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New cultural center has many purposes


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People will soon be able to have some coffee, shop for art and other bits of culture, and help some Big Sandy residents all at the same time.

Big Sandy Activities Inc. will open Tumbleweed Gallery on Monday, with a grand opening Wednesday, in an effort to create jobs for its developmentally disabled clients and provide an artistic outlet for the area.

"The idea is to try to integrate our individuals with the community, using the arts to do that," said Lorrie Merrill, day service manager at Big Sandy Activities.

The organization helps 19 developmentally disabled clients at two group homes, an assisted living home and a day activities center, with federal funding. Merrill said the gallery will have to be self-supporting, with no government money going toward the operation.

"The store will have to stand on its own. It will have no taxes to support it," she said.

The gallery part of the store will have local artwork for sale, including the art of Nick Fry, one of the center's clients. Big Sandy Activities will try to have artwork from local artists filling the gallery, Merrill said, focusing on fine arts and quality craft items.

"That's our dream, that's what we're really hoping for," she said. " There's a lot of ability out there (to fill the gallery)."

The center also hopes to display a section of writing and musical recordings by Montana artists, with a focus on local work.

Because the gallery will not have a large budget, the items will be sold on commission only. Local artists Merrill has talked to have been receptive to that idea, she said, especially when they hear about the purpose of opening the gallery.

The coffee shop will serve pop, espresso and coffee, with homemade baked goods like cookies, muffins and cinnamon rolls, and a bean mixture for soups or salads the center makes. Ice cream, candy and other snacks also will be sold.

The center's clients have small jobs around town already, Merrill said. They place and plant flower pots at locations for a fee, make the bean mixture for sale, clean a church, and clean the rest area on U.S. Highway 87.

The clients will help the center staff bake for the Tumbleweed Gallery, and help run the store and keep it maintained.

"It gives them a sense of accomplishment," Merrill said. " We find this is a perfect way to integrate our people (and) at the same time give them a sense of ownership. This is theirs."

The gallery will be more of a cultural center than simply an art display. Merrill said Big Sandy Activities hopes to start having small concerts and artist's workshops at the gallery. Other goals are to bring in writers for readings of their works and to hold discussion groups.

The dual goal of Tumbleweed Gallery is to integrate the center's clients more fully into society, and to provide culture for the area.

"I really see it as a service thing," Merrill said. "We don't have to make tons of profit, I don't see that as a goal. We're mostly doing it as a service to our people and to our community."

The intent is not to compete with local businesses, either, she said. The center hopes to tap into tourist trade along the highway as a main source of customers. Merrill said the gallery will be decorated with an Old West theme, and they will probably put a sign by the rest area, which is right across the road from the gallery.

One feature of the gallery will be a rack in the entrance containing brochures and information about north-central Montana tourist attractions, Merrill said.

The gallery is a work in progress, she said. It won't be completely finished when it opens next week, but the center hopes to have it filled by the time major tourist travel starts.

Merrill said there will be cultural activities planned for the grand opening, with a mini-concert including music played by the center's own artist, Fry.

Big Sandy Activities is required by law to find work for its clients and to try to fit them into the community, so opening its own store is a natural thing to do, Merrill said. And the center's clients are excited about it.

"It fits," Merrill said. "They have an idea what normal is, and to have a store downtown is normal."


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