Meet the Museum Capital of Montana
Immerse yourself in history and culture in Great Falls, a major hub of Western Art.
As home to a dozen museums and known as the Museum Capital of Montana, Great Falls offers myriad ways to experience the arts, especially those highlighting and reflecting Montana’s Western heritage and history.
“Great Falls is a town of about 60,000 people and is a hardworking, blue collar, genuinely Montana community. But it’s also very culturally interesting and significant concerning history and heritage,” says Kristi Scott, executive director of The History Museum in Great Falls.
“We have a recent series of murals throughout town created by renowned Montana artists; we have several new businesses downtown; we have numerous museums to explore, and everything’s easy to navigate.”
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Discover Magnificent Murals in Great Falls
Great Falls is home to ArtsFest Montana, an event where muralists gather each year to beautify the city. Many downtown murals depict icons of Western history, including bison, cowboys and indigenous people.
“We have exhibits that are free and open to the public; we have a great gift shop, and we do an annual jazz night and bring a nationally recognized musician to the Ozark Club, our event space in The History Museum,” Scott says.
“What we’re most proud of is the archives and collections of North Central Montana that we hold in our repositories – that’s over 10,000 historic photographs. There are blueprints, historic maps, correspondence, diaries and 50,000-plus objects, and all of that is available to research. Plus, the majority of our museums in Great Falls are free.”
Explore Numerous Museums in Great Falls
History buffs will also want to explore the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, a 25,000-square-foot facility with an exhibit hall, theater and education room. The museum is dedicated to educating people about the journey to expand America into the west and the challenges Lewis and Clark faced on the expedition.
The C.M. Russell Museum, dubbed “The Art and Soul of the American West,” features the work of a cowboy artist documenting the everyday lives of the people of the American West. The museum complex features thousands of works from Russell’s lifetime, including oil paintings, watercolors, sculptures and written works.
“Our vision at the museum is to advance and continue Charlie’s legacy. He provided a timeless look at the American West, and those pieces still resonate well with broad and diverse audiences,” says Tom Figarelle, executive director.
“He’s an icon in Great Falls, and we have the opportunity to celebrate him as well as those working in the contemporary West, who deserve recognition and have a great deal to offer the larger American arts community. We’re able to thrive here, bringing artists throughout the West to our community.”
Downtown’s Wrangler Gallery sells the artwork of Western masters past and present in an eclectic range of media – paintings, lithographs, photos, bronzes and artifacts.
Enjoy Immersive Experiences
Contemporary Western art is alive and kicking in Great Falls. Every year, the city transforms into the Western Art Capital of the World during the popular Western Art Week, which is set to run again in March 2023.
The town comes alive as numerous venues throughout Great Falls host events and show the work of 750 Western artists. Artists, buyers and art enthusiasts gather for this unforgettable art experience, which includes live music, “quick draws,” auctions, competitions, artist interactions and more in every medium imaginable, from fiber arts to sculpture.
“This isn’t a museum-type experience, where you walk through quietly with your hands in your pocket – every booth has an artist to engage with, and you can find out what inspires them,” says Rebecca Engum, executive director of Western Art Week.
“Western art isn’t just cowboys on horses or elk on a mountaintop – the art is so varied and inspired by the Western landscape. You might find a cowboy riding a fish. There’s jewelry, clothing, furniture, water colors, pastels, bronzes, photography. You’re just immersed in art and people who are loving art. It’s so crazy and fun – a weeklong of all that art in one location.”
Visit This Tiny Town with a Mighty Theater
A half-hour’s drive from Great Falls in the tiny former mining town of Belt (population 519), a small, volunteer-run community theater is making waves.
Housed in a newly renovated former Masonic lodge in the historic downtown, the Belt Performing Arts Center brings amateur and professional performances to rural Montana. It’s the home of the Belt Theater Academy’s Community Players – a community year-round adult and youth theater program – and the Belt Valley Shakespeare Players, who have performed twice at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The theater offers a key outlet for school-age performers, hosting everything from choir concerts to poetry readings.
“We couldn’t be more proud of and excited about what a real small town has been able to accomplish,” says Mayor James Olson, who is also the president of the board at Belt Performing Arts Center. “We have a lot of great people involved.”
The 114-seat theater sells out often, while driving business to local restaurants for theatergoers making a night of it. Regular monthly performances include comedy, acoustic string, vocal jazz and storytelling. The center even produced an original play, “Mine Tailings: The Valley,” chronicling the founding of Belt by Mattie Castner, a freed enslaved person and her white husband, John. The play is part one of a project to document the region’s stories.
The Belt’s signature event, Beltstock & the Belt Summer Bash, is a summer music festival that features carnival rides, food and drink, and crafts in conjunction with the Belt Rodeo. Now in its fourth season, the center has become a centerpiece of the community, offering access to stage shows in the heart of Montana’s backcountry.
Get to Know Great Falls
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