Land of creative entrepreneurs

Colorado is proving to be a land of opportunity for artists, performers, creative sector employees, and entrepreneurs, thanks in part to efforts by the State to build up the creative economy.

With support from Colorado Creative Industries and a growing list of partners, new Creative Districts are popping up in communities across the state, and Colorado musicians are touring towns whose residents thirst for live shows but don’t get enough of them. Artists can apply for subsidized live/work space through the Space to Create program, and stakeholders from across the creative spectrum meet up annually to network and collaborate.

The recent push to invest in the State’s creative economy began in 2010 under Governor John Hickenlooper, who led the charge to merge Colorado’s previous arts agencies into Colorado Creative Industries (CCI), now under the Office of Economic Development.

“What really makes us unique is we are the only state arts agency that serves both the for-profit creative sector as well as the nonprofit sector,” said Margaret Hunt, CCI’s executive director. Nonprofit arts organizations benefit from funding, but so too do aspiring artists, for example, who can apply for a Career Advancement Grant or various calls for entry. “We approach our work as an economic development strategy,” Hunt explained. “We’re about job creation.”

Nationwide, creative sector growth is around 2% annually. But Colorado has witnessed an annual growth rate from 4-6% in its Creative Districts and other investment areas since it began collecting data in 2013, Hunt said.

The Creative District program, launched in 2011, recognizes communities who have invested in creative centers that are walkable; distinguished by physical, artistic, and cultural resources; and have a concentration of arts and cultural organizations and creative resources. To become certified, communities must have a sustainable financial plan and arts programming in place. Benefits include technical and marketing assistance, training, networking, and access to funding.

“When a community has a Creative District, it sends the message to creative workers—you’re valued here; you are part of this economy,” Hunt said. “When creative workers cluster together it’s like the rising tide rises all ships. We are seeing increases in revenue and job creation, as well as community identity. People want to live in communities where there are interesting people and things to do.”

Breckenridge earned its Colorado-Certified Creative District designation in 2016. The district includes cultural corridors along and intersecting with Main Street, as well as local creative businesses and organizations. At its core is the Breckenridge Arts District, a lively campus of renovated historic structures that now function as studio spaces for classes, workshops, affordable rentals by local artists, and a visiting artist-in-residence program.

“Breckenridge is an exemplary Creative District for a number of reasons,” said Christine Costello, CCI’s manager of Creative Districts and community engagement. “It is probably our best example of how a town and council have supported a Creative District financially. We point to Breckenridge as an example of how they’ve integrated the Creative District into their overall tourism strategy. When people from other districts and states ask us who is doing a good job using their Creative District for tourism and securing funding from the community, we say, ‘Breckenridge is your town.’”

On May 4-5, 2017, Breckenridge will host CCI’s 6th annual Creative Industries Summit—a two-day professional development event for creative entrepreneurs, artists, Creative District leaders, and municipal and nonprofit cultural workers. Among the keynote speakers are Daniel Windham and Bob Harlow from The Wallace Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit group that works to improve learning and enrichment for disadvantaged children, and uses evidence-based strategies to foster the vitality of the arts for all audiences.

While the summit attracts creative stakeholders from around the state, an important component is how it connects into and showcases the host community with events that feature local creative organizations, artists, performers, and resources.

“What we’ve created here is really a learning community of multiple municipalities and artists and creative sector workers across the state,” Hunt said. After last year’s Creative Industries Summit in Salida, one local artist was invited to exhibit in Telluride. “It’s interesting to see how the communities are sourcing one another,” she said. “It’s really created a supportive, collaborative, statewide network.”

The State recently unveiled components of its new Colorado Music Strategy, a multi-pronged effort in partnership with the Bohemian Foundation that is designed to bolster the Colorado music industry.

One part is Detour, in which local bands and musicians embark on a three-week tour to rural and mountain communities. Piloted in 2015 with the Denver band Flobots as the lead, the first tour met with people from all walks of life, and included down time for the musicians’ own development. Along the route, locals opened their homes to house and feed the musicians, who in turn mentored younger musicians. “What we are setting up is touring routes, if you will,” said Hunt. “There were communities they went to that have never had a live music performance before. It was profound for the communities and profound for the musicians themselves.”

Other components of the Music Strategy include working with the Western States Arts Federation’s IMTour, to help Colorado musicians access touring opportunities outside Colorado; and the Colorado Music Licensing project, led by DeVotchKa percussionist Shawn King, which helps local musicians connect into paid media projects like commercials and videos. Hunt emphasized that data collection and analysis will be a major component of the strategy’s evolution. “We know that we have a Colorado brand, that music is part of the Colorado identity,” she said. Now the goal is to figure out how to advance that Colorado brand.

Last year, Breckenridge Creative Arts (BCA) launched the first-ever Colorado Music Convergence—a weekend gathering and showcase for independent artists, bands, and industry professionals from around the state, which featured career development workshops, mentoring, networking, and performances. The hope is that the Convergence will become a blueprint for similar networking events statewide. BCA also plans to host music showcases in support of the Music Strategy around this year’s Creative Industries Summit.

“We are really looking forward to hosting the Creative Industries Summit,” said Robb Woulfe, CEO of Breckenridge Creative Arts, or BreckCreate, the nonprofit organization formed by the Town of Breckenridge in 2014 to manage its cultural assets while driving tourism through multidisciplinary arts programming. “It’s exciting to share our story with the Colorado arts world,” Woulfe said. “Hopefully it inspires others to see how communities and municipalities can work together to create these types of programs, and to recognize the value of public art.”

“Breckenridge is an amazing example of what a Creative District can be,” Costello added, for reasons ranging from its efforts in historic preservation and provision of creative facilities for the public to “programming that rivals any big city.” She applauded the Town’s approach to the structure and management of BCA, and the fact that it chose to hire a “CEO of cultural arts” to lead the new enterprise. “From the beginning Breckenridge has taken this very seriously,” Costello said, “and the quality of talent and leadership has been really key to the development of the Creative District in Breckenridge.”

For Breckenridge, becoming a Colorado-Certified Creative District was the start of something. It opened up fundraising opportunities, and helped BCA connect with other partners. “It allows us to be a greater partner with the State,” said Woulfe. “Instead of staying in our own little world, we can reach out beyond our community, and help to make a difference in a larger context.”

Colorado Creative Industries //

Photos: Liam Doran, Jenise Jensen, Joe Kusumoto