The statue of two Native American warriors astride their horses by Blackfeet artist Jay Labor is made entirely from old cars, and marks the southeast entrance to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. (Photo by Liz Hahn, courtesy of the Great Falls Tribune.)
From scraps of rusted automobiles, bits of barbed wire and the stones of an old mission school, Montana's Blackfeet tribe is fashioning new forms to portray their native heritage. Turning found materials into art is part of a larger economic development strategy to draw tourists to Browning, Montana. This community of 1,100 people is the headquarters of the Blackfeet Nation. It is also one of the gateways to Glacier National Park and the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Many of the people passing through Browning rarely stop or know they are in the Blackfeet Nation because they are focused on the majesty of the mountains on the horizon. An effort to change this began in 1997, when the town participated in the Browning Visioning Project. A collection of ideas and projects for revitalizing this rural community was compiled through a survey and a series of town meetings conducted by Montana State University. One of the catalysts for implementing the ideas was the Montana Arts Council's Arts Are Central to Our Communities program. This grant program is designed to nurture partnerships in rural areas among cultural organizations, communities and businesses. In this case, a grant of $5,000 to the Blackfeet tribe forged a partnership among welders, masons, woodworkers and artists, who are collaborating on weaving traditional and culturally relevant images into street lamps, tree protectors, paving bricks, sculpture and signage. The overall effect will be to tell the story of the Blackfeet people and entice visitors going to Glacier National Park to pause in their rush to the mountains.
"The Arts Are Central to Our Communities has become one of the most meaningful programs of the Montana Arts Council," says Executive Director Arlynn Fishbaugh. "The Blackfeet project is a shining star for both the arts council and the state of Montana."
Making Art Out of Everyday Objects
Every street light, bench and sign in Browning will be a unique creation that must also be functional and of a standard size. To achieve this, artists will submit designs for projects and will be required to complete their work in a common space. The Blackfeet tribe has set aside a building as an assembly studio to not only serve as a space to build the pieces, but also to encourage artistic synergy. The renewal of Browning is just the start of a process out of which will flow a greater sense of individual investment and pride in the community, more local jobs and an attractive place for businesses to locate.
"I have become completely convinced that the arts are vital to our families and our communities. The arts provide significant economic return for a small investment. As well, the arts create the cultural infrastructure that allows our communities to flourish."
One key to ensuring that this process will continue is attracting the many visitors who drive across the reservation. Browning offers a spectacular view of Glacier National Park, and one of the strategies for enticing travelers is to create places that invite them to pull off the road. The pull-offs will become a major venue for design projects created by local artists. When they are completed, these artworks will complement the new landscaping that has reintegrated nature into Browning's streets, with grove-style tree plantings and meandering walkways that create a frame for the mountainous horizon. Visitors will learn about the region's culture, environment and history through handcrafted wood or metal signs, which might describe the major peaks in the distance and their cultural importance or other natural features such as prairie potholes and local wildlife. Another artistic element that will be added to each entrance to Browning and the other reservation communities will be signature gateway pieces that will be created out of found materials, ranging from junked cars to barbed wire.
Another way to help connect travelers with the community is the use of vacant parking lots in the center of town as a marketplace for artists. The marketplace will give visitors an opportunity to buy local artwork and learn more about the Blackfeet reservation and culture at the nearby information center and the Museum of the Plains Indian. The increased traffic may generate spending and could potentially encourage local entrepreneurs to open new businesses.
The Montana Arts Council grant was a part of an overall community effort that involved the Blackfeet Tribal Economic Development/Tourism Department, which includes the Blackfeet Transportation Department, the Montana State University Extension Service and local artists. The grant was also made possible by the arts council's partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, which seeks to strengthen communities in rural areas by investing in cultural enterprises.
Montana Governor Marc Racicot states, "I have become completely convinced that the arts are vital to our families and our communities. The arts provide significant economic return for a small investment. As well, the arts create the cultural infrastructure that allows our communities to flourish."
Montana is the fourth largest state geographically, and has a population density higher only than Alaska and Wyoming.
$1 of every $6 in revenue is generated by out-of-state earnings.
Out of every dollar earned by nonprofit Montana arts groups, 87 cents are spent within the state.
One out of 80 people in Montana is a working artist.
Arts Are Central to Our Communities Program
A total of $200,000 funds pilot projects to serve as models. The program is supported by a National Endowment for the Arts stabilization grant of $100,000 that is matched by the state legislature.