montana and Montana State University in Bozeman. All SOR musicians also teach music. The unique 15-member orchestra rehearses in a collaborative way so that each player influences the artistic process. The group has no conductor and has played with many guest artists. SOR members offer master classes and workshops to the Montana community.
Established in 1951, the Billings Symphony Society offers "musical enlightenment and intellectual stimulation" to traditional audiences as well as people who live in remote areas, are lower-income, or don’t get many cultural opportunities.
The Billings Symphony Orchestra & Chorale (BSO&C) caters to approximately 400,000 people throughout south central Montana and northeastern Wyoming. The annual season includes six subscription concerts, two performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker with the accompaniment of a renowned ballet company, a New Year’s Eve event, four performances of a free family concert and the free Symphony in the Park. The BSO&C performs outreach and educational events via its program, Explore Music!
Montana Ballet supports local, regional, national, and international opportunities for dancers. Its program provides opportunities for students to participate in performances, including its annualNutcracker.
The non-profit Montana Lyric Opera was created in 2007 to bring the art form to western Montana. It enjoyed immediate success with sold-out community outreach performances of "Opera on Draft," its Summer Youth Opera Camp, and its first professional production, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Montana enjoys a long history of folk and cowboy songs harking back to the state's pioneer days as well as its extensive Native American musical tradition.
The University of Montana, Missoula offers both undergraduate and graduate music programs that prepare students to be music teachers or composers. Montana State University, Bozeman offers three music degree options.
Renowned Montana musicians are involved in all genres of music. Born in 1949, Best-selling new age pianist George Winston (b. 1949) grew up in Miles City. Rob Quist is a well-known Montana country musician formerly of the Mission Mountain Wood Band. The bluegrass band the Bridger Creek Boys is from Bozeman.
Pearl Jam bassist, Jeff Ament, is from Montana, as is guitarist/producer Steve Albini, famous for producing albums for bands like Nirvana. Grunge pioneer Bruce Fairweather also hails from the state.The Skoidats boasts members from Helena and Missoula. Daddy Wayne Stevens, from Kalispell and Bozeman, performs solo acoustic blues throughout Montana.
The Montana Ballet Company provides inexpensive shows for students and parents to attend via programs such as In Motion. It supports myriad opportunities for dance students to participate in small and large local shows.
The Myrna Loy Center in Helena presents contemporary media and performing arts. It supports development of new works by Montanans as well as national artists, and encourages a lifelong involvement in the arts through arts education and its residential opportunities. It has presented, produced, and/or commissioned nationally significant productions. The Myrna Loy has become a central meeting place for all kinds of Montana artists and sponsors statewide events bringing artists together.
The Opera House Theatre in Philipsburg was established in 1891. It is the oldest continually operated theater in Montana. A century-long tradition of performers autographing the walls has been preserved, and the signatures can be seen all over the interior. Originally built as a performance space and movie theater, the building housed many businesses over the years including a soda pop bottling company, the Philipsburg Commercial Club, a bank, and Carmichael's Livery Stable.
The Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre School opened in 1998. Its curriculum includes ballet, pointe, jazz, tap, pre-ballet, and creative movement. In 2003, the school moved to its present location in Missoula, which has three large studios with sprung Marley floors. Students participate in local productions such as A Christmas Jewel and the RMBT Christmas Spectacular.
Dancer and choreographer Michael Smuin was born in 1938 in Missoula. A principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet, he was co-artistic director of the latter between 1973 and 1985. He is also the co-founder and director of the Smuin Ballet in San Francisco.
Named in honor of Radersburg, Montana, native and famed actress Myrna Loy (The Thin Man), the Myrna Loy Center in Helena presents films daily and provides arts and media education to local schools and to residents. In the fiscal year 2002–2003, the center entertained over 26,000 patrons with its films. At the height of her fame in the 1930s and 1940s, Loy (1905–1993) was known the "Queen of Hollywood."
In addition to Loy, quite a few famous Hollywood actors have called Montana home. Nominated for five Academy Awards throughout a long, successful career, Gary Cooper (High Noon) hailed from Helena. Actor Carroll O'Connor, best known as Archie Bunker on the 1970s TV series All in the Family,attended the University of Montana, where he also taught screenwriting.
Other famous thespians from Montana include actor-director Peter Fonda (Easy Rider), who has lived in the Paradise Valley since the early 1970s; Patrick Duffy (Dallas), from Townsend; Dana Carvey(Wayne's World), born in Missoula; and Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain), who hails from Kalispell.
Montana is also known for two relatively controversial filmmakers. Film director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) lived in Livingston from 1979 until his death, and director David Lynch (Mulholland Dr.) is originally from Missoula.
Montana has a long history of creating literary talent out of its western-style plains living. A perfect example is Henry Real Bird, Montana's poet laureate from 2009 to 2011. Bird was born and raised on the Crow Indian reservation by his grandparents and has punched cows and worked in rodeos. Writing primarily in the Crow language, he began his poetry career in 1969.
Big Sky Country has a number of literary journals and small presses. Cutbank is the biannual literary journal of the University of Montana, covering poetry, fiction, and art. Whitefish Review is a literary journal in Whitefish, which publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art, photography, and interviews with a focus on mountain culture.
There is no shortage of readings series, conferences, and literary festivals as well. The Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering gives new and seasoned cowboy poets the chance to perform during its three-day annual event. The Montana Festival of the Book is an annual event in Missoula. TheUniversity of Montana Creative Writing Series includes a Creative Writing Series, the Second Wind series, and MFA thesis readings. The Indian Reading Series offers stories and legends recounted by Montanan tribal elders.
In the last half century, Montana has produced a goldmine of writers. Missoula is known for its creative, especially literary, community. The University of Montana, Missoula has an excellent creative writing program.
Most of the Montana writing that has gained national renown is prose—literary novels and personal essays. But there are also myriad Montana poets, screenwriters, and short story writers. Much of Montana writing discusses relationships with the natural world in the changing American West.
Novelist Tom McGuane has lived in Montana for over four decades. His novel Ninety-Two in the Shadewas nominated for a National Book Award. The author and scholar Norman Maclean lived in Missoula. His A River Runs Through It and Other Stories was published in 1976 and adapted into a motion picture directed by Robert Redford. River caused a boom in Montana tourism and western fly-fishing.
The Montana Arts Council "Artist’s Innovation" awards reward artists who show innovation, originality, and self-direction. A sampling of the 2009 winners includes Jerry Iverson, a Big Timber artist who uses traditional materials to create black and white abstract canvases, and Dave Kirk, a contemporary sculptor who makes art with handmade wooden boxes that hold interactive objects and artifacts. A Montana artist using sculptural boxes is Molly Murphy, a contemporary bead and fiber artist from Missoula. Her sculptural boxes reflect her Oglala Lakota tribal heritage but are also very modern.
The Opera House Theatre contains six backdrops painted from the late 1800s and early 1900s by Edgar S. Paxson. Paxson came to Montana in the spring of 1877, originally working as a cowboy, shotgun rider, and military scout before becoming a professional painter. He painted signs, houses, and decorated saloons as well as backdrops and scenery for theaters in other communities.
Famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed three projects in Montana. The first two were separate projects commissioned by the Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Company. They were the Como Orchards Club Summer Colony in Darby, and the Bitter Root, north of Stevensville. The third was the Lockridge Medical Clinic in Whitefish.
There were many typical "Prairie style" Wright details in the Como Orchards Summer Colony project. These cottages were marketed to University of Chicago professors as "University Heights Community and Orchards." The clubhouse was designed to be the center of the community. It had two communal dining rooms, a two-story lounge, fireplaces, guest bedrooms, a kitchen, servants' rooms, and large porches. The cottages did not have kitchens or central heating because they were summer cottages. The buildings were board and batten and the windows had wood mullions. Only twelve of the cottages were constructed. Only one cottage and the manager’s office are still intact today.
The second project for the Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Company was the site plan for the town of Bitter Root. The only building actually constructed was the Bitter Root Inn, which opened in October 1909. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1916 and the buildings became a storage and packing facility. Only two original building are still standing: a three-bedroom cottage and the manager’s office.
The Lockridge Medical Clinic in Whitefish was designed in 1958 and opened in 1963. The 5,000 square foot clinic operated as a clinic for only one year. Today the building is owned by a law firm and bears only small resemblance to what Wright intended the it to look like.
The School of Architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman offers a five-year professional program leading to a Master of Architecture degree and fully accredited by National Architectural Accrediting Board. The program has 400 undergraduate and 60 graduate students.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
The Folk Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a hands-on survey in 1995 and 1996 around the state of Montana. Field workers contacted, interviewed, taped, and photographed traditional artists in every region, documenting all the different cultures in Montana including 40 distinct ethnic groups. This survey resulted in a touring exhibit of traditional arts called "Bridles, Bits, and Beads," which toured 10 Montana museums from 1998 to 2000.
The Montana Arts Council encourages folk art in many ways. "Montana's Circle of American Masters [MCAM] in the Visual Folk and Traditional Arts" recognizes Montana folk artists who have created a significant body of work. The council also offers a program called "Business Preparation and MAP" that teaches Montana's folk and traditional artists how to build a sustainable business in art.
The council offers professional development grants that are given throughout the year and respond to artists' or organizations' development needs. Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeships aid the teaching of folk arts by MCAM artists to apprentices. Artists' Innovation Awards reward the inventive ideas, practices, and offerings of Montana artists.
-World Trade Press