By Abbie Digel, Explorebigsky.com Editor

The performing arts are alive and well in Big Sky despite some schedule changes, thanks to the continuous efforts of the Arts Council of Big Sky.

This summer ACBS’s schedule will be without a headlining concert to cap off the summer season, but general manager Brian Hurlbut says the change is for the better.

“We want to transition to what the Arts Council originally set out to do,” Hurlbut said. Instead of putting time, resources and energy into promoting and facilitating a headline concert at the end of the summer, the group will focus on the free concerts held on the Town Center stage every Thursday.

That, Hurlbut says, is what they do best.

Removing the headliner “was a very, very tough decision,” said Donna Thompson, who is co-president of the ACBS board with her husband Bob. It came down to finances, they explained.

The 2011 headlining act, Keb Mo, didn’t do as well as ACBS had hoped. “We took a significant loss last year, and [this year] we would have been booking with money we didn’t have. It’s not a good business model,” Mr. Thompson said.

Prices of performers are on the rise, and for-profit music festivals like Spruce Moose and the Headwaters Country Jam have been popping up around the region.

“We are nonprofit, and to be thrown in that kind of mix where we have to spend $200,000 to $300,000 for a headliner, it’s not realistic,” Mr. Thompson said. He explained that attracting a big name like Jimmy Buffet would cost about $500,000.

“We would be putting our organization at financial risk.”

In the meantime, Hurlbut says ACBS is going to come up with a new model for next summer that will draw people to Big Sky, like allocating more money to free concerts, or a daylong community festival. “It’s still all in the works,” he said.

Also, with the completion of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center slated for the end of this year, ACBS is excited to have yet another venue available for use, Hurlbut said.

“We view it as an opportunity to offer more disciplines of the arts, like theater, dance, and lectures.”

WMPAC will have its own programming and niche, giving Big Sky residents and visitors more options for entertainment. WMPAC will also offer more opportunity for winter programming.

“It’s going to be a good complement to what we are already doing,” Hurlbut said. “WMPAC is very excited to work together. We both view it as a win-win situation. It’s hard to argue with more choices for the people.”

For the first time in six years ACBS will host a strategic planning session, slated for June, with an outside facilitator hired to help. This meeting will help ACBS realign its goals, stimulate its process, and allow board members to think about where it should be in the future, Hurlbut said.

Promoting Big Sky on local, national scales

Ross Pfohl, branch manager at American Bank in Big Sky and longtime supporter of ACBS, believes in what in the Arts Council does for Big Sky.

“The weekly free concerts serve as a focal point… during the summer months,” Pfohl said. “These concerts are a great way to reconnect with fellow Big Sky compadres after the ski season.”

He loves seeing everyone from young families with children running around, dancing to the music, to retirees kicking back and enjoying wine and food spreads.

“You get a great feeling of community when you are there.”

This summer, expect one extra free Thursday night concert, Pinky and the Floyd, on Sept. 6. The concert, planned in conjunction with the Convention and Visitors Bureau (an arm of the Chamber of Commerce), is part of a familiarization tour of Big Sky. That week, there will be about a dozen travel journalists in town.

“Expect there to be a lot going on that week,” Hurlbut said. That includes an extra farmers’ market, a concert and an extra performance of Shakespeare in the Parks.

The ACBS also is involved with the community-wide effort to produce a shared events calendar: bigskyinfo.org. The calendar, which puts all of Big Sky’s events in one place, should be running by this summer and will create an easier platform for tourists and locals to know what’s going on.

Hurlbut has traveled nationally in the name of the arts in the past two years, visiting Baltimore, San Diego and Seattle for Americans for the Arts conferences. AFTA, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit, chose two organizations from each state for a study called the Local Arts Index—ACBS was one of two from Montana.

Hurlbut’s role in this study was to gather data from Gallatin County, including the number of nightclubs, theaters, locally owned music stores, and contribute his findings to AFTA. In turn, the AFTA will release the findings in a few weeks, called “Arts of Gallatin County,” an important reference for Hurlbut and other leaders in arts initiatives in the county, the state and the nation.

At the conferences, Hurlbut met like-minded people “who do the same thing I do in different capacities.” He also found that word is getting out about the arts in Big Sky and Montana. “People are recognizing what we are doing here.”

Information on the arts from more than 3,100 counties in the U.S. eventually will be available online through the American for the Arts website, with only 100 available first, including Gallatin County. This information will come in handy for grant applications, Hurlbut said. “In Gallatin County, and right here in Big Sky, it’s clear people spend money in arts and on cultural activities.”

ACBS is in the process of applying for more state grants. Last year it received a state tourism grant for the classical music festival, and is continually looking at different foundations where funding may be available.

Looking forward

When ACBS was first formed in 1983, it presented three or four concerts a year. But this unsustainable model almost bankrupted the organization, so ACBS transitioned to weekly summer concerts in 2008, and applied for resort tax funding in order to make them free. Since then, ACBS has taken off, Hurlbut said.

“In conjunction with moving the concerts to the Town Center—the momentum that brings—we’re building off of that.”

“Our mission is to bring all disciplines of the arts to people. With WMPAC and the movie theater, we plan to host independent film series, and ballet performances, really broaden our horizons. It’s why we are getting out of hosting a headliner.”

ACBS’s focus this summer is on the classical music festival, said Mrs. Thompson. “We’ve made a turn in doing the classical music festival. It’s different from what everyone else is doing in Montana.”

“People feel this puts Big Sky on the map,” Hurlbut said. The performers last year named Big Sky as one of the prettiest places they’ve ever played, with a great vibe.

ACBS helps to bridge the gap between recreation, music and the arts, and it will continue to play a vital role in the community as more collaboration takes shape in Big Sky, with the new movie theater, performing arts center and other artistic ventures, Mrs. Thompson said.

“It makes Big Sky a better place to live and visit, and it’s special to be a part of that,” Hurlbut says. “I feel pretty lucky.”