Arnie Malina & Ed Noonan

A Foothold on Culture…

by Linda Frye Burnham

The citizens of Helena, Montana, claim they have a “foothold on culture” thanks to the National Performance Network. NPN’s support of new performing arts commissions by Helena’s Myrna Loy Center for Arts and Culture over the past 20 years has changed the community’s life, according to Loy founder Arnie Malina and current director Ed Noonan, who talked recently about NPN’s impact on the small western community (pop. 25,780).

“A great audience for contemporary work has been developed,” says Noonan, “and our audience is sharp. Other [isolated] communities don’t have it and it’s hard to bring in contemporary work.”

“NPN recognizes how fragile a small arts organization is,” says Malina, “especially out in the middle of the West, and how much they rely on this for their quality of life. It just gives them a life-support system and the town would be so much more diminished without it.”

Noonan and Malina talk about progressive works remembered by the Helena community: the Echoes of Discovery series of eight new pieces tied to the Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration and the journey west; Project Bandaloop’s Portal, performed on a Missouri River bridge; a dance/jazz/Native American work by Garth Fagan Dance, pianist Don Pullen and the Chief Cliff Singers, which toured around the country including New York City and a Montana Indian Reservation.

Helena also remembers Geyser Land by Mary Ellen Strom and Ann Carlson, which was observed by audiences from railroad cars traveling along the tracks between Livingston and Bozeman. Previously, Strom and Carlson had been in residence to create the celebration for the 20th anniversary of the Myrna Loy Center, which is sited in a historic jail. “In every nook and cranny of the building was a little performance,” says Malina. “Mary Ellen worked with AIDS patients in Helena and put a little film together. There was a chorus singing from an outside balcony to the people walking down the street.”

The community’s NPN legacy also includes the national careers of local artists like writer Maile Meloy and composer Greg Bolin, who grew up with the Myrna Loy Center and received Creation Fund support. And, says Noonan, “We’ve helped to enrich the national voice,” recalling a piece created in Helena by Wally Cardona and Phil Klein that traveled all the way to New York’s Dance Theatre Workshop, where 15 members of Helena’s Capital High School Band took a bow.

Malina remembers a special legacy: “In the years that I was here the Myrna Loy Center was also pretty much a bastion for gay rights and we did a number of projects with gay artists. We actually did story circles with gays and lesbians from throughout the state that lasted three years. Eventually we turned it into a performance that also toured the state, and there are now archives in the Historical Society of those stories. The stories were astonishing — hysterically funny and dramatic and sad. People developed relationships out of these circles.”

Noonan and Malina credit NPN for the support it provided to the enrichment of Helena’s culture, which, says Noonan “would not have its character, its national connection. It would not have had that much fun if NPN hadn’t been here.”

December 2010

Past Issues