In the early 2000s, a book called “The Rise of the Creative Class” began making waves in communities across America. Author Richard Florida had identified the growing role of creativity in our economy, and his research reshaped the way many people think about the course of arts funding and psychology. The arts, as it turned out, were not a drain on resources as initially suspected. In fact, adopting a ‘creative ethos’ proved to make communities stronger and more prosperous. Many other studies showed positive impacts from supporting the arts – from the vitality of public health to improved collaboration.
The creative spark caught on, and in 2011 the State of Colorado passed a bill that encouraged the formation of Certified Creative Districts that could receive seed funding and professional expertise. The vision was to attract artists and creative entrepreneurs to a community, infuse new energy and innovation, and, in turn, enhance the civic capital of the community. Districts would serve as a focal point for strengthening a community’s unique identity through cultural events and artistic organizations. Among the first of the Colorado Creative Districts was the town of Ridgway.
Thanks to its spectacular scenery, Ridgway was already a hotbed for creatives with numerous renowned artists such as John Billings, Antonio Marra, and Meredith Nemiro. The vibrant downtown, however, has been carefully nurtured over the years by enthusiastic volunteers who saw an opportunity to transform and revitalize Ridgway into a creative hub. Among those key players were Michael McCullough, Lucy Boody, and Weehawken Creative Arts founder Susie Opdahl. By 2013, Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) designated Ridgway as a Certified Creative District.
Today, there are an astounding number of arts initiatives in Ouray County. On any given weekend you can find lectures, live performances, art shows, poetry readings, classes, and cultural festivals. An organization known as Alpenglow Arts Alliance aims to bring it all together, with a shared calendar of events and collaborative efforts across the non-profits. Alpenglow is spearheaded by Ashley King-Grambley, the Executive Director of Weehawken Creative Arts and Sherbino Theater. “We’re in a really neat space right now for collaboration. There’s something for everyone and when you put it all together it has made a stronger effort. We have the ability to share resources, staff and minimize expenses – which will be critical for the future of nonprofits in our community.”
610 Arts Collective, for example, is the result of two non-profit arts organizations working together to bring arts, enrichment, and Chautauqua style learning to Ridgway. The collective serves as a classroom and exhibition space for local and visiting artists while the building is owned and operated by the Ridgway Chautauqua Society, a non-profit formed for the purpose of keeping the historic Sherbino theater a community gathering place. Weehawken Creative Arts shares the office spacel, while hosting programs and events across the valley.
“The word Weehawken means ‘eternal spring of life.’ It is about lifelong learning through arts education and cultural events. Our dance program has around 400 students with full-scale performances and our aerial program is about to expand to the new Mayfly building in Montrose,” explains King-Grambley.
In Ouray, the town is currently working towards becoming a Certified Creative District, with a Main Street filled with artisans, makers, performers, and culinary experiences. There is no shortage of arts non-profit programs either. The Ouray County Performing Arts Guild has been bringing together high-quality events in music, dance, theater and other genres since 1983. They work closely with the Friends of the Wright Opera House and the Sherbino Theater to co-sponsor events. Meanwhile, the Ouray County Arts Association is busy planning their Annual Artists Alpine Holiday Show that brings over 400 works of art and 2,000 visitors to Ouray.
Further down the Uncompahgre River, you’ll find Montrose downtown dotted with unique bronze sculptures and metal work as a part of the Public Art eXperience, a program funded by the Montrose Downtown Development Authority. Also positioned on Main Street is Montrose Center for the Arts, tucked away in an utilitarian square building. But don’t judge a book by its cover, as the art housed here is nothing short of incredible and a demonstration of the growing number of creatives residing in Montrose. The 4,500 sqft gallery is brought to life with a diverse range of paintings, sculptures, woodwork, and photography from over 40 artists.
“Exhibits change regularly and we showcase a new artist on the first of each month, so there is always something new to see,” explains Ann Back, Board President. “Our First Friday events celebrate local artists with a gallery viewing, live music, along with tidbits and specialty drinks.”
Regular art classes and workshops for adults and youth along with a new art-focused literature club, fundraising events and juried art competitions are a few of the ways people can get involved. The center collaborates with two other prominent Montrose art non-profits, Magic Circle Players and the Valley Symphony Orchestra. Magic Circle has been around since 1959 – providing drama, comedy, mystery and musicals events in their 225 seat theater.
Connecting us to the past with contemporary Ute life and culture, the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose is an important hub for art and history in the valley. The museum features stunning exhibits, hosts art workshops, offers tours of ancient rock art in the Shavano Valley and much more. This September the Ute Indian Museum and Hispanic Affairs Project will be hosting Culture Fest 2022. This community celebration will be attended by diverse segments of the community, making it a unique opportunity to share information, art, crafts, dance, music, and foods representing the many cultures present in our community.
These initiatives are among many other creative programs working towards enriching and improving life in the Uncompahgre Valley. As Richard Florida hoped and predicted, the creative class has indeed risen… and is here to stay.