What happens when a pasttime turns into an industry?

Article by Martha Quillen

Art – December 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Although it may not have been as apparent twenty years ago — when the railroad depot still stood, the quarry still operated, and the mines still ran — even then Salida harbored a bit of an art colony.

When Ed and I arrived in 1978, there were paintings in Salida’s cafés and restaurants. Before long we were familiar with the names and works of local artists, jewelers, painters, and sculptors: Ray and Henrietta Hosford, Jon Bedford, Chris Byars, Sherri Rupp, Garth Conroe, Jerry Scavezze, Monica Griesenbeck, Ken Brandon, Rod Farney, and more.



Upon leaving Grand County in ’78, I would have sworn that taxidermy was the primary art form in mountain Colorado. We moved here from Kremmling, where The Lone Moose was home not only to its namesake moose, but also to a herd of mounted elk. Across the town square, the Hoof and Horn boasted a famous stuffed,two-headed calf. Glassy-eyed mule deer presided over the booths at the Columbine Cafe in Granby. Mounted trout were the rage in Grand Lake.

Twenty years ago in Kremmling, rodeo and country music were the only performance arts. Paintings of elk, horses, and mountains were fairly common, but painting was not a prominent art form. Historical treasures, however, were ultra-fashionable, with wagon wheels, lanterns, vintage harness, and antique barbed-wire on display in both private homes and public places. Brands dominated the Grand County art scene on posters, on placemats, and burned into rustic wood panels.

For decades, Colorado’s art reflected its history. Kremmling was a cattle town. To the south in Fairplay and Leadville, picks, shovels, and pictures of burros joined the artistic offerings. In Buena Vista, antlers mingled with railroad signals and semaphores.

Twenty years ago, few people would have believed jazz festivals, cello concerts, and abstract expressionist paintings could play an integral part in central Colorado’s future.

But in the last twenty years, the Colorado mountains have undergone a virtual renaissance. Today art is everywhere, and the offerings are diverse, including modern, traditional, and even experimental art forms. Pottery, beadwork, sculptures, oils, watercolors, acrylics, block prints, serigraphs, drawings, jewelry, weavings, quilts, carvings, chain-saw sculptors, performing arts, and even orchestral arts, can be found throughout the Colorado mountains.

Now, Salida’s position as a fledgling art colony is no longer unusual.

For several years, both Salida and Buena Vista have hosted annual art walks featuring art served with food, drink and entertainment. This year, however, Saguache County hosted its first Handmade Tour which featured artists, craftspersons, studios, cottage industries, and art sales. The event received mixed reviews, since a few participating studios were, at times, not open. But participants hoped to work out the problems involved in a county-wide art event by next year.

When I asked Constance Baucum at the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe about art in the Wet Mountain Valley, she gave me the names of three art organizations. One of them, the Custer County Old West Actors Association, hearkens back to a more traditional West by presenting gunfighters, mountain men, cloggers, square dancers and wolves.

But Westcliffe also hosted its eleventh annual Jazz in the Sangres Festival this year. Obviously, art in our region has diversified.

At the Art of the Rockies Gallery in Salida, golden aspens and romantic mountain scenes mingle with modern abstractions and non-representational art. In Buena Vista, the galleries offer an impressive selection of modern art, but the annual quilt show is still a leading attraction.

When I went to Fairplay last March I visited two galleries and a handicrafts shop — all of them open in spite of the snow.

Yet just a few years ago art seemed to be a strictly seasonal phenomenon in Central Colorado.

Today, “the arts” still tend to vanish right along with the fall leaves as winter settles in, but that tendency is changing.

The Salida-Aspen concert series came to Chaffee County seventeen years ago, offering performances during the summer tourist season. In 1991, Concerts Plus formed because, according to its literature, “While there is much going on in this rural community in the summer, people were asking for a concert series in the wintertime. Concerts Plus was organized to fill the need for a winter concerts series.”

Currently, Salida’s Steam Plant Theatre closes in the winter, but there are plans make it serve as a year-round facility.

In Buena Vista, schoolchildren and model railroaders who visited the Heritage Museum and Courthouse Gallery last winter had to wear coats, scarves, and mittens. But now it’s warm. Buena Vista’s historic old courthouse has a brand new heating system, and the Chaffee County Council on the Arts (CCCA) will present several events there this winter.

At this point, winter still means high heating bills and fewer tourists, thereby forcing many galleries that into hibernation. But every year our winter art scene grows.

Last May, the grand opening of an all-season facility, The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum Mother Lode Art Gallery in Leadville, seemed particularly fitting — since over the years, “the arts” have grown into an industry.

As gold, silver, and molybdenum once were, art is now a regional export. Jewelry, oil paintings, watercolors, pottery, sculpture, stained glass, painted glass, silk-screened and embroidered T-shirts, handicrafts, textiles, and ceramics are currently made here to be enjoyed elsewhere.

But perhaps more indicative of the growing importance of art in our region — artists from elsewhere are now coming here for shows and performances.

And many artists are actually moving here. Salida sculptor Chris Byars blushes a little when asked about a cover story in Colorado Arts, a publication of the Colorado Federation of the Arts.

Characterizing Salida as “this gem of a Colorado town,” the article details Salida’s role as an emerging art center. “The beginning of this migration can be traced to Chris Byars — a nationally and internationally renowned sculptor,” the publication claims.

“It was very flattering,” Byars admits, referring to the article. “But…”

Byars laughs, then shrugs. He’s not exactly sure why so many artists are moving to Salida, but he’s quick to affirm that they are. “I see it everyday,” he said. “A lot of artists have already moved here, and quite a few more have told me they’re interested in coming.”

When asked if Salida can support so many artists, Byars said, “Galleries are like antique stores. Ten of them are better than one. You have to have enough art to attract buyers — a place where people can look around, enjoy themselves, and window shop.”

This boom-town blossoming has not been confined to our region, however.

In 1988, Father Pat Valdez of San Luis, Colorado, announced that his town would actively pursue a position as an art community — in order to stimulate an economy crippled by the loss of a mine and sawmill. Thus little San Luis made it into Time — portrayed as a failing, poverty-stricked town striving for a future.

But in September of 1994 in a High Country News special issue called “Grappling With Growth,” San Luis came to the attention of the media again. In an article called “Can Planning Rein in a Stampede?” authors Paul Larmer and Ray Ring wrote about San Luis:

“In San Luis, a largely Hispanic town in southern Colorado within range of Santa Fé and Taos, N.M., local planning has mostly centered on providing new parking spaces and an airport for the strangers who are wielding money and influence. The lack of more sophisticated planning has encouraged a feeling of helplessness in local community activists like Maria Valdez.

“‘If you live in a semi-ugly place…your community has a chance to survive,’ says Valdez. ‘But we’ve got it all: culture, open space, adobe architecture. We’re up a creek without a paddle.'”

Obviously, survival is not really the issue at this point. Survival was the issue in the 80s, when our mines and sawmills closed.

But now, it would seem, we do have to find that proverbial paddle Valdez mentioned so we can steer ourselves toward calmer waters.

That may not be an easy task, but there’s no shortage of people trying to do just that. Rapid change has created a climate of uncertainty — but helplessness is not the order of the day. In reality, advisory agencies, planning committees, and impact seminars have multiplied as rapidly as studios and galleries.

Numerous groups offer support, advice, and help with marketing and promotion. Today, in Central Colorado, organizations active in the arts include the Gunnison Council for the Arts, the Art of the Rockies in Salida, the Leadville Arts Council, the Chaffee County Council on Arts, the Cultural Council of Park County, the Frémont Center For the Arts, the Wet Mountain Valley Arts Council, and the Western State Arts Federation. Representatives of the Colorado Council of the Arts and the Colorado Consortium of the Arts work throughout the area, and a multitude of other groups foster fine arts, music, theater and dance.

Art is not our only growth industry, however. In Colorado, it seems like everything is expanding these days, population, tourism, real estate prices, subdivisions — even the number of amendments and referendums the state can fit onto a single ballot.

This boom has seriously affected many small mining towns that were, not so long ago, looked upon as permanently crippled. In less than a decade, the residents in those communities have turned from despair over recession to anxiety over growth. Yet whatever else it all means, this trend has definitely bolstered our self-esteem.

A mere six years ago, even those who recognized its natural beauty and loved the town dearly would not have alluded to San Luis by saying, “We’ve got it all.”

Maryo Ewell, of the Colorado Arts Council, travels to towns in our region to offer expert advice. “Communities need to make realistic plans,” she says.

The Arts Council encourages the development of the arts in traditionally rural communities. But Ewell also advises against taking on projects too large to become self-sustaining, or building facilities exceeding the needs of your community.

She works to make the process of filling out grant applications easier. But she also warns art organizations that they shouldn’t rely on grants. “There’s just not that many of them out there,” she says. “They can dry up and disappear.”

Indeed, grants may have something to do with central Colorado’s sudden artistic renaissance — or at least one gets that idea from the names of some of those grants. There’s a Rural Arts Initiative Grant.

There’s also something called the Rural Cultural Facilities Leadership Project, which apparently leads us into developing rural cultural facilities. Although in 1994 one suspects they don’t mean livestock barns for the county fair, the term “rural cultural facility” may have suggested just that in 1960.

Grants tend to be trendy. A few years ago, small towns everywhere got a Women’s Resource Center, a Senior Citizens’ Center, or a Family Crisis Center. Now towns are trying to figure out how to keep those going while they build a theater.

But in actuality, grants play only a minor role in today’s art scene — since, as investments go, this boom has cost very little in terms of cash.

Mines and railroads required an enormous infusion of capital, but that hasn’t been true of the arts — at least not this time around. Instead, most of today’s boom has been built on “sweat equity.”

In other words, individual artists — cleaning up old buildings, painting walls, and hanging pictures — have built art into an industry.

Right now, many of our new galleries and artists are actually in the process of investing in, rather than profiting from, our growing art industry.

For the most part, unpaid volunteers sserve on regional art committees, staff cooperative galleries, keep books, play instruments, practice ballet steps, and design brochures to keep our art scene growing.

Suzanne MacDonald worked in the gallery business for twenty years before she started Creekside Books in Buena Vista. Now she sells both books and art.

“Some occupations nourish the soul,” she says. MacDonald mentions flower shops, book stores, catering, and art galleries as examples of businesses where money is often far less important than the immeasurable value of loving what you do.

But even art lovers have to eat.

Reflecting upon all of the art galleries and shops in Buena Vista and Salida, MacDonald says, “Some will definitely make it, and some won’t.”

MacDonald feels anyone starting a small business should be prepared to work at least a year before drawing any money from the business. Today, MacDonald is primarily a book dealer, but recalling her days in the art business she said, “The best tool for selling art is pretension.” She tells of paintings that were of very poor quality, but by very famous artists, with price tags in the thousands of dollars. “Those paintings always sold.”

And that can be a problem, here. Our region has attracted some very well-respected artists — artists who do display and sell in other markets. But, as yet, our artists lack the name recognition of a Picasso, Chagall, O’Keefe, or even a Jasper Johns.

But more importantly — so do our towns. As MacDonald pointed out, a well-known name can inflate prices. Unfortunately, the converse is also true, the lack of a name can reduce prices. And right now, most people drive to Taos or Santa Fé to buy art, not to Salida, Fairplay, Westcliffe, Saguache, Leadville, or Buena Vista.

But Stuart Andrews, owner of View Art and Music in Buena Vista, says, “Some people have stopped here on their way to Taos and Santa Fé, and they’ve been favorably impressed with what we offer. A few have gone on after saying my prices were too high, but after they’d seen the prices on comparable work in Taos, they came back. I think people are finding that we have regionally authentic art here.”

Like MacDonald, Andrews also talked about some of the difficulties artists face.

“When I first started as an artist, I thought I could just paint pictures, and people would buy them,” Stuart said. “But I was naive. Sometimes, it’s not what you paint, but who you know,” he admits.

But that reality is something Andrews has apparently come to terms with. Today, Andrews is president of the Chaffee County Council on the Arts, and he will soon be working with the Colorado Consortium of the Arts.

He talked about the importance of determination. “I’d be willing to die for this,” Andrews said, gesturing toward the work on his walls. The work includes several large paintings, by Andrews himself, that combine a touch of photographic realism with the magic of surrealism.

On one canvas, a Steinway piano is also, somehow, a pool table. Across the gallery, high on a wall, a woman reclines in front of a window. Outside the mountains rise and the clouds billow, wisping right into the woman’s room — or perhaps the room reaches out toward the clouds.

The works of other artists on display at View Art and Music encompass a wide range of styles and media, including several quilts. Andrews seemed exceptionally proud of those quilts — since they represent an art form often neglected by galleries.

“Some people were very surprised when a quilt took best of show this year,” he said, referring to the CCCA’s Open Award Art Show, which was judged by a professional artist and professor of art from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Although Andrews mentioned how slow business was last April and May, his gallery stays open through the winter. “How could I close it, and just leave all of this in here?” he asked. “No one could buy it; no one would see it.”

The art industry is very new in central Colorado, and many of our galleries are still, on the whole, struggling. But most of our towns are prospering. In this regard, art has made a difference.

Art attracts tourists. Small shops and galleries can lend a certain ambience that gets tourists to stop, and probably eat, and sometimes spend the night — and finally, to return. And that includes tourists who don’t buy art.

In Salida, the changes wrought by art have been astounding. The Art of the Rockies Gallery used to be a used car dealership. The Real American T-Shirt factory resides in the former Ben Franklin building. There’s a small gallery and frame shop where there once was a children’s clothing store, and the Fresh Ideas Gallery is in the old Woolworth’s 5 & 10.

Just a little more than a year ago, Brandon Graphics was Salerno’s Service Station.

There are now three art galleries on the block where Salidans once visited their opera house — although today, that opera house is a theater with a double theater next door.

At Balloonatics, a myriad of intricately decorated light bulbs — converted into elegant hot air balloons — shimmers in what used to be Ed’s Upholstery Shop. There’s an art gallery in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, and an artists’ studio in the old shoe repair shop.

The old Public Service power plant is now a community theater, and a less vintage Public Service office is now the Real American outlet store.

This October, on one side of First Street in half a block:

At Chris Byars’ gallery, art brings new life to old junk — pieced and welded into novel forms. Huge caricatures by Allen Byrns line the walls. Nearby, there’s a larger than life-size, three-dimensional editorial cartoon by David LaVercombe. At the First Street Café, mountains and wildflowers by Peggy Beauliel Corthouts of Coaldale brighten the dining room.

The artwork on display changes, but in Salida today, there are galleries on every block — offering unique artistic visions around every corner. At this point, Salida may be ahead of the crowd, but similar transformations can be seen throughout our region.

For those who live in Central Colorado, this rapid acquisition of culture has generated a bewildering transition. The questions abound. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Will it last? Will rising prices drive out artists? Can we generate large enough audiences to pay for the performers, buildings, programs, lights, and heat? Is enough art selling to actually support so many galleries?

Yet this development of “the arts” is not entirely mysterious. To some degree it results from deliberate government policies.

The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 created a Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities, and also established the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

According to legislation establishing the NEA, twenty percent of program funds had to be distributed to state and regional art councils. But in 1965, fewer than ten states actually had active art councils.

That hardly mattered. By ’67, when the first grants were made, the number of state art councils had more than doubled.

Although it took a while, by 1978 every state and all six special jurisdictions (which included the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas) had art councils. By then, smaller, regional arts organizations were also on the rise.

Nothing spurs development like potential funds. But our government is not exceedingly generous (which is just as well, since we’d experience a revolution instead of a renaissance if congress ever became the sole patron of the arts at the taxpayers’ expense). The establishment of the NEA, however, also served to inspire both private funding and the founding of local arts organizations.

In the United States, there are tens of thousands of foundations of the sort that give out grants that are made possible by private rather than government funds. And foundations frequently amplify government support by financing health, education, environmental interests, human services, academic research, and the arts.

In 1965, the importance of art was recognized by Congress, and that has proven far more relevant than the actual funds doled out by the NEA. Since then, private grants have teamed with government efforts to give communities an infrastructure for the arts. That structure provides information, promotion, expertise regarding grant applications, professional advice, and sometimes even buildings.

But on the whole, outside funds primarily provide “seed money,” in an attempt to get things started.

Thus, the responsibility for keeping the arts going belongs to us.

Right now, art is a growth industry in Salida, Buena Vista, Leadville, Fairplay, San Luis, New Braunfels, Blanco, Moab, Fredericksburg, Livingston, and numerous other small towns in states stretching from coast to coast.

At a time when polls reveal a deep distrust of the American economy, this abundance of art markets tends to worry artists as much as it pleases them.

Chris Byars admits that he fully expects another recession to happen along in two or three years.

Michael Parry, a ceramics artist who works in his showroom on West First Street in Salida, is a trifle less pessimistic. But he worries about whether working artists will be able to stay in a town where property values and rents are steadily rising.

Ed Marston, the publisher of High Country News, a western environmental journal, believes, “This boom will end like all the others — in a deep, deep bust.”

Ed Quillen, my associate editor, has been researching a book called Is Denver Necessary?, about the economic relationship between small towns and cities for two years. Asked whether he thought we’d all go bust, Ed said, “I don’t see how we can go bust like the last time. I don’t think there’s anything big enough left in our region to go bust and sink several towns the way that Climax did.”

Ed thinks this is a transition period, however. He doesn’t really believe art will dominate our future. Instead, Ed thinks other investors will be attracted to our region now that the artists have taken the boards out of our windows, and dressed up our towns.

Stuart Andrews, on the other hand, thinks that Chaffee County stands a good chance of becoming a vital art center. “It depends on the durability of the artists,” he said. But Andrews feels that Chaffee County has a lot of very talented artists who will stick with it, in spite of the uncertainty, and the slow times.

In Colorado, the downhill ski industry tabulates skier visits. The rafting industry keeps track of commercial river trips. The Colorado Department of Agriculture oversees farm animals and crops. Retail business is tallied by sales taxes. Even the tourism industry attempts to estimate how many travelers visit us yearly, and how much they spend.

But art is not so easy to tabulate — since it’s difficult to even define what art is. Should handcrafted baskets, bowls, cabinets, saddles, boots, clocks, and lamps all be included? Or are cabinets furniture? Are clocks appliances? Is a plain boot different than a hand-tooled boot?

Counting art presents a host of other difficulties.

Galleries often sell records, books, tapes, cards, and novelties to supplement the slow turnover of original art.

On tax forms, artists may show up as teachers, house painters, grocery clerks, waitresses, dishwashers, real estate agents, restaurant managers, janitors, or even unemployed.

Art made here is sometimes sold elsewhere. Income made from art often goes unreported. A large percentage of the secretarial work, management, accounting, and legal advice necessitated by the arts is donated.

Therefore, it’s almost impossible to calculate how large our art industry really is — except by the energy art generates, and the changes the arts have inspired.

Thus, upon due consideration, given the statistics available, I hesitate to predict whether any of our towns will grow into viable art centers. Or whether art can save us from future recessions. Or whether our artists will stay here or move on.

Maybe Ed is right when he concludes that art represents a transitional phase of development. Yet surely the same could be said of prospectors. And look at the transformation the “Pikes Peak or Bust” crowd brought.