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Make Billings beautiful: Grants available for artists

Big Sky Economic Development sponsoring grants
Skate park mural
Posted at 7:36 PM, Mar 02, 2023

BILLINGS — Big Sky Economic Development is offering grants to artists in Yellowstone County as a part of the Space2Place project to beautify Billings.

The project started in 2018 and has funded more than 30 projects in town with the help of local artists and community members.

One Billings local, Tyson Middle, has created two of the 33 finished projects. Middle said these grants are a great way to bring a sense of pride to community members.

Tyson Middle in front of a completed project
Tyson Middle in front of a completed project

“It’s good to see the community involved. It’s good to see the youth involved. It’s also good to see them a part of something so they have that ownership in it," Middle said on Thursday. “We want art, we want color, we want culture. But at the end of the day, I want those kids to be a part of it."

But Middle doesn't claim the term "artist".

“It’s funny because I don’t really claim artist. I claim more of an organizer, behind the scenes. It’s a tightrope I walk,” Middle said. “I enjoy it. I love art."

Middle owns a graffiti and art shop called Underground Culture Krew. The Billings storefront and gallery sells a variety of spray paint and supplies.

“There’s a lot of things going on within what Underground Culture Krew is. A lot of people see it as just a paint shop or graffiti shop or, ‘Hey, that’s that the kid that does murals,’ but we offer a lot of mentorships," Middle said. "We do stuff with kids. We do a ton of stuff with the community."

If you drive around town often, you may have seen some of Middle's work. He is responsible for the mural at the skate park and the mural at the Shiloh pedestrian tunnel, both funded by grants from Space2Place. The tunnel was completed in 2018, and the skate park in 2021.

Billings skate park
Billings skate park

"I’ve put in for three Space2Place grants over the last couple of years. We’ve been nominated for two of them, so I missed out on one opportunity. It gave me a chance to go back to the drawing board and really hit it hard,” Middle said. “That tunnel really put us on the map for a while. It was an awesome cause. We got kids down there, I believe from the local Arrowhead school. And they got to put their handprints on the wall and leave their mark and write their name and be a part of it.”

According to Middle, he didn't apply for the tunnel grant but instead was approached by the woman who did. They worked together creating ideas and brought in members of the community to help. Students from Arrowhead Elementary joined in on the fun and added their handprints to the walls of the tunnel. While they worked on the project, they were gifted food, water, and even monetary donations from grateful neighbors.

“An older couple that’s been living on that corner forever, they brought us food and checked on us," Middle said. “There’d be people just walking by, and a kid was like, ‘Grandma those are my hands, that’s my name, I did that!'"

Community involvement—something project managers were hoping for.

Thom MacLane is a senior project manager at Big Sky Economic Development and has overseen the Space2Place projects over the years. According to MacLane, while many of the projects have been murals, that's not the only option.

“It’s not just for murals. That's something that we’re trying to overcome. Because a lot of the best projects we’ve had have been murals," MacLane said. "They really catch people's eyes. They get a lot of attention."

MacLane explained some recent non-mural projects have really caught community members' attention, including his own. Lights strung across streets and flower sculptures were just two of the many varying projects.

Lights strung and blue bike art pieces
Lights strung and blue bike art pieces

"It’s not just art either, it’s more placemaking. Which is creating more vibrant spaces, welcoming spaces, engaging spaces,” MacLane said. “There’s a lot more than just murals. But there have been a lot of great murals come through this program."

Flower sculpture
Flower sculpture

According to MacLane, each grant is not to exceed $5,000. The number of grants available depends on the number of applicants. MacLane said in the past, they have given out six to eight grants a year. Money is set aside each year by Big Sky Economic Development to fund the projects.

“We see them as a way to basically make our community better just one small project at a time,” MacLane said. “We see this as a small, incremental way to make Billings a little bit better."

Applications are due March 9 and winners will be notified by April 6 if they are selected. Projects must be completed by Sept. 30.

“We want things that people can put together over the course of the summer,” MacLane said. “Even if you don’t have it all flushed out if you can just kind of explain what you’re thinking, that’s what we want to judge on."

MacLane said artists are grateful for the money—and the opportunity.

Lit bike and mural
Lit bike and mural

“The artists, well, they’re grateful because they’re always looking for funding," MacLane said. "I think it gives them a chance to basically show what they can do.”

And local artists like Middle agree.

“It’s exciting. It’s kind of invigorating,” Middle said. “It’s that buying into your city, it’s that build, it’s that trust."

To learn more about Space2Place or to apply, click here.

To learn more about Underground Culture Krew, click here.

“At the end of the day, if you present them with a good space that needs some beautification, a good reason why to do it, and then get in some community involvement, it’s going to be a home run for you,” Middle said. “It’s good means for some of these artists to get their name out there. To be seen, to be heard. I would encourage everyone to get involved."