It may have been three months ago now that Magda at Arts Missoula asked me to write a blog about why I support The Arts. She made it clear that the material could be anything I wanted, which made it more difficult for me. After all my opinions and beliefs about The Arts have taken a lifetime to develop. Beyond that, relationships have always been something I take seriously and my relationship with The Arts are no different. The story starts with a creative mother, nine years of music at Missoula County Public Schools and then a brief but meaningful two-and-a-half-year stint as a student of dance at The University of Montana.
Dance has been a powerful influence in my life. I’ll never forget the day I nervously set foot on the “Modern 1” studio floor on campus. The space was awe inspiring. Lofty ceilings, maybe thirty feet overhead. Big enough to hold twenty to thirty students and give them room to move about. It was a space waiting to be filled. Mirrored on one side, our accompanist Bob seated at the upright piano nearby. The students’ shoes, coats, various bits of clothing and backpacks piled beside the door. I vividly remember the smell and feel of the hardwood dance floor and the space that accompanied it. Some people say smell is the sense most strongly connected to memory. This may be why it has stuck with me for more than thirty years. The sound of the students breathing, the creek of the piano bench married to the resonant sounds coming from the upright, and the feel of my bare feet on the floor when they started to sweat from effort. There was no more enjoyable work in the world than learning how to move and no greater discovery than learning that my body might have a story to tell. The creative dish you make when you combine this space with live music, an inspirational teacher, and a group of young people in discovery mode is special.
One of the things I liked most about “Modern 1” was that every day when I stepped through the double door of the studio, I was insulated from anything that was going on in the outside world. It was a safe place without judgment. Without a care and without stress I could fill my mind with the wisdom of my body and have a moment or two of clarity and focus. For this reason, the dance program at the University of Montana had some of the most meaningful impact on my formative young adult years. It turned out that if you gave me some space and some encouragement, I could turn into a pretty good person on my own. That person became one with a balance of resolve and openness in the way he thought. The lessons that I learned in that space are best described as intangible but of high value.
In my experience, the realm that The Arts live in is one where there aren’t experts and pundits telling you how to feel or act when you are experiencing what is laid out in front of you. Over and over, I have witnessed The Arts as a secure place. An open space where ideas have room to grow. A place where we can all feel without explanation. It is meditative and expansive, not drawn in and guarded. There is room to think without all the dissonant messaging the outside world forces on us. Simply put there aren’t many right and wrong answers.
Today, my fifty plus year old self can look back at that time and recognize that those moments laid a foundation for the rest of my life. I have recognized for a long time now that if I could contribute to another person feeling the way I did back then, I should. In my opinion, we would be better served as a society if we had more quiet contemplative space instead of the crushing overabundance of information and artificial constructs, we subject ourselves to. To a large degree our behavior is learned through our culture. We are constantly told what we are and what we are not by a system that is built to profit off our insecurities. We are constantly reminded what we don’t have and what we deserve by that same system. Imagine how much better the world might end up if we had a place to develop the confidence and serenity to become the best versions of ourselves without that influence. There is no question that I would want more opportunities like that in my community. Making and becoming better humans is what we should all strive for every day. The Arts offer us that.
My support for The Arts ties into business as well. There is evidence to support the idea that communities with a strong representation of The Arts are more vibrant and this translates to a thriving economy. Beyond that, I have always believed that I did not get to the place I am today without help. My business has enjoyed the support of my community for over forty-five years. It would be selfish and out of balance to withhold my support. These are the primary reasons I find supporting The Arts such an easy choice. It is personal. I understand that. What is right for me isn’t always right for someone else, but for me the value of any donation I have made and will continue to make is returned many times over.
There are so many ways to support The Arts. If you have money to give, by all means, give it. There is no end to the number of worthy organizations, and therefore projects, that are a dollar or more away from greatness. If you have skill, share it. Please, come out of your shell. Do your best and have the courage to display your work. There is no reward without risk and there is no growth without challenge. Become your part of the discussion. Parents, there are numerous opportunities to safely expose your children to The Arts. Maybe you’ll find out your child is a kinesthetic learner. Maybe they remember their history lesson through a song, or painting and coloring. Sewing those creative pathways to their education is powerful. Memories linked to creative experience and process are usually more permanent than those that aren’t. In my heart I feel that a child with exposure to The Arts might be more confident, curious, and creative than the same child without those experiences. Finally, be a witness. Without audience The Arts are meaningless. Creation is only half of the relationship. Every artist I know would rather have your opinion than your indifference. Without the reflection of audience all art is an unfulfilled promise left unwrapped in the box it came in.
To sum things up, Missoula is my home. My sense of place is strong. In my case you can’t have me without Missoula. Sort of like Luke Skywalker and The Force. It is well established that we live in a town filled with artists and their contribution to our place. I am deeply in debt to all of them and I would suggest that you are too, whether you realize it or not. So, I humbly invite you to join me in creating our community through The Arts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shannon Flanagan is an Arts Missoula board member, owner of Flanagan Motors Mazda and supporter of arts in the Missoula community. Shannon is also on the board of Bare Bait Dance Company and is a member of the Fine Arts Advisory Council at the University of Montana.