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Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture: Celebrating Creativity
Exhibiting artist Craig van den Bosch on a tour of the Emerson’s Jessie Wilber Gallery with Bozeman Public School students

Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture: Celebrating Creativity

The Gallatin Valley is home to over 200 non-profits. These organizations do not hinge on metropolitan amenities, and are often created to preserve wild places and stimulate culture in communities of the West. As part of our New West economy, NewWest.Net/Bozeman is highlighting Gallatin Valley organizations in weekly series.

When Emerson Elementary School closed its doors in the early 90s, the historic building was put onto the market, its future questionable. Concerned about buyers developing the property into businesses or housing, members from the Bozeman community successfully rallied together to preserve the building and create a community arts center.

Since its creation in 1993, the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture has blossomed into the primary resource for the arts and culture in Southwest Montana, adhering to their mission of stimulating and celebrating the arts in all its forms, fostering a lifelong appreciation and understanding of arts and culture, and building community and economic development among creative enterprises, businesses and civic organizations. Jeane Alm, executive director, expands upon the Emerson Center and its efforts.

NewWest.Net: Why and how did your organization come into being?

EC: In 1992, the Bozeman Public School District put the Emerson School up for sale. Several groups were interested in purchasing the property. A group of concerned artists and community members had the idea of turning the former elementary school into a community arts center. They lobbied the city commissioners not to sell the Emerson to investors who planned to develop the property into condos. The artists and community members who founded the Emerson believed that Bozeman needed a community space for creative, cultural and civic endeavors, leadership in arts education, public engagement with exhibitions and programs of regional and national significance and to act as an incubator for emerging artists and creative entrepreneurs to stimulate economic activity in Bozeman and further its reputation as a regional destination.

NewWest.Net: Why is this organization in Bozeman? What are the advantages and challenges of operating in this area? Are there other non-profits in this area that you partner with or would like to?

EC: The Emerson is in Bozeman because we are a community center housed in a historic 1918 school building. Recently, Bozeman has been experiencing an artistic boon, with many people pursuing creative endeavors and becoming interested in cultural programs. As a result, the Emerson has become a popular venue for cultural and community events. One of the challenges related to this success as a multi-use facility housed in an old building is the conflicting ways community members use the space. For instance, our art gallery in the lobby is also used as a café and staging area for events in the Crawford Theater. We also operate the Frances Senska Community Pottery Studio, which can only fire the kiln on days that the Crawford Theater isn’t in use, or else we risk short-circuiting the entire building.

The Emerson has partnered with Montana State University, Montana Outdoor Science School, ArtSplot, Firehouse 5 Theater Company, Bozeman Film Festival, KGLT and REACH to produce programs and events. We would like to expand our partnerships with other non-profits.

NewWest.Net: Where are you directing your resources?

EC: We are directing our resources to our exhibits and education programs, and the restoration and upkeep of our historic facility.

NewWest.Net: What is your annual operating budget, and can you please break that down between administrative and fund-raising versus program expenses?

EC: Our annual operating budget is $600,000. Most of our expenses are directly related to our exhibits and education programs, and building renovation and maintenance, since we must maintain a historic building.

NewWest.Net: How are you fulfilling your mission statement?

EC: We are fulfilling the Emerson’s mission by developing programs that support and supplement arts education for students of all ages and abilities, operating three educational art galleries that are free and open to the public, renting affordable studio space to working artists and creative enterprises, maintaining rental spaces for community use, producing annual community events like Halloween Open House, Christmas Strol, and Lunch on the Lawn and finally, by acting as an incubator for collaborative and creative projects that build community and our local economy and enhance the quality of life in Southwest Montana.

NewWest.Net: What is your most recent success story?

EC: The Emerson’s Schools in the Gallery program supplements arts education for 800 public school students in Bozeman public schools. This fall, thanks to funding, in part from Montana Arts Council, the Emerson was able to extend the Schools in the Gallery program to Bozeman rural schools. Pass Creek School is located 25 miles up a dirt road. There are nine students in a one-room schoolhouse, in first through eighth grades. They have two teachers and no art education curriculum.

As part of the Schools in the Gallery program, we sent a certified arts educator to Pass Creek School to preview the SPLICE: Art + Technology exhibit. The students were quiet, maybe even shy, about their art skills. Within the next week, the students, their teachers and some parents came to the Emerson on a field trip to see the exhibit in person. After a docent-led tour, the students participated in a hands-on sculpture activity with modeling clay. For many of them, this was the first time they had ever built a sculpture. By the end of the activity, the students were talking to each other, showing off their artwork and having conversations about what they were building.

Although it’s a small school, there is tremendous return on investment for these nine students who would never have had the chance to experience art making or come to a museum-quality art exhibit without state funding. Increased funding for the program has also enabled us to offer bussing to schools that were not able to visit the Emerson due to prohibitive transportation costs.

NewWest.Net: Thank you!

About Alison Grey