Updated: Jun 7, 2019
In 1982, a dozen arts lovers sat in a room at Montana State University in Bozeman listening to VHS tapes, trying to select performing artists for its inaugural Montana Performing Arts Consortium (MPAC) conference. The conference, which would bring together area concert presenters with far-flung acts, aimed to bring live music, dance, and theater to rural Montana towns largely considered cultural no-fly zones.
“Montana’s low population and great distances between venues meant performing artists would generally bypass the state,” says John Barsness, who led the consortium for almost 40 years. “What was needed was a reason for performers to stop and a way to help make live acts affordable to small, rural and urban communities in Montana.”
MPAC is Montana’s artistic matchmaker, bringing together community arts groups looking to fill their concert schedules with high-quality, professional performers looking to fill their calendars with decent paying gigs. In the past, the conference has brought acts to Montana that have eventually became art-world famous. Pianist-composer Philip Aaberg and new age Grammy Award winners Tingstad & Rumbel were MPAC performers.
“Montana is entry level, bottom of the food chain,” says Barsness. “It’s a good place for artists to learn the ropes.”
Every January, MPAC sponsors its annual conference, a three-day meet-and-greet of presenters and performers that results in “block booking” a cluster of nearby venues that seek to book the same artists around the same time of year. Block booking allows several groups to share the travel costs of bringing an act to Montana, and it guarantees performers a handful of nearby gigs that make performing in tiny towns economically feasible.
For instance, in April 2019, a New York City-based trio of two singers and a pianist – O Sole Trio -- will play gigs in Libby, Polson, Conrad, Fort Benton, Superior, Plains, and Hobson.
“This is how we get culture to places that otherwise couldn’t see these kinds of concert,” says Keern Haslem, the new MPAC executive director. Haslem is also a playwright, project coordinator at the Paris Gisbon Square Museum of Art, artistic director of The Square Players, and founding treasurer of the Mansfield Center Foundation for the Performing Arts.
“Audiences are so grateful to see them, to welcome them into their communities, and put them on stage,” says Haslem. “Artists who come to Montana feel like they’re part of a family.” MPAC also provides small grants, about $500, to help arts groups afford the talent they want to bring to their small towns.
O Sole Trio’s David Shenton shelled out $3,000 in travel costs to attend the MPAC conference in early 2018 – one of several booking conferences the trio attends attend each year. Some of the big conferences, like New York City’s Association of Performing Arts Professionals conference, includes thousands of presenters and hundreds of performers. MPAC hosts 20 to 25 presenters and typically 17 acts.
“We have a one in 17 chance of getting booked,” says Shenton, who wound up booking seven full shows and ten outreach performances and master classes in Montana schools, hospitals, and hospices. “We’re definitely going to make some money.”
The trio also made some friends. While the big conferences may feel like move-‘em-in/move-‘em-out factories, MPAC works hard to foster relationships during weekends where presenters and artists not only wander the same space, they dine together and invest time learning each others’ stories.
All the O Sole Trio members, for instance, hail from small towns, so they understand the joys and struggles of some one-horse Montana venues.
MPAC “was much more friendly,” says Shenton, who typically performs for 800-people audiences. “Everybody got a chance to interact. We met every artist and presenter, went to lunch and dinner, walked around town. It was very convivial and friendly. These are the kind of gigs we like to do.”
January Conference in Great Falls
The MPAC, founded in 1981, is a non-profit organization with a $50,000 budget funded by Montana’s Cultural Trust, National Endowment for the Arts grants funneled through Montana arts councils, and income earned from the annual MPAC Artist Showcase & Conference.
Presenters pay $250 to $350 for their group to attend, and artists pay $35 for an application and jury fee plus $150 for the booth.
The 2019 conference will be held January 25 to 27 at the Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts in Great Falls. The conference site alternates yearly between Great Falls and Fort Benton.
The conference includes four types of participants:
• Rural and urban “presenters,” another word for the people who book concerts for their local arts groups.
• Performing artists selected by a three-person jury and their entourage of managers and promotional staff.
• Reps for arts council, summer fairs, and festivals.
• School administrators who books acts that typically spend a day or two in classrooms and assemblies holding master classes and giving kids facetime with performing artists, a first for many students.
The annual conference is “extremely valuable” to Robert Beotcher, a retired sunflower farmer who sits on the board of the Choutau County Performing Arts Concert Association, which sponsors eight concerts a year. “Fifty-to-seventy-five percent of our acts come from the consortium. We could go through a booking agent, but you don’t get the chance to see them, as we do at the conference. If we didn’t have the consortium, it would be a lot more difficult to put together a concert season.”
The MPAC conference begins on Friday afternoon when about 20 presenters occupy convention display booths and talk up their organizations to artists who cruise the room pressing the flesh of people who might hire them.
“One of the traditional challenges for artists at conferences is trying to make eye-contact with presenters, who are moving targets,” Barsness says. “We turn the tables and put the presenters in the booths, and the artists go around the room learning about the communities and what performers they’re looking for.”
Later in the weekend, presenters visit performer-occupied booths.
On Saturday, 17 artists perform in showcases scattered throughout the day. Each act gets 12 minutes to wow the crowd. It’s a sales opportunity that requires artistic and marketing chops.
“We’ve seen so many showcases where groups sing a song, bow, and get off,” says Shenton of O Sole Trio. “We want it to be a party on stage and want the audience to feel like they’re part of the show.”
On Sunday, the horse trading begins. Presenters meet to discuss the acts, stake claims on whom they want to book, and then haggle over times and dates that form an attractive block of two-to-six bookings, which include some tiny Montana towns like Belt, pop. 500.
With a little luck, every artist attracts some interest; but invariably some are more popular than others.
“I gave up trying to predict what presenters would be interested in years ago,” Barsness says.
“It’s always something different. Also, the taste of a community evolves.”
Okaidja, an Afropop singer-songwriter from Ghana, was a 2018 conference favorite and booked shows in several towns throughout Montana in 2018.
“World music always does well, mainly because school programs want to expose Montana students to diverse music forms and different cultures,” Barsness says.
After presenters form their wish list of performers, the artists and venues start negotiating dates and fees. Sometimes, discussions last for months, especially with older bookers who prefer chatting on the phone than returning emails or texts.
Shenton says weeks elapsed before he mapped out an itinerary for O Sole Trio that made sense – early proposals had the trio traversing the state every other day.
“Logistically, it was a little difficult, because most presenters didn’t have emails,” Shenton says. “We’d call, and presenters would hang up because they thought it was a telemarketer.
It took six months to get it together. It’s not New York City where everybody is in a rush to do everything. It’s Montana.”
For further information about MPAC, call Keern Haslem, 916-798-4479 or visit The Montana Performing Arts Consortium.
—Lisa Kaplan Gordon