Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Art Mobile of Montana

Since 2004, the Art Mobile of Montana has travelled across the state exhibiting art work from professional artists in a portable museum-like display, giving art lessons to people of all ages and backgrounds, and inspiring visitors to create art of their own. To date, they have received 11 grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, which has assisted the program in flourishing. In the almost two decades they’ve been serving the state, Sara Colburn, the executive director of the Art Mobile, has watched the program grow, face multiple challenges, reach new goals, and share art with students of all backgrounds and regions. Just take it from Alexa, a student from Garrison, Montana: “I really love ART and the Art Mobile. Without the Art Mobile we would not get to learn special things and hear what it’s like to be an artist. One day I may take a career in art!”

NEA: What was the need that led to the founding of the Art Mobile?

COLBURN: Most children in Montana grow up without having ready access to art galleries or original fine visual art. Schools and their communities are hungry for art experiences and art galleries often require a lot of time to reach. The Art Mobile of Montana’s outreach program is designed to bring contemporary Montana visual artists’ works to the small rural communities across this large state, which is about 700 miles long and 400 miles wide. Forty-six of our 56 counties are labeled “frontier.” Many of our schools have no art teachers, particularly the rural schools, so the Art Mobile offers a variety of hands-on art activities and lessons…. Sixty-one Montana schools are one-room schools, often heated by wood burning stoves, such as Yaak School in northwest Montana, attended by only three students.

The Art Mobile program began incubating in the year 2000 with a pilot program. The next year we brought it to nine rural schools in and around Dillon, Montana. All of the sites appreciated the opportunity to have an exhibit of authentic, original art come to their school. We were awarded a grant from the Montana Arts Council to continue, and the program just kept building. The grant pays for our art supplies that students at the schools use during our art lessons. We usually serve between 70 and 90 sites per school year, and our curriculum helps to satisfy school art mandates. Sometimes the smaller schools will come together for Art Mobile visits.

NEA: How does the program work? How do you decide which communities to visit and when?

COLBURN: Because we do not own a facility or building, the van “lives” at the place the current teaching artist lives, and they make their frequent trips from there. Our teaching artists, or TAs as we call them, make the program happen with their hours of preparation, scheduling, driving, and teaching. They spend up to two weeks a month traveling the state from one venue to the next. Our schedule for travel is generated by requests from schools and communities, as well as our direct calls to the schools and sites that fill out a weekly schedule of programming. Sometimes we book our service well in advance, and sometimes we fill in our schedule even as close as a few days before we leave on a tour, as we call it. Our website artmobilemontana.org has a section titled “Schedule a Visit” which features an explanation of the process and a calendar of events. Anyone can also request our services by calling or emailing Art Mobile to get on our schedule. Some schools usually ask for annual visits and each year we serve as many new locations as we can, usually going out for at least one week to five different sites, and sometimes make two-week stretches in our wide travels. We work with teachers and administration to arrange for an art lesson that fits into their curriculum or reflects the art in our exhibit.

NEA: You mentioned the mobile is run and set up by the teaching artist. Can you tell me more about how you define “teaching artist” for your project and what they do?

COLBURN: Our teaching artists are professional artists that we hire to teach hands-on lessons and make presentations with interactive discussions about the art in our exhibit. The position is a perfect fit for artists who enjoy teaching, travelling, and variety [in their lives]. The TAs are our ambassadors of art, who bring a very special exhibit of many artists' works to communities. They are familiar with the mediums, methods, and techniques that our lending artists use and they share the artists’ statements. Besides presenting and teaching, TA duties include driving our van to the sites and reporting. It’s different from being in the same classroom day after day. There’s a lot of variety and opportunity to meet many people and affect thousands of students during the school year. We show a compelling diversity of art by Montana artists who are committed to and supportive of the Art Mobile and welcome the opportunity to circulate their art statewide. These lending artists also come to talk about their art to the students when we are in their locale, and sometimes they bring other artworks they have created to show. They might also teach some sessions with our teaching artist. These lending artists make it possible for the Art Mobile to exist and we pay them a travel fee for coming to present their art.

NEA: Tell me about the 2016-2017 art exhibit pieces. Do you have any favorite pieces? How do you decide which artists get featured in the mobile?

COLBURN: The current exhibit has 29 works of visual art which hang on our three portable fold-out exhibit walls. Ten of the works are three dimensional and are placed on our sculpture table. Out of our works this year, one of my favorites is Bently Spang’s Meat Purse, a sculpture made from resin and dirt and textured like meat. It symbolizes how Cheyenne Native Americans, of which Spang belongs, ate in the winter, hanging thin sheets of meat from clothes hangers in a closet after a hunt. I also enjoy Kathyrn Schmidt’s Silent Rebuke, an acrylic painting which has a powerful image of a deer and raises questions about the way we treat our environment, and Crista Ann Ames’ Llama Stay, a porcelain sculpture including small hands in meditation pose, wrapped with the artist’s hair. Students love that this conceptual piece is okay to touch, as a number of our works are.

We select professional, contemporary Montana artists, located through a Call for Art. Our review covers a resume, evidence of high artistic merit, exhibit record, and a commitment to the Art Mobile’s mission as educational outreach. Our board members, director, and teaching artist screen the art. We borrow professional art in a variety of styles, media, and techniques, including innovative or non-traditional, which may convey environmental, historical, political, or personal messages. The art [we select] is on loan for the entire school year.

NEA: How are community members encouraged to interact with the mobile and what do you want them to get out of these interactions? About specific artworks? About the arts in general?

COLBURN: Our goal is to engage each community we serve to the fullest. During the scheduling process, the TA arranges with each school to invite their school board members, any local officials, legislators, and community members to attend our events, whether during school, after school or at evening functions. This exposes as many people as possible to the fine art exhibit we bring with the accompanying presentation and art lessons. We encourage them to participate in our evening showings where we invite all ages to try out an art lesson and create something on-site. One school decided to hold a spaghetti dinner for everyone along with the art show. We have often taught our art lessons for multi-age groups, which is a lot of fun having elderly people and elementary students together. We anticipate that the art in our exhibits will help viewers to see things in different way and induce thoughtful inquiry, to prompt discussion, pique curiosity, and inspire viewers to create art. For example, this year we have a few images taken by Shania Hall, a member of the Blackfeet Nation. When she was in high school, she became interested in photography and took photos of mountains and sky in Montana, which were entered in and accepted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City as a part of their exhibit Plains Indians Artists of Earth and Sky. Shania’s images were enlarged to a 16-foottall panoramic scene covering three walls at the Met. When she walked into the room at the opening, Shania commented, “It looks just like Montana.” We hope Shania’s photos will inspire all students, especially Native Americans. In addition to fine art, we have integrated poetry and music by accomplished Montana musicians into our sessions and we welcome interactions with all of the creative arts. We know that the arts link to all subjects and that ability in math and other subjects starts to rise when arts are integrated into learning.

Corky Clairmont, an artist and Montana Arts Council Board Member and retired chair of the Salish Kootenai College Art Department, said, “The Art Mobile is one of the most challenging and beneficial real art experiences that many rural students would not be exposed to [without the mobile].”

NEA: There has been a lot of growth since the inception of the program. What has surprised you most about it, and/or what are some unexpected outcomes you’ve seen over the years?

COLBURN: We’ve been thrilled for the continued increasing demand for Art Mobile services over the years. This school year we entered into our 17th year. Though our primary targets are grades six through 12, we also serve assisted living and retirement communities, colleges, prison inmates, Hutterite Colony and Reservation schools, afterschool programs, home school groups, university students, and community groups. One of the Art Mobile’s most attractive features is, as we say, we come right to your door with our van and set up in your facility. We serve both underserved communities and urban areas. We supplement school curriculum without replacing any teachers' responsibilities and are always looking for ways to expand to new audiences, including serving in some of our state parks.

This year we are showing works by seven Native-American artists. We anticipate that our inclusion of Native-American artworks will help preserve cultural and tribal traditions while educating non-natives about other cultures. We have been fortunate to have opportunities to borrow around one-third of the art in our exhibits from Native-American artists each year. There are seven Native American Reservations and Indian Reservation schools for the 12 federal and state-recognized tribes in Montana. Our program exposes students of all ages to art from a variety of cultures in Montana, including communities of Hmong, ranching, farming, and Hutterite populations. Who knew we would grow to serve from 6,000 to 12,000 people annually, providing access anywhere in Montana to contemporary, museum-quality original visual art?

NEA: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?

COLBURN: It was quite challenging to locate our major funders and find a way to receive their funding on a regular basis, annually or bi-annually. Our van is our largest capital expense. Over the years we have had to plan how we will replace each van we’ve had. Without it, we cannot get across this vast state that is one time-zone wide. Our first van, an older used one, was a gift from an artist and got us through our early years. The second van came as a result of a grant that was enough to purchase another used van, which served us well for some more years. Then we were able to win two grants, which when put together allowed us to purchase our current van brand new. This van has faced very few problems and it does very well for our needs. We took out the back seats and use the space for storing our portable exhibit walls and the AirFloat System “Strong Boxes” that transport the artists’ works, in addition to our art supplies and teaching materials.

In addition, another challenge was that many schools need assistance to pay for the hourly charge for our services which is a rate of $65 an hour. A minimum visit is three hours for the smaller schools, including set-up and tear down time. For the multi-grade schools, and depending upon group sizes, we provide multiple presentations and art lessons at one school which adds to the hourly cost. We have a strong need to locate grant funds that we can depend on to help keep our services affordable and available for any site in Montana. The NEA grants have been absolutely invaluable to help subsidize our services for everyone. We truly appreciate that the NEA funds our Montana Arts Council, which ultimately benefits Art Mobile and other arts organizations with our state-sponsored grants.

NEA: Can you say more about the impact of NEA funding on your project?

COLBURN: Art Mobile has flourished with the NEA grants, our largest sponsor. We’re deeply grateful for these awards which have helped us to expand our program statewide. Because of the NEA grants, we have been able to use these funds to offset schools’ expenses for scheduling us to come serve their students with annual exhibits of fine art and enjoy quality art making experiences during our lessons. The NEA has impacted many students of all ages over the years, as the Art Mobile provides an outlet for creativity and an opportunity to learn through art about human experience, culture, customs and history.

We received the following note from a student in a 13-person school in Garrison, Montana. It illustrates the impact Art Mobile has for students and ultimately the effect of our NEA grants: “We have learned so much! The Art Mobile of Montana is great! I’ve learned new ways to create art and got to see many different kinds of art. I think it’s so much fun to meet a new artist every year. She was really nice and helped me throughout the project and gave me great advice. I also think we should have something with clay next year for a project. I really love art and the Art Mobile. Without the Art Mobile we would not get to learn special things and hear what it’s like to be an artist. One day I may take a career in art! Sincerely, Alexa"

NEA: Finish this sentence: The arts matter because…

COLBURN: These are ways that people express a part of themselves that often may not be put into words. Through visual art, creative movement, writing, music, and drama, we express profound feelings, emotions, and ideas that we as humans have the opportunity to experience. By encouraging the arts, we develop our culture and create a deeper understanding of each other.

Want to learn more about the arts in Montana? Check out our post about the Montana Arts Council's Artrepreneur Program

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