An arts organization evolves

It’s hard to believe five years have passed since the Town of Breckenridge established Breckenridge Creative Arts (BCA), the nonprofit organization charged with managing facilities and assets like the Riverwalk Center, Breckenridge Arts District, Breckenridge Theater, and public art collection, while at the same time re-envisioning arts programming for a new era.

In that time, costumed stilt walkers, face projections on trees, and whimsical glowing kites have animated town streets and skies, while musicians played high in the trees above pop-up artworks on local trails, all part of a slate of new festivals—including the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts (BIFA) and WAVE: Light + Water + Sound—designed to animate public space with shared experiences of wonder and awe.

“I think the festivals have been enormously successful—both in attracting new visitors to Breckenridge but also enriching the lives of the entire community,” said Bob Lowe, who steps up as chair of the BCA board in January. Lowe has been a board member since BCA’s formative years, when arts executive Robb Woulfe was hired to found and lead the new organization.

“I think early on Robb did a really nice job of experimenting with different things to see how they would work,” said Lowe, while admitting that some things didn’t work as well as others. “We did late night movies in the Arts District, but when it doesn’t get dark until 9:30 p.m., and when it gets dark, it gets cold, and the weather is not predictable—it didn’t work out too well. The Fire Arts Festival was so popular that we overran the town’s resources, so we had to back off that one.”

“But that’s all part of the process—we experiment, we learn, and BCA gets better,” he explained, using the evolving function of the Arts District as an example. “Now we have a nice educational component that helps the school system,” he said, not to mention increased collaboration and participation by locals in workshops and classes offered on campus.

A learning opportunity
“Understanding how best to serve our residents and guests is a process that takes time and experience,” agreed Woulfe. “It involves listening to our community, assessing our organizational strengths and weaknesses, and analyzing forces, trends, and models in order to strategize Breckenridge’s continued creative development.”

A growing body of information—made possible through feedback-gathering tools like in-person and online surveys, focus groups, social media listening, and analytics and reporting—underpins BCA’s efforts. “The knowledge and experience we’ve gained will help us deepen the relevance, benefit, and value of programs and services to residents and guests,” Woulfe said.

One example is Date Night—a program on the Arts District campus that encourages mingling along with craft creation. “We’ve had a lot of success on campus with socially-based activities,” he said, “so this year we are retiring a couple programs and trying to leverage what’s been more popular.” Among the new offerings will be a series of contemporary mountain craft classes selected to appeal to the high country, do-it-yourself spirit. In 2019 these will include woodworking and welding, with hopes to offer classes like foraging wild edibles, designing fishing flies, and constructing snowshoes and custom-made skis in the future.

Of course a huge topic of discussion lately has been “Isak Heartstone,” the 15-foot-tall troll created by Danish sculptor Thomas Dambo for the 2018 BIFA festival’s Trail Mix series, who sat stacking stones amidst the tailings piles on the Wellington Trail for three months this summer and fall. The sculpture was a huge draw for visitors and locals alike, but resulted in traffic complaints from residents.

“We were surprised how incredibly popular the troll became,” admitted Town Council member Wendy Wolfe. “We had done trail art for a couple years during BIFA. You would go out on your favorite trail and you would stumble onto this eclectic group of musicians performing in the woods; it was delightful. I heard locals talk about that, and they would remember it when it came around the next year. Of course the troll took on a life of its own. Who can predict it?”

“I think that’s one of the great things about art,” she added. “Art by its nature can be delightful; it can be controversial; it can be surprising. It arouses emotions you didn’t predict. I think sometimes we get caught up in the issues around it, and forget to celebrate the successes.”

In November, Town Council voted to remove “Isak Heartstone” for public safety reasons and the troll was de-installed, with key sculptural components preserved in the hopes of reconstructing it in a more suitable location at a future date.

She sees it as a learning opportunity. “I think there are questions we have to ask ourselves in the future: ‘What if this is wildly popular? If it is, have we put it in the right place? Are we prepared to give it the proper signage from the beginning? Are we prepared to transport people appropriately?’ We have to start thinking more around ‘What are the consequences if this is wildly successful?’ Because we just learned what that looks like.”

Attracting visitors
From the start, one of BCA’s major goals has been to drive creative tourism. “We have accomplished that in a number of ways,” Robb Woulfe said. “Now, we are being asked by stakeholders if we need to be driving tourism to Breckenridge. There’s a danger in the idea that ‘bigger is better,’” he admitted. “So we have to continue to evaluate what success is for us, and for our community.”

Behind that self-reflection is the fact that the tourism landscape has shifted in recent years. No longer is the town struggling to get people to the high country during shoulder seasons—in part due to population growth on the Front Range, Councilmember Wolfe explained. “If we get too crowded, if we have too many people here, and the experience is not what people hoped it would be—it’s like the expression, you ‘kill the goose that laid the golden egg,’” she said. “That’s a challenge for us. The Town of Breckenridge is only so big.”

Conversations like these have led the Town to partner with the Breckenridge Tourism Office (BTO) to pursue alignment between its Vision 2040 buildout and capacity study, and the tourism office’s master plan. Topics of discussion include how to manage the guest experience better, and how to attract destination visitors who will spend a week, not just weekends, in Breckenridge. The Town has also commissioned AMS Planning & Research to re-examine its investment in local arts organizations.

“We have been very blessed to have vigorous resident organizations in Breckenridge who are passionate about what they do,” the Councilwoman said, listing the newly-renamed Breckenridge Music, National Repertory Orchestra, Breckenridge Film Festival, and Breckenridge Backstage Theatre among those that have provided top-notch programming for decades. Since BCA’s start, many have teamed to co-present films, artwork, and performances—a trend Robb Woulfe describes as a “rising tide” that benefits all parties while maturing the town’s artistic identity and strengthening its cultural profile.

“It’s all about effective collaboration and coming up with a model where everyone can not only succeed but thrive—to float those boats even higher,” Wendy Wolfe agreed, while acknowledging the occasional scheduling conflicts that crop up. “These are wonderful problems to have in the name of growing a better art program.”

“Within the arts community we are starting to build a reputation,” Lowe commented, touting the reinvigorated artist-in-residence program, and the fact that 161 people from around the world, representing 6 continents, 28 countries, and 27 U.S. states, applied this year.

The successes continue to add up. In 2016 the Breckenridge Arts District was designated a Certified District in the Colorado Creative Industries Creative District program. In 2017 Breckenridge was ranked the number 1 small community on the National Center for Arts Research’s Arts Vibrancy Index. Local, regional, and national funders have rallied in support, funding BCA initiatives with a total of $325,400 in grant awards since the start of operations in 2015.

BCA’s new gallery exhibition series, reimagined in 2017, exposes Breckenridge audiences to the latest in contemporary art from world-renowned and emerging local artists through a diverse array of works that cut across disciplines of visual art, performance, film, new media, and social practice.

As to what he hopes the landscape will look like in the future, Lowe commented: “I’d like to think that BCA and Breckenridge are thought leaders in the arts industry 20 years from now—that other towns are coming to us and saying, ‘Wow, how did you do this?’”

Enriching community
BCA also aims to enrich the lives of local community members—a goal the group has pursued in recent years through a two-pronged programming focus on issues important to the community like water, environment, cultural diversity, and mental health; and hands-on artwork that promotes shared play in public space within the larger goal of sparking social interaction.

In “The Blue Trees” by Konstantin Dimopoulos, for example, town trees were colored cobalt blue as a wake-up call to the plight of trees in our world environment—an issue important to the Breckenridge community. “Some people thought that was just crazy,” Wendy Wolfe said. “Other people thought it was very thoughtful. Again, that’s art. That’s what art can do. Based on that experience, I would welcome other things that would call our attention to important issues—water, global warming, beetles, wildfires. I think that’s a very worthy exploration for BCA going forward.”

BCA takes that idea a step further this summer with “Ecoventions,” a project that utilizes public art to directly impact an environmental need. The centerpiece is a watershed sculpture by artists Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien, designed to restore equilibrium to an adversely impacted ecosystem. The artists use local natural materials such as willow or beetle kill pine to weave large basket forms that are live staked onto the site, where they grow into silt traps, erosion control implements, and fish habitat, eventually disappearing to become part of the land and waters they serve to improve. The concept, which has been funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, teams ecological restoration experts with the artists and BCA and Town representatives.

Meanwhile BCA’s programmatic focus on interactive art aims to delight at the same time as it encourages community cohesion. Citing “Los Trompos”—the large-scale spinning tops by Mexican artists Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena—Lowe commented that “for young families especially, it’s a way to introduce them to art that’s more interactive and playful, not so cerebral that they have to think about it; they can just be part of it.”

“I think what we are doing becomes more of the texture and the fabric of the community,” he said. “It gets people off the sidelines, hiking the trails, coming to town, starting to become part of the community.”

Still, Councilmember Wolfe admitted there is room for improvement. “Our residents and our locals are a little conflicted, because they don’t really like the big crowds in town. I think when they do end up seeing the wonderful things that happen they are as delighted as much as everyone else.”

“This speaks to the kinds of questions we have been asking ourselves,” Robb Woulfe said. “How can we engage our residents more, and address public concerns, so that we truly are a community resource?”

“We have really come into our own in the last five years,” he added. “We are more focused, more relevant than ever before. This is the direct result of our efforts to gather data and adjust our strategies based on what we’ve learned. We look forward to seeing what the future holds as we continue this process of listening, learning, self-reflection, and growth.”

Creative identity
Arguably, “Isak Heartstone” has generated the most buzz of all BCA projects to date, both outside and within the community. Word got out, and local families joined the throngs of visitors hiking to see it. Many who live here referred to it fondly as “our troll.”

“This is what we have been hoping for and working towards—pride of place,” Robb Woulfe said. “Destinations dream of having a strong cultural profile—not only as a tourist draw, but because it is vital to who we are. The issue at this point becomes, not ‘Should we or shouldn’t we?’ but ‘How do we manage the experience better so Breckenridge continues to grow its creative identity, and attract destination visitors, while also enriching the lives of our community members?’” Moving forward, BCA plans to sharpen its focus on creative placemaking, community ownership, and social impact programming, he explained.

“Breckenridge has benefited from adding an emphasis on art and branding the town as an arts community,” Councilmember Wolfe said. “As one of the town leaders, I do believe that we should have a vigorous art presence in this town.”

“The good news is that each time we host a festival, exhibition, or special event—whether it turns out to be a great success or presents challenges—we learn more about how to do a better job moving forward,” Robb Woulfe said. “You have to remember BCA is only five years old—but we are five years smarter and stronger than when we started. I think our locals and guests will be very pleased with the changes we’ve planned for 2019, and beyond, based on everything we’ve learned.”

Breckenridge Creative Arts //

Photos by Liam Doran and Joe Kusumoto