SPRING 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 3
(PAINTING) Boulder River by ceramist Rudy Autio, 1995.
by Marnie Prange
Visit a town of any size in Montana. Open the local paper to the entertainment section and you'll likely find listings as eclectic as the landscape: readings, concerts, gallery and museum openings, theater, dance. And during the summer, when arts festivals blossom, keep your eyes open as you drive from venue to venue.
You might glimpse Montana Transport, The University of Montana's resident modern dance company, performing among an installation of sculpted hay bales.
Montana's art scene has come of age.
And yet it was only two decades ago that U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, the driving force behind the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, described Montana as a "cultural wasteland," home to generic western literature and art.
"Hardly," says UM English Professor and writer William Kittredge. According to the ten Governor's Arts Awards recipients included in this article, the mid-seventies saw the cultural revolution in Montana at full boil-the news simply hadn't percolated out to the rest of the world.
Today, as government funds leverage private support for the arts, Montana's arts infrastructure-museums, galleries and a wealth of new and restored theaters-contributes to a robust climate for the arts. "There's been an explosion in activity," notes Arlynn Fishbaugh, executive director of the Montana Arts Council.
Montana's literary history is a history of the unexpected: that UM's creative writing program, begun in the 1920s by H.G. Merriam, became the second writing program in the nation, after Harvard; that literary critic and former chair of UM's English department Leslie Fiedler should cultivate a love of culture in the state; that poet Richard Hugo, hired in 1963 without teaching credentials, should become a major literary figure, drawing attention to Montana while influencing the lives of countless young writers.
A scene from the Montana Repertory Theatre's 1997 production of To Kill A Mockingbird.
Hugo's gift to novelist and alum James Welch and other Montanans was the license to write about the contemporary West and the assurance that a story well told was worth telling. Welch traces his own evolution to a workshop with Hugo in the winter of 1966. When Hugo asked Welch why he wasn't writing about what he knew-the Montana Hi-Line and the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations-Welch responded "because nobody cares about northern Montana." Hugo's advice was "try it, and see if anybody cares." Three decades later, Welch has an international audience for his work, and his books have been translated into twelve languages.
After Hugo's hire, others followed in quick succession: James Crumley (who had the audacity to set detective novels in Montana), Earl Ganz, Madeline DeFrees, Rick de Marinis, James Lee Burke and Kittredge. "Those were exciting times," Kittredge recalls. "Everybody was cooking." Tom McGuane came to the Paradise Valley in the 1960s with an entourage of writer friends, including William Hjortsberg and James Harrison.
"Word began to seep out that 'Hey, there's a whole colony of writers out here,"' Kittredge says. As well as the amenities of landscape and cheap rent, it was the atmosphere of people helping one another that drew other writers.
People came and stayed.
And kept coming.
For Kittredge, a breakfast at Hugo's house in 1969 illustrates the then and now. "Hugo had everybody who was worth a damn sitting around one table-six or seven people who were actually publishing and doing work that conceivably could get published. That's multiplied by ten now, or twenty, or thirty, God knows. You couldn't have them for breakfast-you'd have to rent a tent."
With the publication in 1988 of The Last Best Place, an anthology of Montana writing co-edited by Kittredge and Annick Smith, eastern publishers, agents and editors "discovered" contemporary western literature, Kittredge says. "We printed 6,000 and thought that would be a lifetime supply. They came out about Thanksgiving, and by December tenth they were gone. We were just absolutely stunned."
UM's creative writing program also has seen tremendous growth in student numbers and talent over the decades, and this February it was tied for tenth place in the U.S. News and World Report's list of America's best graduate creative writing programs. Poet Patricia Goedicke, who came to UM as a visiting professor in 1981, recalls Hugo handing her fifteen submissions and asking her to choose the six applicants she felt were "people ready to graduate." This spring, Goedicke and five other members of the writing faculty read 300 applications from around the country, from which they would choose thirty.
It has become difficult for "walk-ons"-the locals who used to wedge their way into the writing program-and that's unfortunate, Kittredge says. Still the upside for students is a town that's generous and full of writers, where young writers rub elbows with published authors. That's where the real learning takes place, he maintains, through osmosis.
The current literary scene in Montana, and in Missoula in particular, has been the subject of intense media focus. For Welch, the "scene" has been blown out of proportion-a media feeding frenzy that's led to unnatural growth. "A lot of people think we all get together and have a club meeting every month," Welch says. "They don't realize how individual we are."
Ceramic artist and Professor Emeritus Rudy Autio, who came to UM in 1957, remembers those early years as heady. "It was a good time here on campus," says Autio, who, along with Peter Voulkos, helped found Helena's Archie Bray Foundation for the ceramic arts. "The world was your oyster; there wasn't anything you couldn't do." From one of the country's first ceramic programs, Autio's graduate students found positions at major universities where they built their own programs. "It was a marvelous time for a kid to find a job," he says.
These days, it's a lot tougher. Although students are better trained, because of their numbers it's harder for them to emerge from the pack and get into galleries, Autio says. Galleries have proliferated in Montana over the past decade, yet Autio finds them either "glutted with good work" or tending "to lean a lot on the old heroes."
New technology, such as clay machinery and computerized kilns, has brought a high-tech sensibility to some young ceramists' work, Autio says, but it easily co-exists with the other end of the spectrum-hand-built vessels fired in wood-stoked kilns.
One of the visual artists grappling with the recent change is Choteau native and alum Dana Boussard, who is vocal about the artist's role. Twenty years ago, with no contemporary art market in Montana, Boussard says the focus was "to get work out...work for New York." "For a variety of reasons," she says, "some of us had to start saying, 'Wait a minute. I need to be more introspective about myself and about the art I'm producing. I'm producing art for a market I don't know, or don't live in, or don't share the values of.'"
Since rediscovering Montana, she and other artists have turned traditional western iconography on its head. The cowboys, Indians, horses, bears and empty landscapes are still there, but reinterpreted in individual visions. The market has responded, Boussard says, and many artists are making money. "It's a hard thing to turn down," she notes.
But even this view of Montana may have run its course. Boussard worries artists may be "trafficking" in images that promote a new myth of Montana-a version of reality that no longer exists. Now that Montana artists have captured the nation's imagination, she says it is time for artists "to pose the myth against what we really see"-which means addressing the Wal-Marts, mines and polluted rivers.
Recipients of Governor's Arts Awards include:
Mary Moore, Music
Wally McRae, Folk and Traditional Arts
William Kittredge, Literature
Thomas McGuane, Literature
James Welch, Literature
Montana Repertory Theatre, Theater
Rudy Autio, Visual Arts
Dana Boussard, Visual Arts
Arnie Malina, Governor's Award for the Presentation of the Arts
Robert Scriver, Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement, Visual Arts
To present the performing arts, large organizations such as Helena Presents Inc. work hand-in-hand with community arts organizations to attract touring companies from around the world. Nowadays it's not uncommon for Helena's Myrna Loy Center to be the whistle stop on a tour of major cities. "Something will go to San Francisco, L.A., Helena, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and on to New York," says New York native Arnie Malina, director of Helena Presents and co-founder of the Montana Performing Arts Consortium. "It's always kind of fun to see that happen."
In addition, several national shows have originated in Montana. Helena Presents has helped create prominent national commissions, such as the recent collaboration between New York's Garth Fagan Dance Company, jazz pianist Don Pullen and the Chief Cliff Singers of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The show premiered in Helena and Polson, then performed at New York's Lincoln Center. UM's Montana Repertory Theatre toured To Kill A Mockingbird to such rave reviews that the national tour was extended for another year. Even the Choteau Performing Arts League's play telling the story of their town is now touring Kentucky.
The turnaround has been phenomenal, says Greg Johnson, Montana Rep's artistic director. Johnson met his former wife, a Montana-born actress, in the mid-'80s while both were working on Broadway. When folks first heard she was from Montana, he says, "They were expecting to see cow manure between her toes and hay in her hair.
"Now, when you mention Montana in New York, people say, 'Oh, I want to go.'"
Johnson concurs with Kittredge that the wasteland reputation was undeserved. "Montana has always been and continues to be anything but a cultural backwater," Johnson maintains. "It's the kind of place where people come and work, a place where an artist is given an incredible amount of free range to do what he wants to do."
Dance Professor Juliette Crump, who came to UM in 1974, says that interest in dance has fluctuated over the years, from the freewheeling '70s, when money for dance was plentiful; to the mid-'80s, when student enrollment decreased "as if the students were under pressure from their parents to get business degrees"; to the current popularity of dance as a field of study.
Although the ground for dance is as fertile now as it was two decades ago, dancers are less free to experiment, Crump says. Because of competition for diminished funds, dancers must be affiliated with an organization to receive support, and organizations often exert control over creative endeavors. "People want to be sure they're putting their money behind the right thing. They don't want to invest in something that might not pay off for ten years," she says. "If your work isn't appealing or is controversial, you won't be funded. How are we going to encourage visionaries?"
Tom Cook, chair of UM's Department of Music, points to the tremendous impact of technology in the creative process and the rise of community bands and orchestras as indicators of change. Cook, who directs a concert band of fifty musicians in Missoula, doubts his band would have been possible twenty years ago. And twenty years ago, "technology was not even in the cards."
Symphonies have seen a steady growth, in budgets and attendance, according to Mary Moore, past conductor of the Symphonic Choir in Great Falls. Currently the symphony fills the 1,800-seat civic center; thirty years ago they would have been happy with an audience of five hundred, she says.
Great Blue Heron by sculptor Bob Scriver.
Visiting artists "think Great Falls is the first haystack this side of the Twin Cities," Moore laughs, adding that they can't believe the facility, the size of the audience and the caliber of the symphony.
Until the recent influx of urban dwellers and their expectations for cultural activity, Montana has been on its own, Moore says, creating an audience by supporting art and music in the schools and by nurturing its native artists. The current scene is every bit as homegrown. "Everybody involved in the arts wants to add and preserve beauty," she says. "And that explains why in difficult times the arts seem to flourish."
Folk, western, and Native American arts thrive alongside contemporary art. Rosebud rancher and cowboy poet Wally McRae serves on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts. The Russell Auction, the largest western art outlet in the world, added fifty new artists this year to its juried auction, which draws collectors from around the globe.
Longtime cowboy artist and Browning native Bob Scriver recalls the early days when "As far as I knew, there were only five artists in the whole damn state. Now there must be a thousand of them, and everyone is selling well...I don't even know them all."
And even western artists, cowboy artists in particular, are moving away from generic western art and crossing over into landscape and wildlife. As Scriver says, "A horse can only buck so many damn ways."
Poet Marnie Prange writes features for The Bitterroot Star.