2019: The year in Missoula art

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MumfordandSonsCrowd1 (copy)

Concertgoers in the pit clap along with the music during Portugal. The Man's opening set before the Mumford & Sons concert at Ogren Park at Allegiance Field in August.

Earlier this month, Rafael Chacon, the executive director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, argued that Montana is undergoing an artistic renaissance. He was speaking of the state as a whole, Missoula included, and anyone who's been looking at things to do lately has likely noticed the growth. So what happened this year? Let's take a look at major changes and news stories in the arts from the last year.

January-March

It wouldn't be a new year if James Lee Burke, one of the reigning champions of crime fiction, didn't release a new novel, complete with a reading at Fact & Fiction downtown. For 2019, he brought back Dave Robicheaux, the Louisiana detective who's now taken the starring role in 22 books. Earlier this month, it was named one of the 10 best crime novels of the years by the New York Times.

It’s a cold, clear morning in late November at an undisclosed warehouse in Missoula, Montana. Inside, a large conference table is laden with stacks — close to 100 copies — of the latest James Lee Burke book, “The New Iberia Blues,” carefully arranged around a chair at the table’s head. They are a mere fraction of the total; there are three pallets of brown boxes, 20 to a case, 2,300 books in all. All bear a bright red sticker that warns, “Do Not Open Until January 8, 2019.”

About 200 dancers from 20 countries flocked to Missoula for Ballet Beyond Borders, the annual celebration of dance and diplomacy started by the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre. The event has proven attractive enough for artists and audiences that it's returning again in January 2020.

On the theater front, local theater-maker Jeremy Sher's original production, "The Dirty Sexy Chocolate Show," went on tour, with stops in five Montana cities plus a jaunt through Washington and Oregon.

In a city that loves festivals, there's none larger than the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The 16th installment brought more than 200 nonfiction filmmakers and industry pros, 100-plus movies including 47 world premieres, with attendance at 16,000 over the course of more than week of screenings in February.

The Missoula Art Museum set a new record at its Benefit Art Auction, bringing in $215,000. Through the year, the MAM would host all manner of interesting shows: a traveling exhibition from major artists, an innovative project that paired classic works with contemporary response pieces, plus its focus on important regional and indigenous artists.

Over at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, Missoula painter Stephanie Frostad's narrative paintings were the subject of a thoughtful exhibition, "The Evocative Moment," that explored her technique and use of story. 

April-May-June

"The Dirty Sexy Chocolate Show" wasn't the only piece of local theater that made a mark outside of city limits. In April, the independent theater company BetweenTheLines partnered with the MT+NYC Collaborative on a brand-new work, "The Buffalo Play." Kendra Potter and Ciara Griffin, two Montanans now based in different cities, wrote a script based on the infamous incident in Yellowstone National Park, in which a tourist placed a "lost" bison calf in their car, and it was subsequently euthanized. Their fictionalized version, which explored the cultural misunderstandings of the event from multiple perspectives, premiered in Missoula and then traveled to New York, where it played off Broadway.

The Montana Repertory Theatre continued its efforts to expand everyone's idea of theater with its "Plays on Tap" series. New director Michael Legg commissioned original short plays from scribes around the United States and then staged them in hotel rooms at the Campus Inn for "Room Service." Audience members were invited to Conflux Brewing beforehand, adding to the informal, inviting (but artistically challenging) atmosphere the Rep wants to cultivate.

No one would expect Darko Butorac to leave the Missoula Symphony Orchestra quietly. His finale in May before he departed for a new job in Asheville, North Carolina, was suitably dramatic, including the premiere of the fourth symphony by David Maslanka. Butorac and the late Missoula composer's son collaborated to transcribe the work from wind ensemble to string orchestra, leaving behind a score that symphonies around the world can perform.

At the Radius Gallery (which is building a new gallery space on Higgins), University of Montana ceramics professor Julia Galloway shared a sampling of her Endangered Species Project, a years-long effort to commemorate flora and fauna under threat, with an eventual goal of a major traveling exhibition with thousands of pieces of pottery, one for each species.

Jazz can run a little under the radar in Missoula, but Naomi Moon Siegel, a trombonist, composer and local music advocate, released a new album, "Live at Ear Shot," recorded at the Seattle jazz festival, and toured behind it.

You may have noticed that there were a couple of shows this summer. KettleHouse Amphitheater alone had more than 20, starting in June with Joe Russo's Almost Dead, a high-caliber, creative tribute to the venerable jam band. Over the course of the season, they'd host other big names like Norah Jones, Bon Iver, Gary Clark Jr., Foreigner and Robert Plant. Out at Big Sky Brewing Company Amphitheater, people turned out for Brad Paisley, Marilyn Manson, Steve Miller and more for a total of six.

In June, the creative writing community lost a major figure, the novelist Rick DeMarinis, who died at age 85. He left behind novels, some humorous and existentialist at the same time, and many writers who considered him a mentor and influence. 

"Realism is a word that doesn't mean a heck of a lot to me. … When you say a novel should be realistic, do you mean everything in it should be perfectly expected? Or that nothing should happen that's out of the ordinary, or that nothing should happen that violates our sense of what can happen? Okay, you can write that way, but the world isn't that way, not to me, not a bit. The world itself is very bizarre."

July-August-September

Festivals come and festivals go. On the DIY end of the spectrum, in July local artist-musician Joshua Bacha and company threw the last Psych Fest, dedicated to mind-expanding groups of all kinds, not just the rock that's typically associated with the genre.

Up in Whitefish, and resting on the other end of the spectrum, a professional team hosted the first Under the Big Sky festival in July, featuring headliners like Nathaniel Rateliff, Band of Horses and Jenny Lewis on two stages at a private ranch. The event drew 15,000 over two days, and will return again in 2020.

WHITEFISH — Bones Owens, in his skinny white jeans, baggy T-shirt, western boots and cowboy hat, is a poster child for 2019 Nashville if there ever was one. Sleeves full of tattoos, Owens sings a modern mix of country, rock, alternative and roots music. On Sunday, he stood outside the Aloha Cowboy tiki bar at Under the Big Sky Festival, taking selfies with kids and signing freshly purchased cowboy hats.

Missoula can accommodate most any musical taste with a dedicated fest. Fans of choirs had their fill at the International Choral Festival, held every three years. This entry brought 11 choirs, including eight from outside the United States, to Missoula for four days of performances in July.

Logjam Presents, the entertainment company behind the Top Hat, the Wilma and KettleHouse Amphitheater, made another big move last summer: hosting a concert at Ogren-Allegiance Park, which can pack in 10,000 people. British folksters Mumford and Sons, as you could have guessed, sold it out. An August afternoon rainshower ended early enough for the show to go on, but the damage incurred in the outfield scuttled Osprey games. Despite the technical mishap, there are more shows planned for next summer, with likely similar big names involved.

Just as the fall semester began at UM, Montana Rep opened its first season with another ambitious move: a world premiere of a full-length production, "Go. Please. Go.," written by Emily Feldman, a playwright from New York. As her career progresses, it will likely be a point of pride that she's associated with UM and Missoula's theater community.

From spring through the fall, a new residency program, Open AIR, placed artists from around the U.S. at sites around western Montana for multiweek projects. With more money raised and word spreading, it could attract more artists and new ideas to Missoula during its second season.

Before he left Missoula to serve as a U.S. diplomat in Switzerland, Michael Punke wrote "The Revenant," a historical novel that eventually became the Leonard DiCaprio movie. Ethics rules barred him from discussing the book, even when he attended the Oscars, but in the fall he made an appearance at the Norman Maclean Festival and discussed his experience (and his next book) for the first time.

Did it happen in Missoula? No. Is it a big deal? Totally. The Lil Smokies, a progressive Missoula string band, opened for Greensky Bluegrass at Colorado's Red Rocks, making them likely the first Montana band to play the venue.

Over at the Montana Film Festival, a sold-out crowd watched the home-state premiere of "Mickey and the Bear." Annabelle Attanasio wrote and directed the movie especially for Anaconda, no doubt a risk for a younger director. The team's efforts paid off, and the film was accepted for SXSW, adding some more cred to the state's movie industry.

October-November-December

All sorts of growth was happening or announced in the fall. First off, the nonprofit Zootown Arts Community Center opened its 17,000-square-foot home in the renovated Studebaker Building on West Main Street, offering space for art classes, performance, galleries, music recording and instruction and more right in downtown.

Over at UM, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture announced a $5 million donation from the Payne family for a dedicated building of its own for the first time. The construction would finally give the state museum space to share more of its 11,000-piece permanent collection.

Nick and Robin Checota, the owners of Logjam Presents, revealed plans for a new project over at the Riverfront Triangle. The events center, called Drift, could accommodate 6,000 people for standing-room events, potentially bringing bigger live acts and touring Broadway shows to downtown.

Missoula’s whirlwind economic expansion has been the talk of the town since the end of the Great Recession, with new banks, restaurants, hotels and construction cranes popping up seemingly daily. But perhaps no single project embodies the city’s transformation more than the unveiling of plans last week by local businessman Nick Checota for a $100-million, 60,000-square-foot events center with a hotel, condos and restaurants overlooking the Clark Fork River downtown.

On the home-listening front, vinyl overtook CD sales in 2019, and local provider Rockin' Rudy's Record Heaven moved to new digs on Ronan Street.

Sasha Bell, a songwriter from the indie rock band Essex Green and a Missoula transplant, worked with locals and members from prior groups for "Love is Alright." AllMusic.com gave it a four-star review, citing the "splendid songwriting, beguiling vocals, and expert but intuitive instrumental work." 

The album cover for Sasha Bell’s debut solo album “Love is Alright” looks like a cover to a children’s book; Missoula artist Courtney Blazon’s signature style sketching out Bell, in a dress, walking on a pathway suspended over nothing, winding from mountains to a huge tree where she’s encountered a mountain lion, cigarette in jaw, holding out a gilded cup toward her. It looks like the cover to a children’s book that might scare kids.

The explosion of prestige television finally touched down locally. Author Stephanie Land's memoir, "Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother's Will to Survive," will head into production as a Netflix series from Molly Smith Metzler of "Orange is the New Black" and Margot Robbie's production company, LuckyChap, among others.

Not strictly art related but over at UM, the multidisciplinary creator space known as the Innovation Factory opened its doors. The facility provides a space for entrepreneurs to collaborate and prototype new products of all types and encourage out-of-the-box thinking. As an example, they brought in UM grad Burke Jam, who performed a sonic art piece over the PA in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.