In Breckenridge, Elevating Art with History and Tourism in Mind

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Photo by Justin Park.

The mountain town has expanded its cultural offerings to international levels. Next, Breckenridge wants to use art to get the community talking about what it's like to live in an environment that is both beautiful and challenging.

Art bubbled in every corner of town during this summer's Breckenridge International Festival of Arts. There were music concerts on stages indoors and out, and colorful exhibits of painting and photography packed into galleries. There was artist-designed playground equipment, set up off the main street, that kept families spinning and climbing for hours, and there was a troupe of actors, dressed as ants in a town park, building rows of giant breadcrumbs with help from giddy toddlers.


Classical quartets accompanied yoga classes next to the Blue River, and sculptors placed larger-than-life pieces of earthen art along the hiking trails in open spaces. At one point, a trio of musicians, a cellist, a mandolinist and a violinist, performed together while sitting 10 feet off the ground in three separate trees. They billed themselves as Tree-O.


The event, known better as BIFA, lasted 10 days and it was sprawling and well-attended and a community-wide celebration of just how far this Rocky Mountain mecca has come in the past three years, since it established the nonprofit organization Breckenridge Creative Arts to oversee its cultural programming. The festival was global, featuring artists and performers who work in cultural capitals around the world.

Actors portray ants at a BIFA event. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

"When you are surrounded by this majestic, large-scale environment, you can't go small," says Robb Woulfe, CEO of Breckenridge Creative Arts, better known as BreckCreate. "I knew our program needed to be big and ambitious and different. And I'm a big believer that we needed to do what was relevant to Breckenridge."


Being relevant to Breckenridge means a lot of things to BreckCreate.


It means integrating the natural environment authentically into programming -- so directly that aspen stands become music halls and actual canvasses for art. One highlight of BIFA, for example, was Australian artist Craig Walsh's massive light projections of the faces of local personalities onto tall trees around town.

"Monuments" by Craig Walsh. Photo by Chris Phutully.

It means integrating history into current events. Breckenridge was a center of mining in the 19th century and many of the structures from that time still stand proudly in the central business district. Breckenridge's main art campus is centered around a full block of tiny, preserved buildings -- an old tin shop, a livery stable, a barn and other structures -- that host craft classes for locals. BreckCreate has set up an art gallery in a former Masonic Hall, one of the most important historic buildings in the region.


It means being a part of the most crucial local industry, tourism, and creating art that brings people into town to fill the hotels, shops, and restaurants that drive the economy. In addition to BIFA in August, BreckCreate produces a four-day festival called WAVE: Light + Water + Sound in June, which lights up the main square with glowing artworks from creators near and far.

Inflatable art at WAVE. Photo by Carl Scofield.

Rapidly, Breckenridge is attaining the ambitious goal it set for itself -- of being "a national model for creative tourism development" -- in its successful application for the Breckenridge Arts District to be certified as a creative district by Colorado Creative Industries in 2016.


Of course, being true to Breckenridge also means serving hometown audiences with high-quality culture that understands the people who live in high-altitude Colorado. Mountain towns draw folks with a spirit of adventure and openness. The art BreckCreate produces isn't always cutting-edge, but it's lively and fresh and not easy to define, and a lot of it is free.


"Our local government really believes in this as an economic driver, but also as something that sets our mountain town apart," says Breckenridge Town Council member and arts advocate Elisabeth Lawrence. "You have a lot of passionate people who work really hard to make sure art is a part of our life here."


A historical perspective


Breckenridge is a new place in many ways. Technically, its municipal history goes back to 1859 when gold was discovered and prospectors poured in establishing a settlement that has evolved into the current town. But mining came and went and there were times when the place almost disappeared. As recently as 1960, Breckenridge had less than 400 residents.


Skiing saved the day. The resort industry got its start 1962 and has continued to expand ever since, luring scores of recreational visitors and, along with that, jobs, development and commerce. Today, there are almost 5,000 residents, but 1.5 million people pass through Breckenridge and surrounding Summit County every year for hiking, snowboarding, and other outdoor recreation.

Photo by Bob Winsett.

As the population rose, so did Breckenridge's culture. The Breckenridge Music Festival, which presents an annual season of classical fare, got its start in 1980 and the Breckenridge Film Festival began a year later. These dependable, bedrock institutions were joined in 1983 by the National Repertory Orchestra, an important educator and concert presenter, which was invited to perform in the Riverwalk Center, the modern and versatile performing arts venue that sits in the center of town.


Rounding out the city's personality more recently is the addition of artisan beverage producers. Breckenridge Distillery, for example, which opened in 2007, has won a worldwide following for its whiskey and vodka.

Modern Breckenridge is a remix of past and present, swank, funky and in-between. The downtown strip has touristy candy stores and T-shirt shops, but also upscale art galleries and theaters, and also boutique restaurants and culinary landmarks, like Breckenridge Brewery, the third-oldest craft brewery in the state and a must-stop for many passing through town.

Breckenridge puts its money where its heart is. The town's most recent budget provides $2.4 million for BreckCreate, covering about 80 percent of the organization's funding needs. The remainder comes from ticket sales and things like rental fees from the cultural facilities it oversees for the town.


"What we are trying to do is reach out to people, whether they're a visitor or a resident, and have these offerings that, no matter what your income is or whatever background you come from, you can be a part of this," says Lawrence.

Photo courtesy Breckenridge Creative Arts.

A growing base for artists


BreckCreate's programming also holds promise for local artists. Three years in, the town is starting to see its large-scale art events draw more outsiders. That brings customers to local galleries and cafes that feature live music. More than that, Breck is getting a reputation as a place where quality art happens.


That hasn't always been the case. For musicians, like Russick Smith, making a living in a tourist haven can be a challenge. The most lucrative gigs in town are in bars, for après-ski happy hours, and the musical fare is mostly covers, not exactly the stuff that fuels creative genius. "You have a lot of different people in town, but a large contingent of them are not not people who would go for avant garde art," he says.

Russick Smith's musical career in Breckenridge is defined by adaptability. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

Smith plays the cello, often writing his own compositions, so he is doubly challenged. Musicians come and go seasonally, so it's hard to find people to collaborate with on a regular basis. Working steady means being creative, finding jobs at private functions or giving concerts where people will let him follow his muse. "It's about shaping what I do in some way to what the community needs."


BreckCreate events have helped him do that. He was the cellist in Tree-O, for example, and has found other opportunities as part of town festivities. It's artistically satisfying.


"If you are playing inside the boundaries that have already been pushed, somebody might get a nice experience from that," he says. "But it's not something that's going to hit the core."


He is optimistic that the town's scene will grow, as area residents raise their expectations for local art.


"What BreckCreate is doing has been really successful and it's gaining traction," he says. "Ultimately, my hope would be that we have a strong enough community that people felt like they didn't have to leave to find artistic opportunity."


With its international events firmly established, BreckCreate hopes to foster that, and more. As the organization matures, Woulfe sees an expanded role for his organization as a producer of art events focused on bringing the local community together around current social and ecological issues.


He's pursuing partnerships with non-art players, like the U.S. Forest Service, to develop programming around "unsexy things like watersheds and forest fires." He knows he'll have to be creative to get people interested and excited about participating, but he feels residents are ready for it and sees it as the next step in the town's maturing art scene.


"To me, the bigger piece is in dealing with these livability issues through the lens of a creative experience," says Woulfe. "We're really starting to get excited about being a leader in a different way."
Photo by Katie Girtman.

Graphic design by Matt Megyesi.


This story is part of a series about Colorado's Certified Creative Districts. Support for this series is provided by Colorado Creative Industries.

Q&A with Robb Woulfe, CEO of BreckCreate
Q&A with Robb Woulfe, CEO of BreckCreate

Breckenridge Creative Arts, or BreckCreate, is a nonprofit organization developed by the town in 2014 to oversee its cultural facilities and programming. As its CEO, Robb Woulfe serves as curator-in-chief for the mountain mecca's art offerings. We asked him how he puts together the town's signature event, the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts, or BIFA.


Confluence Denver: What's your aim with BIFA, to serve local audiences or to draw in a wider crowd?


Robb Woulfe: Our aim is both. Certainly we look to drive creative tourism to Breckenridge with events like BIFA, but just as important, is that we are offering art that builds community.


CD: Can you sum up BIFA's mission?


RW: We work to animate and transform public spaces through artistic experiences, from permanent public art choices that respond to the physical, cultural, natural, historical or social context of a given location, to temporary and ephemeral installations that invite participation and interaction.


CD: BIFA has music, dance, visual arts, and other elements. What ties it all together?


RW: Quite simply, I think what ties it together is the relevance of the work to Breckenridge; all projects in BIFA are selected because they have a sense of adventure, play and creativity, which embodies the spirit of our town.


CD: When you curate, what helps you to know something fits in?


RW: With events like BIFA, we're able to mesh a range of disciplines from sculpture to film, circus to dance, and experimental orchestra to genre-pushing rock, that help redefine the concept of art festivals, and also serve as way to animate and engage an entire community.


I also believe that, despite our short time in existence, BreckCreate is starting to make a name for itself and Breckenridge by investing in large-scale, spectacle art that inspires wonder and awe.
Robb Woulfe. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.