Ranching Hub Ridgway Reaps Rewards of Creative Virtuous Circle

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Photo by John Clark.

In southwestern Colorado, Ridgway is a small town with a laser focus on the arts. With a critical mass of creative residents, years of hard work are paying off.

When Ashley King-Grambley moved from the small town of Gunnison to the tiny one of Ridgway, she had a chief concern: "I thought I would be bored out of my mind," she says. "Instead, I'm exhausted."

King-Grambley moved to take a job as executive director of Weehawken Creative Arts, a nonprofit community arts school and venue. When she first arrived, in 2008, she worked a couple of jobs, as many in Ridgway do. She got to know locals and the San Juan mountains that frame the spare and stunning valley in which the town sits. If she was bored, she was too busy to notice.

"Ridgway is a community full of open-minded, wanting-to-learn, willing-to-listen, tolerant folks, and there's always something super engaging going on," says King-Grambley. "There are a lot of really amazing people who live in this region who have a crazy breadth of experience and world-class resumes. There's a plethora of world-class mountaineers, scientists, people who have been involved in national parks. It's a very active social scene, actually."

Ridgway has long been known as a beautiful but quick stop for tourists, especially during the summer and the peak of ski season, when passers-through stop for burgers and beer at the True Grit Cafe downtown -- one of many homages to the 1969 John Wayne Western that cast Ridgway as Fort Smith, Arkansas, circa 1880 -- before continuing west on Colorado 82 to Telluride, or south on U.S. 550 to Durango.

The many artists who call Ridgway home are helping to change that.

"I have 200 creatives on my list. We're a town of 950 people," says Diedra Silbert, community and economic development coordinator for the Town of Ridgway. Silbert works to increase the impact of the arts on Ridgway's economic life and vitality, and to integrate the arts into revitalizing downtown. "That's not counting a large number of people who prefer to stay underground."

Participants in Michael McCullough's Annual Amateur Sculpting Contest in 2015.

So, what do you get in a dinky town with so many creative people in it?

You get culture on a micro scale: lots of public art, a handful of really good restaurants, a few solid artist co-ops and galleries and a strong community of people working to create not just art but life -- and a town that fuels both.

"We have a lot of discussions about heritage -- about ranching and the railroad," says Silbert. "When you think of those you don't necessarily think of the arts. But it begs the question: What is creativity? We say it's all kinds of things. It's canning, it's good wine and beer, it's food. We value all kinds of creativity. We don't have any questions about that."

"I came here 12 years ago, to visit, and I never left," says Suzanne Ulrich, owner of Art by the Park, a fine art gallery across from Hartwell Park, the town's main public meeting place. "My story is the story of many people who live here. There's always something to do, someone interesting to talk to. I came from a town of seven million people" -- New York City -- "and this place is just as interesting to me."

Photos courtesy John Clark, Billings Artworks & Ridgway Creative District. Graphic by Matt Megyesi.

Space to Create

Colorado Creative Industries (CCI) designated Ridgway as a Colorado Certified Creative District in 2013. In terms of both population and geography, it's the smallest of the districts. But it's currently the most buzzed about. Last month, CCI, Artspace and the Boettcher Foundation announced that Ridgway had been selected for as a site for the prestigious Space to Create program, beating out nearby Durango and Mancos. It's the second such site in Colorado, after Trinidad. A total of nine Space to Create projects are expected to roll out over the next three years.

With Artspace as a guide, Space to Create will take Ridgway town and community leaders through a kind of creative soul search to determine how best to support artists and creative entrepreneurs already in Ridgway and others who might consider moving there. When the project is complete, the town is expected to have a significant stock of affordable live/work space and some new people, and new ideas, to occupy them.

Ridgway's ascendant profile may seem, on the surface, like a natural evolution: It's a charming town in a gorgeous setting, ripe for discovery in a time of accelerated growth across Colorado. But its identity as a cultural hub has been carefully nurtured by locals both native and adopted who love, fight for and invest in Ridgway. There's Antonio Marra, for example, an Italian-born New York sculptor who moved to town in 2006 and creates and sells artwork from a home studio there; last year, he saved three historic but decrepit buildings from certain death last year.

In 2012, in response to Governor John Hickenlooper's Bottoms-Up Economic Initiative, which identified the arts as a potential growth industry for Ouray County, the Ridgway Creative District was formed by a group of volunteers. The district was certified by CCI after intense lobbying on the part of the Ridgway Creative District committee, the city (which is helmed by a professional photographer, Mayor John Clark) and hyper-engaged residents.

The annual Ridgway Rendezvous Art & Craft Festival has been going strong since the 1980s.

"Ridgway is a small town with a small economic base and a vision of itself," says Lucy Boody, a fiber artist who, with her late partner Michael McCullough, formed Public Art in Ridgway Colorado, a volunteer group that helped boost the town's collection of sculptures, murals and installations. "This team of people is relentless, they have faith. And when they get tired, they boost each other up."

McCullough, a beloved local sculptor who died in March, was one of Ridgway's most vocal, and creative, advocates as well as one its most prolific: He and Boody converted a former firehouse, complete with a fire truck, into a home/studio/gallery, then turned the surrounding outdoor areas into living galleries for visual art and poetry. When state officials and culture scouts visited Ridgway, McCullough and Boody took them on high-velocity tours, culminating in lavish, Wonderland-style banquets attended by Ridgway's movers and makers.

"Michael was on the phone twice a week with the state Creative Industries people, saying, 'You need to check us out,'" says Boody. "When we were made a Creative District, it gave us a notch on our belt, it gave us credibility for bonding. And look at where we are now."

"People in this community have a desire to make a lifestyle that's as equally beautiful as the scenery, and not have it be a satellite community," adds Boody. "The creative district helped build on the momentum to do that."

The Michael McCullough Day Celebration in June 2016.

Small town, big arts

The arts have been integrated into major municipal efforts including Ramp Up Ridgway!, a $13.8 million highway project that will widen State Highway 82, which is driven by 60,000 vehicles per week, and improve the Central Business District by making it more pedestrian-friendly and more beautiful. Silbert and the Creative District committee worked with the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to incorporate public art, including benches, sculptures and bike racks created by Colorado artists, into the proposal.

A few major institutions provide an anchor for a community compelled to learn and participate. The Ridgway Public Library hosts monthly exhibitions of work by local artists. The historic 80-seat Sherbino Theater presented nearly 200 concerts, poetry readings, speakers and performances in 2015. Weehawken Creative Arts will offer 370 community classes, performances and events in Ouray County this year.

"When I think about the amount of programming that goes on here, it's a lot of days, it's a lot of nights that things are happening," says King-Grambley. "And there's a lot of pride associated with that."

And it's a draw for a certain type. "We attract people who are thinkers, who want to engage with the community, and they're excited to hear different viewpoints. But a lot of people who take classes with us don't actively identify as an artist or as a creative," she adds. "They're hobby artists, learners, cultural recreationists. We hear from people all over who chose to move here, in part, because this place has things like this for families to do. There's a culture of lifelong learning."

Dancers follow the Yellow Brick Road at the Sherbino Theater.

Creative industries are now a major economic driver for Ouray County. This summer, events including the Ridgway Rendezvous Art & Craft Festival and the July Summer Concert Series drew thousands to Hartwell Park in the center of town. New restaurants, like Eatery 66, a farm-to-truck lunch spot in a sunny courtyard, and Tacos Del Gnar, street-style Mexican food that could go rounds with anything in Denver, have gained the attention of foodies and food critics.

All of this is good for business. In 2015, the creative industries in Ridgway generated $7.1 million in sales, up 16 percent from 2012. About 50 people work in creative industries full-time, an increase of 6 percent in three years.

Still, you have to be a little scrappy to make it in Ridgway. Business peaks in the summer and slows way down in the winter. Institutions survive by pooling resources. Weehawken Creative Arts and The Sherbino Theater/Ridgway Chautauqua Society, for example, came together in 2014 to share administrative space and functions including venue management, accounting and some programming; King-Grambley's office manages the partnership.

People survive by working more than one job (King-Grambley waited tables; Michael McCullough worked odd jobs) and finding markets -- and, sometimes, housing -- outside of town. Though not nearly as expensive as neighbor Telluride, housing in Ridgway is notably finite and pricey, which is a big part of why its population skews older, wealthy and white. Through Space to Create, Ridgway has an opportunity to mix up its demographics a bit by making the town more accessible to a broader mix of people who "get" Ridgway.

"You have to be creative to live here, particularly for young people," says Silbert. "A lot of people, especially in the 20- to 30-year-old demographic, they can't live here. The real estate market is tight, we don't have all the things you need for people to survive here. We're hoping Space to Create will help with that, so that people who could make more elsewhere will choose to come here."

"Ridgway is an understated place," she adds. "We're not not necessarily wanting to go upscale. We really want to preserve and find art that represents our culture."

Photo by Classic Visions Photography.

Photos courtesy Ridgway Creative District, John Clark, Matt Inden and Classic Visions Photography.

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 Lucy Boody, Old Firehouse Studio
Q&A with Lucy Boody, Old Firehouse Studio
Lucy Boody moved to Ridgway from Telluride with fellow artist Michael McCullough in 2003. Over the next decade, the couple would serve as the town's unofficial creative ambassadors, a creative power couple with an ocean of talent and ideas between them. Boody is a fiber artist who has shown and sold all over the country. Michael created some of the most iconic sculptures to be found on the Western Slope.

Among many other projects, together they opened the Old Firehouse Studio, which was also their home, started the Public Art for Ridgway program and created the Alley Poems and Alley Art projects, which add a touch of literary and artistic whimsy to Ridgway's nooks and crannies. When McCullough died in March, Ridgway mourned a creative visionary who was also one of the city's great civic champions, credited by Mayor John Clark as the person who "almost single-handedly made the Creative District happen." Boody was by his side every step of the way.

Confluence Denver: Why did you move from Telluride to Ridgway?

Lucy Boody: Michael decided I was going to be his girlfriend, and he kind of hit me over the head with a club, and off we went. We decided we would quit our jobs, and just make art -- make a garden, drive the firetruck around. The firehouse became this very ideal location. The first thing we did was put in a sink and a powder room. It was our living quarters; we were the first people who had ever lived there. It was a studio and a gallery, there was a retail space. It was really a dream, for eleven years.

CD: And it was a busy place.

LB: We would give up to 75 tours a day sometimes. We had endless traffic all the time. School kids would come for tours. Tour buses would come by. People from Europe and all over the world. They were so impressed with what we had done, with our lifestyle. We would get letters that said things like, 'When we got back to Australia, we quit our jobs, straight away.' And we would look at each other like, 'Hmm. What were they thinking?' They really bought the whole pony show. [Laughs.]

CD: What was the impetus for the Alley projects?

LB: Michael really was brilliant. He was great at coming up with ideas but he often needed a little push. That's often where I came in. About six years ago we just had this brainstorm about words and how they are just as much of an artistic embellishment as visual arts. He said, "I think we need alley art," and he got to it right away. He painted plywood, he picked out the poems himself. Eventually Kierstin Bridger a local literary hero said, 'Let's tidy this up.' They worked together on it, very tight and close.

CD: How would Michael feel about what's happened in Ridgway just in the past few months?

LB: Michael loved Ridgway and he loved the arts; he'd be very happy to see how far we've come. His enthusiasm for the town was riveting. We did so many things that helped people see, all you really need to create is the desire. If you have the desire, then anything is possible.

Photo by Matt Inden.