Colorado Springs is known for a conservative bent, but, for every action, there's an equally strong reaction. This phenomenon is on full display in the Downtown Colorado Springs Creative District.A quick creative visualization: You're driving with a stranger from Denver to Colorado Springs on a clear, bright day. This stranger, a visitor to Colorado, has never been to the city of 440,000, about 60 miles south of Denver.
What's it like?
she asks as you zoom south on I-25, through the outlet stores of Castle Rock. The stunning precipice of Pikes Peak comes clearer into view. So does the sign for the Focus on the Family Welcome Center, the public face of the Christian advocacy group, located just east of the interstate. Fighter jets zoom overhead, flying practice circles over the United States Air Force Academy campus. You scan the radio; lots of Christian talk and pop.
It's kinda like that,
Fairly or unfairly, many Denverites associate Colorado Springs with its conservative hallmarks. The Springs has a churches-to-people ratio that's roughly double that of Denver and is home to some of the largest megachurches in the region. The military is a major presence here: Fort Carson Army base and the Air Force Academy employ tens of thousands of locals. If you live in Colorado Springs, defense contractors from Boeing and Raytheon and engineers from NORAD are simply the people in your neighborhood.
But that's hardly the whole story of the Springs. Drive the visiting stranger through downtown, today, and you'll see murals and stencil art blazing from alleyways and the sides of historic brick buildings, urban counterparts to 90 more traditional public art pieces commissioned by the Art on the Streets program over the past two decades. On Bijou and Tejon streets, classic mom-and-pop restaurants sit next to sleek new eateries and breweries. At lunchtime, they fill up with with architects, graphic designers and software developers who work nearby.
In 2014, downtown Colorado Springs was certified as an official Colorado Creative District by the State of Colorado's Colorado Creative Industries. The designation validated the regional strength of the city's art centers, especially the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, one of the most celebrated of its kind in the county. It is also reflected the growing role of the arts in the economic life of downtown Colorado Springs. In addition to drawing a big chunk of the five million tourists who visit the area annually, the creative industries are a tool to attract and keep new talent and spur investment and entrepreneurship.
Since 2013, more than 40 creative businesses have hung a shingle in downtown Colorado Springs. Michelle Marx sees it as a place where creative business owners people can flourish, especially if they're willing to take risks. Early next year, she'll move her business, Coquette's Bistro and Bakery, to a refurbished Mid-Century building she recently bought, with support from the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs, in the burgeoning New South End neighborhood downtown. The building, which formerly housed an optometrists office, is close to a new 187-unit apartment complex and other mixed-use developments and will include 4,000 square feet of retail space.
"Nobody else seemed to see the possibilities in this building, but we saw the potential, not just for ourselves but for others," says Marx, who runs Coquette's with her daughter, Turu. "We're so excited to be part of what this neighborhood is shaping up to be. We'll be here from the beginning of its transformation and help bring a good vibe."A driver of the positive
Of the 36 action steps outlined in Colorado Springs' newly adopted master plan for downtown, nearly a third relate to the arts and creative industries -- everything from branding to programming in local parks and public areas. To Claire Swinford, urban engagement manager for the Downtown Partnership, that's proof that, even in a fiscally conservative city, policymakers and the business sector recognize that the benefits of investment in the arts go well beyond the aesthetic and decorative.
Claire Swinford manages the Downtown Colorado Springs Creative District."Our goal is to use public art as a larger tool of strategic development, a driver for other positive things we want to see in the Creative District," she says. "It's new businesses, a block being revitalized; it helps to coalesce and identity. And on a practical level, if we notice a neighborhood is having some trouble, we can put some programming, some public art there to create an incentive, so that people walk there and interact, rather than remaining in their personal bubble."
Swinford says the Downtown Partnership and the city have invited artists to help shape the plan through a series of public input meetings. Not surprisingly, housing and affordability were common concerns: Like many places in the state, growth in Colorado Springs has led to a spike in home prices and rents at places to live, work and create.
"We heard a lot of excitement, but people also latched onto the questions of what that rate of increased growth means for their ability to live and work downtown," she says. "They asked, 'Is my rent going to rise so much that I can't afford to be here anymore? As infrastructure starts to develop, how do I make sure I get galvanized instead of squished?'"
Swinford's office is working with ArtPlace America to explore the viability of live/work initiative for artists and makers, similar to the Space to Create projects underway in Trinidad and Ridgway. In the meantime, she notes that the owners of several buildings downtown offer live/work space at rates well below the market average; the Cottonwood Center for the Arts offers studio space to locals at a huge discount.
Artists at work at Cottonwood Center for the Arts.
"A lot of very smart people are trying to find ways to address the space issues," she says. "Fortunately, we're not at the same point as Denver. We have some lag time to really come up with solutions, and we've got a lot of minds on it."
Herself a working visual artist, Swinford adds, "One of the advantages of this town is that our cultural artists and organizations are scrappy and resourceful. They're willing to work together in a way to inspire one another. Recently, some folks from the Art District on Santa Fe came down and toured our district. They came away with the sense that the Springs has a ton of vibrancy. It's a place where people are excited about working together as creative entities to create positive change for our communities."
Colorado Springs is still politically conservative, but its demographics are changing. There's a growing sense that the creative community is coalescing and collaborating in ways that provide a dynamic alternative to the city's dominant culture. If there exists a tension between the traditional image of Colorado Springs and its more progressive, expressive leanings, it is fertile ground for art.
Last month, for example, The Tim Gill Center for Public Media, an event venue and education space opened by the Denver-based Gill Foundation in 2012, invited the community to submit works to a "Healing Wall" exhibition in response to the recent presidential election. The submissions, which include mournful sticky notes, collective poems and works by established local artists, will be on display at the Center into 2017.
Colorado College -- named one of the country's most innovative liberal-arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report
-- regularly hosts authors, artists, journalists and thinkers, with an emphasis on women and people of color. This fall, Colorado College's I.D.E.A. Space
hosted "Incarceration Nation," a high-profile exhibition that explored the experiences of men and women who are imprisoned across the U.S.
Richard Ross, "Juvenile In Justice," archival pigment print.
A purity of work
A variety of artistic and intellectual viewpoints are on display every month on First Friday, when more than 30 downtown galleries, as well as more off-grid and underground spaces, open to visitors and dialogue.
"I would put our artists and musicians up against any in the world and I think I know it well," says Don Goede, an artist and executive director of the Smokebrush Foundation, which funds creative programs across the city, including spoken word and storytelling for youth. "Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs are an incredible place to work in the arts because it almost feels like the mainstream media hasn't figured out how amazing we are, therefore it has helped keep out the possibility of any extra pretentiousness and too much ego in all of our artistic manifestations."
Goede, a Colorado Springs native, has lived and worked across the country, including a long stint in Brooklyn, where he helped start the indie imprint Soft Skull Press. When he returned to the area in the early 2000s, he was pleasantly surprised by what he found.
"Working in the arts my whole life, I have had to deal with way too many artists that were just full of themselves," says Goede. "Even though our region has some of the richest art history in the country -- the Broadmoor Academy alone was a mecca for painters around the world -- it's almost like we have forgotten that history as well. There is a purity of work here that I just love even if it sometimes borders on naiveté. I collect more art here than I ever did in Los Angeles, New York or Philly."
Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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.