Emma and the Ledge was the first place winner in the 2023 inaugural Beast of Bozeman talent contest hosted by the Emerson. Photographed by STEPHANIE ROBINO

Round Up: Nonprofit Spotlight: Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture

For 30 years, the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture has provided arts appreciation, education, and activities out of a historic building in downtown Bozeman. Its programming includes arts education for all ages, school and community outreach, exhibitions, performances, seasonal events, and more. Led by executive director Susan Denson-Guy, Emerson staff, volunteers, and alumni continually imagine and reimagine the center’s place in the community, nurturing the region’s artistic and cultural vitality, leading through stewardship and equal access, and forging new pathways to celebrate art in all its iterations.

Here, Denson-Guy shares a bit about the Emerson’s historic roots and the reaches it seeks to attain in the months and years ahead.

Photographed by EMERSON STAFF

Big Sky Journal: When did the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture officially launch, who were the individuals behind its inception, and how did their initial vision and mission evolve into the community arts hub we know it to be today?

Susan Denson-Guy: The Emerson was built in 1918 and served Bozeman as a school until 1992. Fred Willson was the architect of the Emerson. (His grandson Duncan Kippen is now an Emerson tenant. Duncan hand-paints all of the signs throughout the Emerson and even designed our outdoor sign on the corner of Grand and Babcock.)

In 1992, when the Bozeman School District put Emerson School up for sale, a group of dedicated Bozeman community members stepped up to save the building. Without a clear idea of how the space would be used, they worked hard to raise the funds to purchase the building and, after months of collective effort and discussion, the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture officially launched in 1993.

Artists show off their prints at the Emerson’s Art on the Rocks, a fabulous evening of all things arts and spirits. Photographed by EMERSON STAFF

Many of the founders of the Emerson are still a part of the organization, continuing to support our work through donations, time, ideas, and presence. The stories that they share about the founding years of the Emerson Cultural Center (our first official name) run the gamut of emotions and experiences. They put in countless hours working on the building and wrestling with paperwork and policies. They helped chart the initial course for the arts and culture business owners that call the Emerson home. Two of our current tenants have been here for three decades: Guitar instructor Mark Logan was one of our very first tenants, and Susan Burrows Dabney is a painter who has occupied the same studio space since the beginning.

BSJ: Tell me about the Emerson’s current mission, populations served, and programming. 

Denson-Guy: The Emerson works to make arts and culture accessible to everyone. At its core, it is an educational institution expanding the community’s exposure to, understanding of, and engagement with the arts. Its mission is simple: to build community by promoting art and culture. We are here to serve everyone in our community; anyone is welcome to take a class, shop, eat, catch a concert on the lawn, or simply wander our halls.

While the Emerson has been a creative hub in southwest Montana for the past 30 years, our impact goes far beyond the arts. We are a place where our community gathers, where arts- and culture-based businesses can grow, where novel ideas are tried and tested, and, of course, where guests across all ages and interests have the opportunity to learn and grow with us. 

BSJ: What are your hopes for the center’s future?

Denson-Guy: Our biggest hope is that the Emerson stays relevant to our community. We want to continue to be a place where our community gathers, where locals bring their friends and family, and where artists of all ages and abilities have a space to create and learn.

We are continually reevaluating our arts education programming. The Emerson currently hosts a wide selection of ceramics, drawing, and painting classes. And later this year, we are launching the first metals studio in Bozeman, which will offer classes in basic metalsmithing, enameling, and, eventually, casting. Beyond our exhibits and educational programming, we are looking forward to completing a renovation of the Emerson lawn — which will include an outdoor arts education space on the north side — to better support outdoor events and creative opportunities. 

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