By Gabrielle Gasser
BIG SKY – One tumultuous year after the pandemic struck southwest Montana, summertime is around the corner, and many hope the warm weather will bring with it some classic Big Sky events.
Currently, vaccines are being distributed and the outlook for events this summer is hopeful. Last summer, after widespread closures and state mandates, Montana was just starting to tentatively reopen at the beginning of May. Many of the classic events that make a summer in Big Sky so fun were canceled in 2020.
Now in 2021, plans are being made in conjunction with county health officials that will ideally allow for COVID-safe events this summer. Currently, the Gallatin City-County Health Department has limitations on gatherings, but health officials say these could change in response to the quickly evolving pandemic situation.
On March 16, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced that vaccines will be made available to all Montanans starting April 1, a move which could potentially help accelerate the return of larger in-person events.
“We just as much as everyone want to see a return to some normalcy and we hope that we can,” said Lori Christenson, the health department’s environmental health director. “It’s reasonable to expect that we’ll likely not see shoulder to shoulder concerts but [we are] moving in that direction where we can see people enjoying music outdoors.”
One such event will be Music in the Mountains, the free summer concert series put on by the Arts Council of Big Sky. For over a decade this event has gathered the Big Sky community on Thursday evenings for family fun in the Town Center Park, now called Len Hill park.
Currently, construction on the new BASE community center has closed the park but Kate Ketschek, chair of Big Sky Community Organization, said it will be open in time for this summer.
The plan for Music in the Mountains this summer is still in the works and the Arts Council will adapt as the situation develops according to Brian Hurlbut, executive director of the Arts Council. He pointed out that it would currently be difficult to hold a compliant event in the park since it’s a completely open space with no assigned seating or way to restrict access.
“We are planning on moving forward with having some type of concerts this summer and trying to work within those guidelines, whatever they may be,” Hurlbut said. “As an organization, we really don’t want to go through another summer without live music so we’re pretty determined to come up with some creative solutions, and make sure the community can gather in whatever way we can figure it out.”
In addition to live outdoor music, the Arts Council has a few other items on the docket.
Hurlbut confirmed that Shakespeare in the Park will perform on July 19 and the Arts Council is still moving forward with their classical music festival, rebranded as Bravo Big Sky, on Aug. 13 and 14. Finally, the Mountain Film Festival is still scheduled for the weekend of Sept.11, but could be another drive-in event depending on county regulations at that time.
Another outdoor music event that will likely return to Big Sky this summer in an altered form is the Moonlight Music Festival, which was canceled in 2020 due to concerns over the pandemic.
“We decided not to do a full-fledged festival this summer, [but] we may explore some smaller possible events out there in lieu of the festival for this year,” said Bayard Dominick, VP of planning and development at Lone Mountain Land Company. “We haven’t decided on anything definitive yet.”
Now is the time many organizations typically plan summer events and book artists, but the evolving regulations and uncertainty around events spaces is making it difficult to make conclusive calls. Some are calling for a permanent events center in town.
While no concrete plans are in place for a permanent events center in Big Sky, the need has been recognized, according to Dominick.
“We certainly talk often about having a more permanent bigger event venue but there’s nothing specific yet in the works,” he said. “There are lots of possibilities in the full build out of Town
Outdoor concert planners are still facing many question marks,
but indoor/virtual music has been thriving and will ramp up
Every Friday for the past year, Explore Big Sky and its publishing company Outlaw Partners have held the Friday Afternoon Club, a hybrid virtual-live concert series featuring local, regional and national artists. FAC organizers are planning to run the music series as a live concert each Friday throughout the summer.
“We’re looking forward to another summer of FAC on Fridays at 5 p.m.,” said Ennion Williams, VP of events at Outlaw Partners. “As soon as the weather warms up we’re going to start having
Tips Up restaurant in Town Center has been offering weekly live music which has drawn crowds that line up out the door. Owner Casey Durham said the plan is to keep offering live music all summer and to bump it up to four nights a week from Wednesday
“It’s been great and everybody’s had a blast,” Durham said. “Thanks to the community for understanding our COVID protocols … and limited capacity, because I know we have had some lines out the door, which is hard not letting people in but we’re trying to do the right thing.”
Durham’s hope is that the live music at Tips Up will “feed off that energy from Farmers Market and the same thing with Music in the Mountains, and just continue that energy into Tips Up into a little nightlife.”
Big Sky residents can also count on the Farmers Market held every Wednesday evening from June through August. Last summer, the market was deemed essential and continued to occur throughout the pandemic. This summer, the market will continue to prevail and offer a much-needed opportunity for the Big Sky community to gather and socialize outside.
Big Sky’s Biggest Week is also set to go off on schedule the week of July 16-24. The week is set to feature the Big Sky Art Auction, Mutton Bustin’ for kids, a golf tournament, live music and of course, the Big Sky PBR.
This year, tickets for the PBR event went on sale the morning of March 1 and sold out in part due to the fact that ticket holders from the canceled 2020 event had the option to roll them over to this summer.
“We’re excited to bring live events back to Big Sky this summer,” said Megan Paulson, chief operating officer of Outlaw Partners, the event’s producer and publisher of EBS. “It’s been incredible to see the pent-up demand for events already. Big Sky PBR tickets are sold out, and we’ve expanded the festivities to include a full week’s worth of activities from bingo night to family day, a street dance and more to give the community an opportunity to participate throughout the week.”
Summer 2021 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the Big Sky PBR event, an exciting milestone coming at a time when people are craving in-person events.
“Outlaw has made a huge investment in COVID protocol and mitigation planning for all our events including Big Sky PBR,” Paulson said. “We have hired an epidemiologist on staff to ensure we’re on top of the latest medical data, federal, state and local governance, and are using this data to support all plans for events this summer.”
Another key player in the Big Sky events scene this summer will be the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center.
After the performing arts were hit hard by the pandemic, WMPAC pulled off an unprecedented winter season through a combination of in-person seating and live streaming performances. According to John Zirkle, executive director of WMPAC, the nonprofit has served more people this year than any other year that it has been operating.
Moving forward, Zirkle said he will continue using some of the innovative presentation formats that the WMPAC has implemented.
“We tried a lot of different things and that’s how we always approach this, and we just have to make sure we listen to our audiences,” he said. “We’re in the room and sometimes moments don’t land like we want and then other times they land beautifully.”
One thing that did land for WMPAC was outdoor programming that Zirkle intends to ramp up. This summer, he has scheduled a Grammy winning choir and is offering outdoor performances in the woods. Audience members will be able to hike out into the experience.
This summer will also see the Artists in Residence program from July 4 through Aug. 1, while other traditions, the High School Musical and Big Sky Broadway, will return in full force this May and August, respectively.
Big Sky Resort will also offer a full docket of events this summer including Lone Peaks Revenge, a Montana Enduro Series mountain bike race; an archery challenge; the Shredfest Clinic which offers mountain biking instruction to women; American Junior Golf Tournament; and of course,
“We’re optimistic about hosting events this summer and will continue to work with our state and local partners to ensure that our summer operating plans are both safe and responsible,” said Troy Nedved, general manager of the resort. “As we all know, the COVID situation is fluid and we’re prepared to make adjustments as necessary.”
Christenson, with the county health department, expressed hope that this summer will feature plenty of COVID-safe events for people to enjoy.
“We’re trying to work collaboratively with organizers and vendors to hold events in the safest possible way, knowing that people are wanting to get back to a sense of normalcy, but knowing that we still have individuals to continue to vaccinate,” she said. “We’re still going to need to socially distance and
Christenson said the health department has successfully worked in many instances to make sure that events are safe and that they can happen.