An audience of 1,400 people took their seats at the Civic Center here the other night for a performance, financed in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, featuring men dancing in skirts, women dancing with women, fetishism, strong language and open mockery of Little Rock, Ark.
It was “South Pacific,” and the people loved it. They swayed to the strains of “Some Enchanted Evening” and beamed at the chorus boys.
And at intermission, many praised the notion of Washington kicking back a little of their tax money so that they could enjoy the show.
“I never saw dance or heard a symphony until I came here,” said Janet Fine, who grew up 200 miles from Helena, the daughter and granddaughter of white traders on Montana’s Flathead Indian reservation.
“We get the best of both worlds: the kind of entertainment we might get in a big city and the life of this town, being together and seeing things together. We would never have this sort of thing if the federal money was cut off.”
This sort of thing, however, troubles Swede Orham, a farmer who stands against a free lunch for anyone.
“I think art should support itself,” said Orham, who happened to be attending a gallery opening at a Helena museum at a friend’s invitation. “The government shouldn’t support anything - not grain growers, not farmers paid not to grow crops.” Still, Orham did not seem to be having a very bad time.
The argument over federal money for the arts often seems to be a dispute between politicians and performers, played out in the artificial light of staged demonstrations and scripted congressional hearings. But millions of other people around the country have a stake in the outcome, too, and perhaps none are more aware of it than the consumers of government-financed art in out-of-the-way regions such as Western Montana.
A few days of sampling Montana’s cultural life suggests that those who support government financing do so with a passion.
An avid audience fills theaters, museums and art shows here on the slopes of the Continental Divide. People drive through blizzards and over mountain passes for a chance to see art and to be part of it. Many talk about a yearning to be connected to a larger world, to see and hear a creation apart from the overwhelming Western sky.
The National Endowment for the Arts gave Montanans about $779,000 last year: less than $1 a head, but more than the roughly 65 cents allotted to the average American in the endowment’s $167 million budget. The money helps pay for a little of everything: writers workshops, art museums, community centers, dance troupes, Indian tribal singers, quilting bees and woodwind quintets.
During a three-day tour, many of the people interviewed at performances, galleries and museums said that the art itself was not the point. What drew them in was a longing for belonging.
For most, the federal money seems to play the same role as the rural electrical cooperatives of the 1930s did: It electrifies remote regions, creating a kind of wiring to connect them.
“A sense of community is absolutely essential - we crave it as human beings - and that experience is particularly satisfied through the arts,” said Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican. “Regardless of political ideology, our identity and our spiritual health depend on the arts.”
On a Friday night, the big event in Helena was the opening of “Gender Geography,” an exhibition of female artists’ work at the Holter Museum of Art. It also was the night of the winter’s heaviest snowfall. Yet, 150 people came to see the show, which featured everything from straightforward representations of the natural world to the strange and powerful work of Kate Hunt, who grew up in Chester, Mont., population 900, and carves stacks of old newspapers into talismanic sculptures.
Mike Linder, a Yellowstone County deputy sheriff, surveyed the work from under a 10-gallon hat. “I think anything that protects our heritage - the government owes it to us,” he said. “Art’s our heritage. There are plenty of things they should cut before the arts.”
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