Creativity Blooms in Crested Butte

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Photo by Nathan Bilow Photography.


The Crested Butte Creative District is one of the most imaginative square miles in Colorado. While its challenges aren't odd for a ski town, local support for the arts is at a higher level.


Imagine a battered, nearly vacant mining town as a canvas. Add a fledgling ski resort and 2 million acres of surrounding public land. Let your imagination run wild.


The shuttle buses would be handpainted, of course, and there'd be a fancy restaurant in an old miner's shack in an unpaved alley. There'd be cabins clad in license plates and all sorts of old bric-a-brac and planters overflowing with flowers in the middle of the street. Friendly dogs would be tied up everywhere, and the bike racks packed with cruisers, many of them unlocked.


There'd only be one road to town in the winter; come summer, a beautiful mountain pass with one of the world's largest aspen groves would open and offer another route.


And that's Crested Butte in a nutshell.

Elk Avenue and Mt. Crested Butte. Photo by Chris Segal.

The mining era here lasted from a gold rush in the 1870s until 1952, when Big Mine stopped shipping coal and the local economy crashed with a thud. The population crashed from 1,250 in the 1930s to less than 300 in the 1960s.


Crested Butte Mountain Resort opened in 1963, and an influx of newcomers started breathing new life into the town in the years that followed. Creativity, tourism and real estate supplanted mineral extraction over the ensuing decades as the population surged past 1,500 to an all-time high in the 2010s.


Artist Susan Anderton owns gallery3 near the intersection of 3rd Street and Elk Avenue. She originally moved from "swinging London to Crested Butte" in 1969. "It was so different," she says. "I was 23 at the time. People were so into their crafts." There were leatherworkers, candlemakers, potters, and photographers, younger people who were "stepping away from the mainstream culture and making their own arts and crafts."

Susan Anderton creates colorful paintings of Crested Butte scenery.

She adds, "You knew everybody. You knew their dogs' names. Everyone was accepted for who they were. It was a very freeing experience."


Anderton ran a gallery and screenprinting business in the 1970s, making her mark with "hundreds of pen-and-ink drawings of the old buildings" and has more recently focused on gouache paintings of iconic area landscapes.


With the establishment of the Crested Butte Arts Festival and Mountain Theatre in 1972, "The people who had nothing to do found direction," says Anderton. "Whatever your talent was, you could get involved."


That openness remains vital today, she adds, but a lot has changed. "It's different. Back then in the early '70s, it was still the remnants of the old mining town, with some new people coming in," she says. This influx of creatives changed the course of the local economy as the local ski resort that opened in 1963 struggled to find financial footing.


In the 1980s, critics argued, "Crested Butte will never take off. It's hard to get to," Anderton notes. "I said, 'Well, you watch. Crested Butte's isolation will be its biggest asset in the long run.' And it has been."


Adds Anderton: "Crested Butte's a real community. I love it, that when you come into town, you see the high school. That says that's one of our priorities."


Next door, another symbol of the town's priorities, the Crested Butte Center for the Arts in in the midst of a $14 million expansion. Executive Director Jenny Birnie says the three-phase project should be completed in 2019. The first phase includes a new building with a 400-seat theater (replacing a 215-seat facility with "challenging” acoustics) and two dance studios slated to open in late 2018.

Rendering of the expansion courtesy Crested Butte Center for the Arts.

The second phase of the project will allow the center to move its visual arts workshop from a 600-square-foot rented location across town. "We're going to quadruple that space," says Birnie. "That's huge."


The shared studio provides an in-demand commodity. "As far as places to create, we don't have a lot of spaces in this valley and there's huge demand," says Birnie. "If there are spaces, they're prohibitively expensive. A lot of artists work out of their home."


Then and now


Founded in 1967, the Crested Butte Society aimed to foster the local economy with arts and culture. After restoring the 1883 Old Rock Schoolhouse as a museum with workshops for artists, the organization helped the town pivot from a ghost town in the making to a destination balancing outdoor recreation and culture.


Nearly 50 years later, the Crested Butte Creative District is building on its successes. "This whole declaration of Crested Butte as a Creative District has given some cohesion to the idea of Crested Butte as an arts community," says Anderton. "It's given structure and form to this whole idea, and that's important. Instead of struggling alone, which is what it sometimes feels like in the offseason."


Certified by Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) in 2016, the Crested Butte Creative District is now part of the town government. Says Birnie: "We knew we needed town's involvement. It's been a great relationship.

The district's certification provided $75,000 of funding over three years, and Crested Butte Town Council has indicated that local government will continue to support it financially in 2019 and beyond.


The certification is the culmination of Crested Butte's creative sector emerging as a target for economic development. Melissa Mason is chair of the Crested Butte Creative District Commission and visual arts director at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts; her husband, Roland, serves on town council. "When the crash hit, he said, 'What else do we have besides outdoor recreation?'"


Like the Crested Butte Society before her, Mason answered: arts and culture. "Everybody knew, but there was never a spotlight on it," she says. "It's been part of this community since the mining ceased, but the identity has always been outdoor recreation. You can't have a Center for the Arts like we do if we didn't have a bunch of second homeowners and tourists here. They want to mountain bike in the day and go to a comedy show at night."

For this reason, the Crested Butte Creative District has formed a partnership with the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association. "For so long their message was mountain biking and outdoor recreation," says Mason. "Some people would come and leave and not know [arts and culture] were here. You are what you say you are, but if you don't tell anyone, nobody's going to know."


The district also has a formal process in place to fund public art and performances with grants. One example: the Red Lamp Post on Elk Avenue that commemorates a big victory in the longtime fight against a possible molybdenum mine on adjacent Mount Emmons, better known as the Red Lady.

Jeremy Rubingh paints a lamp post red. Photo by Lydia Stern.

One thing the Crested Butte Creative District won't get into is programming, notes Mason, and, because it operates under a municipal umbrella, it won't compete for donations with 13 local arts nonprofits. "We get to operate at more of a decision-making level," she says. "We're in a really awesome position."


Kimbre Woods, a photographer and owner of Grubstake Gallery at 229 Elk Ave., is also on the district commission. "Right now, Crested Butte's art market is comparable to art markets with 100,000 people," she says of the 1,672-person town. "It's a good place to be for artists, but it's not an easy place to be. A lot of people are spinning their wheels working three part-time jobs."


Woods says coming to Crested Butte on a camping trip in 2009 sparked her transformation from commercial photographer to artist. "When I first got here, I was blown away by the nature. I started reacting to that by making work," says Woods. "I never considered myself an artist until I was in Crested Butte. You make yourself an artist by acting like one."


She relocated from Michigan and opened her first Crested Butte gallery on a side street in 2010, but quickly realized that she needed to be on Elk Avenue. "There's a two-block radius where everyone wants to be," says Woods, describing the street as "a finite resource." "Not every artist can be in that two-block radius. It's not even physically possible. When I got here, it wasn't the vision it is now. There were a lot of empty spaces on Elk Avenue. There were a lot of failing businesses. Now you see the opposite."

The Crested Butte Arts Festival takes over Elk Avenue in August. Photo by Nathan Bilow Photography.

Woods sees an opportunity at the so-called "Top of Elk" near 1st Street. The area gets less foot traffic, but creative placemaking could change that. "We have some really cool businesses on that end, but it's definitely harder to get people to go that distance," she explains. Public art might help expand the footprint, and the commission identified it as a location that could benefit from a grant.


She also points to the largely industrial Belleview Avenue on the south side of town as a space to expand placemaking. "Crested Butte needs that to a degree. It gets really crowded at times."


Craft manufacturing legacy


Belleview Avenue is a rough around the edges area that's unusual for a resort town, with a lumberyard, garages, small factories, and a brewery. It's the kind of place that often evolves into an art district in bigger cities.


Caleb Weinberg co-founded Romp Skis with his brother, Morgan, on Belleview in 2010. The company now has five to seven employees, depending on the season, working in a 1,200-square-foot factory.


After working in construction, the brothers were looking for a change. "One of the motives was to have a business that isn't directly tied to the ski area," says Weinberg. "That's fully tied to the boom-and-bust cycle."

Morgan (left) and Caleb Weinberg of Romp Skis.

The New Hampshire transplant says, "I like my kids growing up here. You couldn't have a better youth than growing up in Crested Butte."


How is it being a small manufacturer in a remote mountain town? "Crested Butte has a reputation as a hardcore skiing destination," says Caleb. "We get lumped in with that, which is good." On the other hand, getting parts can be difficult. "Because of that, we end up making a lot of stuff here."


That's a common business practice in Crested Butte, and it dates back to the 1800s. "All the way back to the mining days, we're out in the middle of nowhere," says Caleb. "Anything they wanted, they had to make it. We're at the end of the road here."


The local cost of living is another unavoidable challenge, he adds, but one he can impact as an employer. "It's important to us that we can provide a sustainable living to people to stay here. We don't want people to have to have other jobs."

Karen Hoskin co-founded Montanya Distillers with her husband, Brice, and started making rum in Silverton in 2008. They relocated the operation to Crested Butte in 2011 and now have 20 employees at the tasting room and distilling facility at 212 Elk Ave. and a warehouse just south of downtown.


Hoskin says she's involved with the Crested Butte creative community as a sponsor, an incubator, and an employer.


Karen and Brice Hoskin. Photo courtesy Montanya Distillers.It follows that Montanya sponsors events like the Crested Butte Arts Festival, several employees have their own businesses -- Renee Newton makes sauerkraut and kimchi with Fireweed Ferments and Caitlin Ward handcrafts jewelry as Lonewolf Collective -- and Hoskin often opens her commercial kitchen to local food startups.


"I like to employ people who have a side hustle," says Hoskin. "We can watch them and help them. I work hard to be available to them."


Like Romp, Montanya also pays employees more than the prevailing wage. "Not only are they [employees] all situated in housing, they're also buying houses," says Hoskin. The bottling crew doesn't use volunteers, instead paying $15 an hour to part-time people "who need something else."


Cost crunch


Grubstake Gallery's Woods cites continuing education for creatives and artist housing as other priorities for the district. On the latter, she notes that the district came up empty in its first application to CCI's Space to Create housing program, but says local officials are acutely aware of the issue. "It's not a lost cause," Woods says.


"Housing is a definite issue for people," echoes Mason. "That's a problem all over Colorado, but it's really acute here because of the nature of our economy." She points to seasonality and "the age-old gentrification problem" as the two big factors at play.


"The arts don't have a season," she says, pointing to such artsy fall events as the Crested Butte Film Festival, the autumn equinox extravaganza of Vinotok and the Crested Butte Community Iron Pour. "The arts can help build these shoulder seasons."

The Crested Butte Community Iron Pour is an annual fall arts event. Photo by Lydia Stern.


But gentrification presents a tougher challenge. As Denver's economy took off, the ripple effect boosted Crested Butte, but it's also stretched the town's housing inventory to its limit. According to the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association, Denver barely cracked the top 10 guest markets in 2007, but has leapfrogged Dallas and Houston to become the area's top source of visitors in the years since.


And many of them have invested in real estate. Airbnb "changes the profile of who can buy a second home," says Mason.


The Town of Crested Butte now collects more than 60 percent of its lodging tax from short-term rentals. From 1997 to 20016, short-term rentals grew from about 6 percent to 29 percent of the town's housing stock, according to town data. (There is some crossover, and the numbers may not be totally precise.) In the same period, long-term rentals went from 43 percent to 24 percent of Crested Butte as the median home price neared $1 million. A July 2017 feature in Outside magazine laid bare some of the stark choices local residents and officials are having to confront over the fallout from the rise of Airbnb.


The Town of Crested Butte has been aggressively trying to grow its affordable housing inventory for decades: Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) were legitimized in 1989, as numerous initiatives are now underway. The goal is to make 25 percent of the housing stock deed-restricted for the local workforce.


A 30-unit affordable housing project, Anthracite Place, opened in 2016, and there's a plan for a 240-unit complex on a 17-acre parcel two miles southeast of town that's owned by the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte; Gunnison County; and Crested Butte Mountain Resort.


Splitting time between Crested Butte and Texas Hill Country since the 1980s, John Spencer handles communications for Utah-based Short Term Rental Helper. The company is working with the Town of Crested Butte to improve compliance among short-term renters.


In many seasonal resort towns, "The economics of a hotel just don't work," says Spencer, citing Short Term Rental Helper's home base of Garden City, Utah, which mushrooms from 700 residents to 20,000 every summer. "We're really a software company. We're not policymakers, we're policy enablers."


Spencer argues that, while it's easy to pin Crested Butte's housing woes on Airbnb, it's "intellectually dishonest" to do so. "There's no evidence at all that shrinking the number of short-term rentals does anything to long-term rentals," he adds. "Nobody's going to take their $1 million house and long-term rent it."


There are a host of factors -- ultra-low interest rates and booming economies in Colorado and California among them -- why more second homeowners have bought in Crested Butte, Spencer argues. "Correlation is not causation," he says. "It's more complicated than that. . . . It would be naive to say [the rise of Airbnb] doesn't play into it, but it isn't the sole cause."


Spencer, who started and sold a flyfishing manufacturer in Crested Butte before joining Short Term Rental Helper, says the modern economy allows an increasingly remote workforce to live in towns like Crested Butte for part or all of the year. "What you're seeing is an incredible explosion of people who have no connection to the ski area coming in because it's a super attractive place to live."


If you can work wherever you want, why not work in a place like Crested Butte? "I get to migrate back and forth," says Spencer. "I'm representative of a lot of people here."


"The second homeowner community is so full of talent," he says. "There are opportunities for second homeowners to bring things to the table that small towns like Crested Butte can benefit from. . . . It's a terrific opportunity to diversify the economic base."


Not that rising housing costs aren't problematic, says Spencer, but short-term rental compliance is a good way to mitigate their impacts. In Crested Butte, Short Term Rental Helper is helping officials implement a permitting system capped at 300 short-term rentals ("There's a waiting list already," says Spencer); manage noise, trash and parking complaints and flag repeat offenders; and boost tax compliance.


The last one is the big one, says Spencer, calling the lost revenue "eye-opening," not just in Crested Butte, but across the country. "Look at Garden City," he notes. "It's almost $1 million in a town of 700. That's real money."


And it could be used to fund affordable housing, job training and other programs to help the local workforce, including artists and creatives.


Artists' voices


An illustrator and upcycled media artist who moved to Crested Butte in 1994, Kate Seeley launched her "Year of the Creature" project in 2010 and followed up with a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $30,000 in 2014.


The concept: Seeley would pre-sell 365 custom creature drawings and draw one a day for a year.


"Seven years later, I'm not done," she says. She tends to get too detailed as she incorporates traits from the buyers. One recent creature featured three heads to reflect a triple Gemini, for instance.
Kate Seeley poses with one of her creatures in front of her studio/bus.

The fees for art commissions have trended downward since the Great Recession, she says. When people tell her that it's great exposure, she retorts, "I'm so overexposed I could wander around naked. I need to be overpaid, not overexposed."


"Things used to be better because people used to pay me more," she says. "You're better off in this town selling weed or outdoor equipment."


Seeley says she's contemplating a move, but expresses mixed emotions. "I think I need to leave this town, but it's such a magical, beautiful place," she explains "It's so freeing. You feel you're on top of the world, and people are so accepting and supportive. It's a really accepting town that encourages trying whatever you want to try."


She adds, "It's like hanging out with a bunch of kids in your own preschool class -- especially when we get the same cold."


Seeley bartended for years at the now-defunct Swiss Chalet at Crested Butte Mountain Resort before going full-time with her art. She bought her cozy 1880s house -- featuring one of the aforementioned handpainted buses in the ramshackle yard, the site of a huge snow cave most winters -- in 2000. After more than a decade of roommates, she started renting it to overnight guests. "Five years ago, I started on Airbnb because I needed money," she says.


Now Seeley says she has five jobs: hostess, housekeeper, making art, reproducing art, and selling art. She describes Airbnb as a double-edged sword for resort towns like Crested Butte. "People are trying to figure out Airbnb, but it's helping people like me stay here," she says. "We need somewhere for the workforce."


And selling art has has gotten more difficult since the local real-estate market rebounded. "I've had studio-galleries for years," she laments. "It's hard selling art and making art is different. If you want to be open for seven hours a day, it's hard to be creative."


That fact, along with the rising rents, pushed Seeley to work at home, and she now uses the trout-festooned bus in her yard as a studio. "I painted that bus 22 years ago," she says. The town retired it after two decades in service due to a bad transmission, and she had craftily negotiated a right of first refusal with her initial contract, so she bought it and parked it in the yard. She's had some pushback from a local official that she need to get it running to conform with local zoning -- despite the fact that she's adjacent to the industrial area on Belleview Avenue.


So Seeley might launch another Kickstarter campaign to raise $6,000 to get the old bus running again. She might even apply for a grant from the Crested Butte Creative District to transform it into a mobile bar/gallery/studio for special events.


Seeley has a lot of ideas. She talks about "fiscal barnraising" to preserve affordable housing. "We need it across the globe. The world's being bought out by people who want second homes."


"I'm such a socialist," she adds. "You can quote me on that."


She also describes "dark neighborhoods" where most homeowners are absent in spring and fall. "All the art, all the people, all the sales vanish," she says of the shoulder seasons. "Town is way cooler with all these funky people hanging around."

Vinotok mummers on Elk Avenue. Photo by Lydia Stern.

Another local artist, Ben Eaton moved from New Hampshire to Vail in 1994 to work as a ski coach, then settled in Crested Butte in 1997 after learning blacksmithing from a master. He now forges custom artwork and architectural pieces as Get Bent, LLC, including gates, chandeliers and fireplace doors. He says his mix of art and functional pieces that can be covered by a construction loan has allowed his one-man blacksmith shop to thrive.


The downhill terrain was a big draw. "It's some of the best skiing in the country here," says Eaton. "It's a big part of my life."


He adds, "I liked Vail, but it didn't have much of a community. Crested Butte is a pretty tight-knit group of people, especially back then. You knew everybody. It was great."


Crested Butte has "its own cool vibe to it," says Eaton. "It's something that attracts similar folks. It has attracted a lot of creatives, maybe because you're not spending all your time in the rat race."


But that comes at a price, he adds. "It's ridiculous how expensive housing is. It does push out some of the people who make less money and that definitely applies to creatives."


"All these funky old buildings that had apartments in them are getting remodeled into multi-million-dollar homes," says Eaton. "Apartments that used to rent for $200 a month are now $2 million to buy. It's a difficult situation without any easy answers."


One key, he notes, is "keeping our funky traditions and holidays like Vinotok and Flauschink -- keeping this place weird and different. Obviously, that's a difficult thing to do."


Eaton says "little things," like the proposed paving of the parking lot behind the visitor center where the Grump meets a fiery doom in a bonfire at Vinotok, could impact some of the town's quirky rituals.


"You can't stop progress," he says, "but maybe you can slow it down a little bit."

Photo by Lydia Stern.

Photos by Eric Peterson except where otherwise noted.

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 George Sibley, Writer
Q&A with George Sibley, Writer

The Gunnison Valley's unofficial writer laureate, George Sibley founded the Crested Butte Chronicle in the late 1960s before moving on to freelance writing and teaching at Western State University in Gunnison in the decades since. He's written numerous books, essays, and plays, and contributed to such publications as High Country News, Mountain Gazette and Crested Butte Magazine, including a feature for the last publication's summer 2017 issue detailing the history of the Crested Butte Society as a forerunner to the Crested Butte Creative District.


Confluence Denver: How did you come to live in the Crestrd Butte area?


George Sibley: I came to Crested Butte in '66. I got a job on the ski patrol, which I should never have gotten, but they were pretty desperate: There was a bankruptcy the year before and nobody got paid.


I came back the second year and started to really get involved with the community.


CD: Were you writing back then?


GS: Not really. I had ambitions and always wanted to be a writer. I got into writing as a consequence of talking a lot and working with people in the town about ideas for the future and what kind of economy we were going to be able to paste together.


I remember one night when there was a discussion of: "We really need a newspaper." I cleared my throat and said, "I always wanted to be a writer." All of a sudden, I was, and had to fill up four pages every week. That was 1968, and the Crested Butte Society started in late fall of '67.


They were closely related in a lot of respects. We had the same goal which was more about the future of the place than the present of the place.


I did it for three and a half years before I realized I wasn't a businessman. I enjoyed the writing, but I hated selling advertising. After I sold the paper, I started writing for a publication called Skiers' Gazette, which morphed into Mountain Gazette, and some other publications.


CD: Tell me about the Crested Butte Society. Has its mission been fulfilled?


GS: At the time, we got a number of things going that are still going: The Crested Butte Arts Festival is one of the best arts festivals in the state and we have the Mountain Theatre that is 45 years old.


Basically, I think that there a surge of energy there in the '70s that's been sustained. It's good we were thinking what we could be doing that could give us a better living and better lives, which is what the creative district is about.


The Crested Butte Society really succeeded in creating a scene that favored artists, while they could still afford it. But gentrification is as much the artists’ fault as anyone else. They get in on the ground floor and find they can support their lives for three or four years by selling and going somewhere else.

"Dragon & Knight" by Sean Guerrero.

CD: Was there a model or inspiration for the Crested Butte Society?


GS: Not really. It was just, "Don't just get dependent on 'hamburgers and three snaps of the camera' tourists." There weren't really funds available from the state for that kind of thing in the late '60s and '70s, so we created an organization for anybody with creative ideas in the area to build the community and the economy. It was community economic development. It was interesting, and a lot of fun.

CD: What's Crested Butte's allure for artists and creatives?


GS: I can speak for myself. I wanted to get out of the big currents of the mainstream. I didn't understand what we were doing as a country. What the hell were we doing in Vietnam? I wanted to step out of the current and Crested Butte looked like a good place to go, and it was. I think the same thing's happening today.