When I originally began researching this article series, I was living in Salida, Colorado, watching a newly-designated “Colorado Creative District” unfold.
Or rather, watching it fail to unfold.
Currently, I’m living on the other side of the Continental Divide in Pagosa Springs, editing the Pagosa Daily Post and writing about the quirky political decisions taking place in that little Colorado mountain town.
Pagosa Springs first appeared on the map back in the late 1800s when a couple of corrupt timber barons usurped the local government and began making deals with the railroads to illegally harvest thousands upon thousands of acres of old-growth Ponderosa pine. Following that prosperous but exploitive period in Pagosa’s history, the community settled into an economic mix of smaller-scale logging mixed with cattle and sheep ranching… and the population remained around 2,500 people for the next 50 years or so. I understand from stories it was a pretty rough, redneck town back in the day — probably not exactly a hotbed of American Arts & Culture.
Then developer Ralph Eaton and his investment partners arrived from Arizona and California. Beginning in the early 1970s, Eaton and his successors at Fairfield Resorts created a small resort community about 4 miles west of Pagosa Springs. Eventually Fairfield grew into Pagosa Lakes, which became the main population and commercial center for Archuleta County.
Meanwhile, the sawmills were closing and many of the ranches were being chopped up into subdivision parcels marketed primarily to “second home” buyers. When I arrived in Pagosa in 1993, the community was just climbing out of a difficult recession, thanks to a more diverse economy based on four key industries: tourism, construction, real estate, and tax-funded government. The future was looking bright, economically speaking.
By the time 2012 arrived, however, Pagosa Springs had seen its construction and real estate industries take it in the shorts. A new “economic development corporation” — the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (PSCDC) — had been recently formed by joint Town Council-County Commission action, aiming to attract or create some kind of industry that could replace the ailing construction/real estate sectors.
At one PSCDC meeting, a local grantwriter presented a PowerPoint show concerning the new “Creative District” idea that was coming down to us from Denver. A newly formed division of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade called “Colorado Creative Industries” (CCI) was offering grants in various amounts to cities and towns who could prove the existence of a “creative district” somewhere within their communities. Pagosa Springs had no such thing, by any stretch of the imagination — but the government-funded PSCDC had paid this particular grantwriter $1000 to submit a “Creative District” grant to CCI.
I suspected the PSCDC had wasted $1000, except maybe to put some food on the grantwriter’s table. (As it turned out, the grantwriter later donated the money to another arts-related venture.)
At the end of March, 2012, I heard that a little Colorado town called Salida had been certified as one of Colorado’s two “Certified Creative Districts.” A dozen other communities had also been designated as “Prospective” or “Emerging” districts. Pagosa Springs as nowhere on the list — and neither were about 36 other communities that had hopefully or naively submitted grant applications. One of those communities was Steamboat Springs.
A quote from a March 9, 2012 Steamboat Today article:
“Once I heard there were (44) applicants, I was pretty sure we weren’t quite ready for that, to be designated,” said Mainstreet Steamboat Springs manager Tracy Barnett, who applied for the designation. “While we have a lot of pieces in place in the community, the organization itself of the district hasn’t been done at all. That’s what we would have used the funding for, to get that together.”
Barnett said she still would work to connect Steamboat’s arts and culture entrepreneurs before next year. She said the formation of a creative district, with or without state assistance, is important for economic development.
“There are a lot of people out there using their brains in creative ways to do economic things rather than the traditional retail (and) restaurant businesses,” she said. “The model is changing and people are using their creative energies to create businesses that drive economies.”
Indeed, as Ms. Barnett notes, the model is changing. Once upon a time, artists — visual artists, and performing artists — created art. Now they are “doing economic things” and “driving economies.”
Something rather curious happened in America during the 1960s, and I believe it helps explain how Colorado artists — people who used to make art — are slowly becoming cogs in an economic assembly line.
From the website of the National Endowment for the Arts:
The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson in 1965. It states, “While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.
On September 29 of that year, the National Endowment for the Arts – a new public agency dedicated to strengthening the artistic life of this country – was created…
The National Endowment for the Arts was heralded, in part, as a path towards American global dominance in “arts and culture” as a fitting match to — or even as a necessary component of — American political and military dominance. From Public Law 89-209, the 1965 Act that created the NEA:
The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon the worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.
Between 1965 and 2000, the Endowment had awarded more than 111,000 grants to arts organizations and artists in all 50 states. Local arts agencies in 2000 numbered over 4,000 – up from 400 in 1965. Nonprofit theaters grew from 56 to 340, symphony orchestras nearly doubled in number from 980 to 1,800, opera companies multiplied from 27 to 113, and there were 18 times as many dance companies as there were in 1965.
That growth was not solely the result of the NEA’s efforts, however. In fact, the most influential players in the blossoming of “grant-supported arts and culture” were large American corporations and the charitable foundations they funded. The Ford Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation. The Wallace Foundation. The Knight Foundation.
Artists have always been the storytellers within any given culture. So if you want to control the story being told, you have to control the artists.
Not an easy thing to do.