This Colorado Voices contribution was written by members of the Rural Arts Connect project.
When people think of rural Colorado, they don’t often think of it first for its rich arts scene. However, thanks in part to the ten partner organizations of the Western Slope’s Rural Arts Connect network, arts and cultural offerings in the region are alive and well.
Despite current challenges presented by COVID-19, these organizations are working together to provide both connectivity and opportunity for meaningful culture-rich experiences.
The ongoing three-year Rural Arts Connect project was fostered through an Aspen Art Museum initiative to better understand how art museums may contribute to communities in remote rural geographies, as well as the role that art plays in catalyzing connectivity and civic engagement.
The RAC project links the geographically distant communities of Aspen, Buena Vista, Cedaredge, Grand Junction, Hotchkiss, Gunnison, Leadville, Montrose, Paonia, and Rifle via dialogue, strategy, and connections to the much-treasured art and cultural centers found within each municipality.
For the Aspen Art Museum, the interest in collaborating with neighboring arts and cultural organizations within a 100-mile radius led to a 2019 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Museums for America program.
The ultimate hope was to form a network of rural arts organizations that, via collaborative efforts, would help us understand both the effects and benefits of developing relationships between each of its member organizations and allow each to act on their established strengths in providing accessible civic-centered art and educational programming.
For instance, Delta County’s Creamery Arts Center—named for its home in the historic 1930s Challenge Butter Building—in Hotchkiss, is an ice cream shop, art gallery, and education center that has been serving its community through arts, education, and agricultural outreach since 2006.
Just up the road, in Cedaredge, the Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center boasts an art gallery that features rotating exhibitions by regional artists, as well as a state-of-the-art theater that hosts ticketed events and a variety of concerts, theater performances, and movies.
Through ongoing communication, annual summits, and research conducted by the Center of Science and Industry’s Center for Research and Evaluation in Ohio, the Rural Arts Connect network shares ideas, resources, successes, and challenges, lifting each other up and on track to sustain rural arts programming well beyond the initial three-year time commitment allotted the project.
Since the sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, support and communication have certainly been tested. All ten organizations, like others all around the world, were forced to shut their doors. Nevertheless, the groups have continued to meet virtually to communicate how they are each coping with this difficult time, and to continue to gain inspiration and support. While many have lost funding or had to cancel regularly scheduled and vital fundraising events, all have had to cancel programs for children, teens, adults, seniors, individuals with special needs, and more.
Each arts & cultural organization worked quickly to pivot, finding as much positivity in the challenge of sharing the experience as possible. The closures have resulted in a myriad of coping strategies to continue bringing arts to their communities, including moving to updated or new online and digital content to find new ways to connect with their host communities, developing virtual programming and exhibitions, and some even transitioning into community centers. A few organizations even found ways to keep their gift shops open for curbside pickup, inspiring both an important sense of normality, while keeping valuable spirits and resources flowing!
While each organization remains hopeful and ready to take up the challenge at the appropriate moment, each will continue to reimagine and innovate to accommodate their audiences as restrictions are lifted and they open their doors. Tourism plays a part in the survival of some, but for many, a roster of robust summer programming for children, adults, and artists does as well. Many are choosing to continue their digital programming to ensure the safety of participants, while others plan for summer programming and continue hopefully toward some version of moving forward with in-person public engagements.
Events or activities to keep in mind for summer 2020 include:
Arts Center of Western Colorado (Grand Junction)
Opening on a limited-access basis on June 5, ceramic programs are scheduled with reduced class sizes. There will also be a variety of 2-D adult art classes, which will be held at the art center, online, and at other venues. Until then, locals can experiment with clay using an “Art in Motion” kit.
Arts for All (Paonia)
Dedicated to helping kids gain access to quality arts education and located in the Blue Sage Center for the Arts, Arts for All is still hoping to pull off some events this summer. A schedule of events may be found at https://bluesage.org/list-events/. In the meantime, Neal Schwieterman, Arts for All Coordinator, recommends learning with found percussion enthusiast David Alderdice, who will provide a tutorial with different ways to use Mason jars for music-making—a lesson made as part of the new distance learning plan in Paonia.
Aspen Art Museum (Aspen)
The Aspen Art Museum has ramped up its digital content and virtual programming with Instagram and online activities, as well as programs with artists and educators like Slow.Look.Live., Art Studio Live!, and a wealth of activities under the rubric of their Art Anywhere offerings. Those interested in hands-on projects and illuminating discussions alike can log on to https://www.aspenartmuseum.org/learning for all the latest calendar events.
Bookcliffs Art Center (Rifle)
The Bookcliffs Art Center is experiencing continued interest in its onsite Community Garden. It will present a live stream of the crowd-pleasing Summer Hilltop Concert Series from the Stonehouse, taking advantage of the expansive historic property that houses the arts center. http://bookcliffsartscenter.org/events/month/
Chaffee Arts (Buena Vista)
Chaffee Arts has postponed its annual Open Awards Show, which will now allow for an extended deadline for entries at https://www.chaffeearts.com/copy-of-about-open-awards-show-2019. In June and July, Chaffee Arts will premiere artworks by fourteen local artists at the Buena Vista Library entrance, and will collaborate with the Aspen Art Museum and ElevateHer at Turner Farm in September to provide instruction, materials, lunch, and outdoor enrichment for girls.
Creamery Arts Center (Hotchkiss)
Creamery Arts Center is best known for its children’s after school and summer art and pottery/clay programs. It hopes to open in time for the Farmers’ Market hosted right outside its building to allow the community to take advantage of its gallery and classes. (See highlight video for a virtual gallery tour.) https://www.creameryartscenter.org/events.html &
Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center (Cedaredge)
Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center is currently planning a safe and innovative reopening for June (if restrictions allow). Outdoor concerts and events are also an option. It is currently approaching the drive-in theater in Delta about presenting the Wild & Scenic Film Festival that was postponed in March. In the meantime, Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center has a wealth of online art classes available for all to enjoy at https://www.grandmesaartscenter.com/art.
Gunnison Arts Center (Gunnison)
Gunnison Arts Center has an entire page of virtual programming that is updated constantly. Currently, participants are invited to join in for the Grateful Gifts experience, the Watercolor and Wine Series, and other virtual programming. Also, check out the Gunnison Arts Center Virtual Art Walk on June 5.
The Montrose Arts Center (Montrose)
The Montrose Arts Center is offering the affordable online classes Fireflies at Night, taught by artist Anne Hockenberry, and Virtual Poetry with Cheri Isengren. It looks forward to continuing with First Friday opening receptions once restrictions are lifted.
The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum (Leadville)
The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum has been able to serve the public during the quarantine by creating digital exhibits and interactive programs that audiences can enjoy from home. What’s in a Place: Colorado’s California Gulch is one such interactive experience. It allows online visitors to “explore” a painting of the historic California Gulch just outside of Leadville, and learn about the unique geology, history, and those significant persons involved with the area. The museum staff looks forward to welcoming guests to the museum again soon, but in the meantime, you can take advantage of a new photography exhibit, virtual tours, and learn about their Youth Art Contest here: https://mininghalloffame.org/youth-poster-contest
Connect with arts centers!
In closing, please remember your local arts and cultural organizations, and take this opportunity to connect with arts centers that may seem out of reach under normal circumstances by visiting them virtually. We hope you will consider visiting these community gems once restrictions are lifted, and you begin to venture out to explore the rural corners of our state. We also hope you’ll say hello to the following people behind the Rural Arts Connect network, all of whom are committed to keeping art and culture alive here in Colorado.
Rachel Egelston, The Arts Center of Western Colorado; Neal Schwieterman, Arts For All; Annie Henninger and Laci Wright, Aspen Art Museum; Veronica Capraro, BookCliffs Arts Center; Terry Stevens, Chaffee Arts; David and Suki Strong, Creamery Arts Center; Deborah Shaffer, Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center; Carlie Kenton, Gunnison Arts Center; Barbara Kaufmann, Montrose Arts Center; Myles Gallager, National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, and Tracy Gallegos, Migrant Education Program Regional Director, who currently serves as the network’s consultant, and collaborates to provide arts education programming for migrant children and families with the arts organizations above.