What is now known as Paris Gibson Square was completed in 1896 and served as a public school in Great Falls for 79 years. In 1975, the school system closed the building. In 1976, the Junior League, assisted by the efforts of numerous community volunteers, reopened the building and it has served as the backbone of art culture in our community for many years.
While the School District owned the land and structure, they had no interest in providing for any maintenance of the building, or operational costs for the museum. Cascade County became part owner of the facility, and they and the district entered into a unique relationship with the newly formed non-profit, Paris Gibson Square, Inc. In exchange for $1 in rent, and the pledge that the Square would commit to art education for the community, the three entities entered into a long term lease. Paris Gibson Square, Inc. was responsible for preservation of the building, and all operational costs for the fledgling non-profit museum. Cascade County agreed to provide maintenance funds from the County budget. However, in 1993, the County chose to change the support system, pledging $66,000 per year to offset maintenance costs of the building. The same year, voters approved a mill levy which assisted both the Cascade County Historical Society and the Square.
Paris Gibson Square was in need of major capital improvements to continue operating out of the aging building, and launched its Centennial Campaign in 1995. Many of the historical aspects of the building had been changed and modified over time just to keep the place going. The roof was leaking, the elevator barely worked, and much of the beautiful wainscoting and original trimwork in the building had been covered with sheetrock over time. The original entrance doors were long gone, and the steps for the original stairs were stored in the basement. The heating system was dual boilers, whose functional life coming to an end. The Centennial Campaign was a success, and actually exceeded its goal. With the money raised, the Square started fixing things. They also created an endowment fund to comply with their prior commitment to eventually become self sustaining.
In 2003, in the face of County budget cuts and reduced funding, the Square began charging admission to the museum for the first time. Generating revenue to support its mission of art education and access for the community became a key element of the operation of the Square. During this time, the Square also applied for and received grants (including CBDG funds) to add braille and large print signs and ADA improvements to the building. A handicapped accessible elevator, and the replacement of the main doors with original style, ADA compatible oak doors were also funded and installed.
The Square supported active community involvement, and thus worked to make its services available to everyone, regardless of physical disadvantage. Most recently, they applied for CDBG funds to provide ADA compatible restrooms.
In late 2012, one of the ancient boilers finally gave out. The Square applied for emergency funds from HUD to replace the boiler, but the request was denied as the grant was intended to only assist public agencies, and the non-profit did not meet the requirements, despite the ownership status of the building.
For the last few decades, the Square has been committed to providing educational services to the community which supports it. It offers free programs for at risk youth, and those with mental, physical and developmental challenges, as well as senior citizens. It offers a free after school program for children under 12 to experience and explore art education and culture.
In an effort to become self sustaining, the Square also offers rental facilities for community events, meetings and a variety of private functions. They operate a gift shop, small restaurant, and offer craft workshops. Ticket fees for the Christmas Collection fundraiser, and the annual Art Auction and benefit dinner provide revenue, as do art sales.
Many members of this community have donated to the museum in a variety of ways. From Pacific Steel and Farmers Union Insurance covering admission fees, Volk Construction and United Sand & Gravel stepping up to fix driveways and parking lots, the countless businesses who have supported fundraisers and art auctions, the men and women who donate their time to plant flowers, clean the attic, maintain the grounds, serve on the Board, and countless other tasks, this community has been unwavering in its support.
Paris Gibson Square is a nationally recognized museum, which exists to make our community a better place. It has a small paid staff, and a dedication to this community which is impressive considering its humble beginnings and the significant hurdles it has overcome in the last 40 years. Just the preservation of the building itself has become a monument to the willingness of this community to support the arts and art education in Central Montana.