Randi Lynn Tanglen

Randi Lynn Tanglen

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When my sisters and I were little girls in the 70s, my mother often brought us from our family’s home in Crane to the library in Sidney for “story hour.” I can only speculate on how formative these experiences were, but we all became avid readers, and I eventually pursued advanced degrees in literary studies. My siblings (a younger brother later joined us) and I have fond memories of exploring the stacks at the Red Lodge Carnegie Library and of summer workshops at the community’s cultural center. Family outings and school field trips always included stops at museums and historical sites throughout the eastern outposts of the state.

As an angsty 20-something, inspired by Winona Ryder’s character in “How to Make an American Quilt,” I road-tripped to museums and libraries in Glendive, Miles City, and Forsyth in search of an archive of Montana women’s literary expression. As I look back, I appreciate how humanities institutions in our state shaped and supported my experiences as a young person growing up in rural Montana, helping me explore new perspectives while I was learning to value my Montana heritage.

Like many of my high school and college friends, my siblings and I eventually left Montana for educational and career opportunities. After many years away, I returned to the Treasure State mid-pandemic to join the team at Humanities Montana, the state’s council for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). When I accepted the position of executive director, what compelled me most was our mission to support Montana’s cultural institutions — the places that had been so important to me as I made sense of my life as a young Montanan. But what I returned to during the pandemic was a cultural infrastructure in distress.

Soon after stay-at-home orders were issued last spring, Humanities Montana surveyed the state’s cultural institutions—the museums, libraries, historical societies, and educational entities that provide the essential services of keeping ideas, stories, and conversations alive and well in our state. At that time, we were alarmed to find that 77% of the organizations we heard from believed they risked closure as a result of the pandemic.

With funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, we were able to distribute almost $420,000 in CARES Act grants to 95 cultural organizations throughout the state. With these grants, organizations were able to keep the lights on and pay the rent throughout the pandemic summer.

Over a year later, the outlook is not so dire, but Montana cultural organizations are still recovering from the economic impact of the pandemic. From the 50 cultural organizations that responded to a similar survey we conducted in May 2021, we found that 36% were fully reopened and around the same number were partially reopened, but with limited hours and services. A handful of organizations remained closed to the public but were offering alternative programming. A few remained closed and unable to fulfill their missions.

All organizations told us that their most significant challenge to fully reopening was lost revenue due to canceled fundraisers and programs. Paying rent, utilities, and other operating expenses remains an obstacle to recovering from the pandemic, especially for smaller organizations with annual budgets of less than $100,000.

This summer, Humanities Montana has the opportunity to again help these organizations. Over the next few months, we will distribute $500,000 in Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (SHARP) funds available to Humanities Montana through the NEH.

Humanities-focused cultural organizations can apply for SHARP grants to support general operating expenses such as rent, utilities, and staff salaries. Grants are also available for organizations that want to redesign humanities programming based on lessons learned during the pandemic.

A healthy and vibrant humanities network in rural Montana made a difference for me when I was learning, growing, and reflecting on my Montana experience. Humanities Montana’s SHARP grants will sustain the humanities in our Montana communities and contribute to the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic. These grants will also ensure that the cultural organizations that helped me appreciate my Montana roots will be there for the next generation.

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Randi Lynn Tanglen, Ph.D., is executive director of Humanities Montana, the state’s council for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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