Arlynn Fishbaugh | Visionary Arts Advocate

Former MAC director “a champion for the arts” in Montana and beyond

New & Notable

Governor’s Arts Awards were given to four Montanans and Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild by Gov. Steve Bullock toward the end of his tenure.

Lively Times continues to profile the five recipients with former Montana Arts Council Executive Director Arni Fishbaugh.

Arlynn Fishbaugh, who served as executive director of the Montana Arts Council from 1992 until her retirement in 2016, is a visionary and tireless advocate for the arts, whose passion and persuasiveness resound in Montana and well beyond our borders.

Former MAC director Arlynn Fishbaugh with former NEA chair Jane Chu and Missoula Art Museum director Laura Millin during Chu's 2015 visit to Montana.
Former MAC director Arlynn Fishbaugh with former NEA chair Jane Chu and former NEA States Program Director Laura Scanlan during Chu’s 2015 visit to Montana.

Fishbaugh was nominated for the Governor’s Arts Award by Stephen Kalm, the former dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Montana, who also nominated her for UM’s Distinguished Alumni Award, which she received in 2016. He notes that her career trajectory makes her “one of the most prominent arts administrators in the United States and a source of great pride for UM and the state of Montana.”

Fishbaugh was raised on a wheat farm near Carter, and earned a bachelor’s in fine arts from the University of Montana, followed by a master’s in theatre management from the University of California, Los Angeles. She plied her skills in arts marketing for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, as touring director for the Texas Opera Theater (an affiliate of the Houston Grand Opera) and as associate director of marketing for New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.

She returned to her home state in 1992 to helm the Montana Arts Council, where she promoted the necessity for arts education, the positive economic impact the arts have on tourism and cultural enhancement, and the enrichment that the arts bring to the lives of all Montanans and their communities.

She gained national prominence as well, serving as board president for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) and as a board member for Grantmakers in the Arts, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the Western States Arts Federation. In 2010, her colleagues in NASAA recognized her many contributions with the Gary Young Award for Outstanding Services to State Art Agencies.

“Arni’s leadership style is generous and inviting,” writes Pam Breaux, president and CEO of NASAA. “Her ability to bring out the best in the staff and council is a key motivator that propels the agency to do the best possible work.”

Mark Kuipers, a member of the Montana Arts Council for the past 12 years, calls Fishbaugh “uncommonly talented and deft,” praising her leadership skills, political savvy and big-picture perspective.

“In my business career as a marketing consultant I’ve worked with dozens of CEOs and executives,” he writes. “I can truly say, Arni is one of the most able, competent, thoughtful and skilled executives I’ve ever worked with.”

During her tenure, she was at the vanguard in reaching out to legislators who were skeptical of government investment in the arts. “Arni adopted an approach to working with state government that was collaborative rather than confrontational,” writes Dr. Anthony Radich, the retired executive director of the Western States Arts Federation.

That strategy helped transform “an often contentious relationship into one that was cooperative and successful for Montana’s arts community.”

According to Radich, she also brought the struggles and value of rural arts to the forefront of national discussions, speaking up “for arts workers, artists, and arts volunteers who worked in small communities and rural areas.”

Innovation was also a hallmark of her tenure. Under her direction, MAC launched Public Value Partnerships, a grant program that engages arts organizations in “The Three Rs” – creating relevance, building relationships and demonstrating a strong return on investment. MAC also initiated a Legislative Listening Tour, added Strategic Investment Grants and Artist Innovation Awards, and introduced the Montana Artrepreneur Program (MAP), which trains artists in marketing and promotion.

“It was Arni’s leadership and clarity that defined the strength of the agency’s work,” writes Breaux. “She is indeed a champion of the arts, not just for her state, but for our nation.”

Q&A with the candidate

Lively Times: How have Montana and its people impacted your life’s work?

Arni: I have always been so proud to be a Montanan, and feel very grounded to this state having grown up on a wheat farm in Carter, near Fort Benton. Because I had the privilege of working for the arts council for close to 25 years, I travelled to every corner of Montana many times.  I was and continue to be awe-struck by how beautiful, creative and artistically rich it is here … be it the tiniest of towns or our largest cities. The talents of our artists, arts educators and organizations inspired and influenced me greatly, and it has been a pleasure to speak on their behalf!

LT: It’s been a rough year for Montana artists and the venues and organizations that support their work. Do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement to share?

Arni: These have been such difficult times. My sympathy goes out to all of have suffered through this nightmare. Living a life in the arts is always a struggle. There is never a time when it is easy or where a path is laid out. Montana artists, arts educators and organizations know how to work through tough situations, and they possess remarkable resilience.

Throughout times of struggle, we all need to remember that taking care of ourselves is as important as taking care of business. We can all benefit enormously if we explore ways to cherish and inspire our own selves and re-fire our own imaginations.

Montanans always conquer each challenge they face. I am sure we will rise to the challenge brilliantly yet again!