A Tenant’s Perspective of the Emerson Center for Arts & Culture

The Emerson is a thriving arts and community center located a block from historic downtown Bozeman on South Grand Avenue.

Kate Glasch

The Emerson is a thriving arts and community center located a block from historic downtown Bozeman on South Grand Avenue. Hopefully you know about the fabulous art classes, stunning galleries, and those ever-scrumptious hors d’oeurves found throughout the building on Friday night Art Walks, and don’t forget some of the best food in town served at the rustically quaint Emerson Grill.

But what was the Emerson before it became a community center for art education, artist galleries, and home to fabulous food?

Originally built as an Elementary school building in 1918, thousands of Bozeman youth attended the school until its closure in 1991. Facing demolition the next year, a grassroots coalition of local artists joined forces to preserve the building and transform it into an affordable space for artists. Dana Aaberg, a well-known Graphic Designer, Art Director, and Illustrator, was one of the first artists to move into the new space in the Emerson. “I moved into the Emerson from an artist space in the old Bozeman Hotel because of the lure of artists and creative energy.

I actually remember riding my bicycle up and down the hall during those first years,” Aaberg recalls fondly. Even after twenty-three years, some of the original tenants, including Aaberg, still rent space in the building.

Susan Burrows Dabney, a wonderfully talented local painter, is among the few original tenants still creating art in the Emerson. Dabney has had her studio at the Emerson since June 1994. When asked about the dynamic of artists in the new studio spaces, Dabney says:

“It was at that early time, teeming with artists, costume designers, potters, writers, painters, weavers, sculptors, architects, musicians, actors and actresses, and singers, that the life of the Emerson joined forces to influence, encourage, stimulate, and critique each other’s artistic focus. Truly, I can’t tell you how many times we would like paintings up in the hallway upstairs while preparing for shows. We would critique work to show or not to show!”

Dabney warmly speaks about the community of creative artists who were ever-present, ready to inspire, be inspired, create art, and form new connections in the early years of the Emerson.

“There were always powwows in the hallways and studios to talk about life as an artist, or something exciting that had just been discovered—a total sharing of trials, tribulations and breakthroughs.”

In the 90s, part of the objective was to get and keep professional artists in the various new studios. Scholarships were given in return for partaking in the many Emerson activities such as classes and gallery showings. This created an open-door policy so anyone coming through the building could pop in to the various studios and be stimulated by artists at work. Today, there are various scholarships available, not for the artists, but for community members desiring to partake in the art education program.

Akin to all things, the Emerson was bound to evolve from the way it was as a new artist space in 1992. Since its beginning as an arts center in the early 1990s, the Emerson has gone through many renovations and improvements to preserve the building and make it even more of a focal point for the arts in Bozeman.

The lobby and ballroom have been renovated to house events such as weddings, private parties, and community dance lessons. The vintage wooden theater chairs in the Crawford Theater have been swapped out for comfortable, cushioned seats (we can all appreciate this on Bozeman Film Festival nights). In addition to the chairs, the stage lighting and sound systems have been upgraded in the theater.
In 2005, Robin Chopus celebrated the opening of The Emerson Grill, a critically-acclaimed restaurant serving local and organic Northern-Italian cuisine in the southeast corner of the Emerson. The restaurant flaunts high-ceilings and the building’s original maple hardwood floors. Artwork from local artist, Susan Burrows Dabney, can be found throughout the walls of the quaint restaurant.

Before opening The Emerson Grill, Chopus was immediately attracted to all of the artwork and artist studios during her first visit to the Emerson. Chopus says, “Today, I feel that my business is so much more than a restaurant. It has become part of the wonderful artist’s community that is the Emerson Center for Arts & Culture.” According to Aaberg, “The Emerson Grill has brought an incredible amount of energy and helped attract people to the Emerson.”     

Chopus also opened a wine bar, Emerson North, across from the Crawford Theater in 2011. This fabulous date-night locale is the perfect place for community members and travelers alike to enjoy a glass of wine and the unbeatable cuisine after they have wandered the halls viewing the artists’ work. The ECCE Gallery is another of Chopus’ venues, an Emerson art gallery that can be rented out for private parties.

The Emerson Center for Arts & Culture hosts beloved art events such as the Bozeman Film Festival and Friday night Art Walks. In the summer, community members can enjoy Lunch on the Lawn on Wednesdays from 11:30 - 1:30. Local bands, food vendors, and kid’s activities always make this lunch hour a feel-good time.

Today, the Emerson’s mission is to build community by promoting art and culture. Art programs for youth include school outreach, after school classes, Summer ArtCamps and workshops. Artist Dana Aaberg supports the strong efforts in art education throughout the Emerson. “Art education for children has a lasting effect on the community. It lays the seeds for an appreciation of art,” he explains.

Although most of the original tenants no longer have studios in the Emerson, there are over 47 artists who maintain studios throughout the building. From dancers to photographers, graphic designers, potters, musicians, yoga instructors, and jewelers, the Emerson studios are certainly still thriving with art being produced and performed. Home to more than 10 galleries, community members can enjoy diverse exhibits of contemporary art in the Jessie Wilber Gallery or be inspired by local and regional artwork in the Weaver Room Gallery.

In the past twenty-five years, the Emerson has evolved from an elementary school, to a grassroots effort in creating artist space, to a full-fledged arts and culture community center. As Dabney describes it: “The life of the Emerson will always be there and that is why I have my studio at the Emerson. Even though I paint full time out of doors, I make so many connections every time I pop into my studio to bring work in or take work out. I love having my studio at the Emerson! It is so nice to still be able to walk down the hall to see what Dana Aaberg and other artists are working on. I also paint still lifes in my studio—mostly late at night when everything is really quiet so I can pump my music really loud without bothering anyone else.”

It sounds like the days of riding bicycles up and down the halls haven’t gone too far.

According to Aaberg, “Art is a passion for making things. Artists believe in what they’re doing, creating more energy, making life a little richer. That’s why they keep doing it.” If he’s right—and I really think he is—then we can surely enjoy many more wonderfully artful years at the Emerson Center for Arts & Culture.
Find more about these three Emerson tenants at www.emersongrill.com, www.susanburrowsdabney.com and www.aabergstudio.com/     

This was made by

Kate Glasch

Kate Glasch works as a carpenter building reclaimed log and barnwood furniture for Lonepine Lodgepole. When she doesn't have a hammer in her hand, you can find her working at the Emerson Grill or riding her bike with her dog, Yogi.

View more of Kate Glasch's work »