By Jonathan Toman, Cultural Office
Dozens of galleries dot the landscape of the Avenue Creative Circuit – Downtown Colorado Springs, Old Colorado City, and Manitou Springs. We spoke with folks from each district to see how far the visual art scene has come, the impact of the pandemic, and the interconnected future of local arts.
Old Colorado City
Sharon Hunter-Wolff started the Old Colorado City Art Walk in November 2005, one month after she opened Hunter-Wolff Gallery. A lot of things have changed since then, but the pandemic presented a new challenge.
“I think we were all in disbelief,” she said. “We felt like it would blow over. And then it became our reality.”
Like other sectors, artists and galleries changed and expanded how they do business. Or, moved up timelines for projects already in motion. For Hunter-Wolff, that meant increased emphasis on online sales, additional electronic communications with customers, and creating a more user-friendly and informative website and social media.
“It was about connecting and letting them know I’m here and ready to reach them in new ways,” she says.
It takes a village to create a successful art scene, Hunter-Wolff says, and the year-round support of volunteers, business associations, and the community will be critical moving forward, as added challenges such as hiring and inflation remain ahead.
“Remember that we are here. It’s so easy to sit at a computer and order from Amazon. (Small businesses and galleries) are real people in your community, are part of your neighborhood. See us, hear what we have to say, learn about us.”
“Give small businesses a chance to show you what they can do.”
For Hunter-Wolff, the atmosphere of the arts community has become much more unified and supportive since 2005. That community spirit and sense of collaboration throughout Old Colorado City and beyond is top of mind for her moving forward.
“I hope that galleries still work with one another to make this a thriving arts scene,” she says. “I hope that people don’t lose focus – it took us a long time to get where we are. I hope that pandemic concerns don’t derail what we’re trying to do as an arts community.”
Downtown Colorado Springs
Downtown Colorado Springs boasts over six times the national average of creative-sector jobs, creative industry revenues, and cultural nonprofit grant awards.
Claire Swinford, Executive Director of Downtown Ventures, knows first-hand the impactful role of the arts in creating a culturally rich and thriving downtown creative district.
“Arts and culture have always been part of what makes downtown special, and they are a powerful force for crystallizing identity, speaking truth to power, and helping people come to grips with change,” Swinford says.
The arts create a visually and culturally rich environment that engages visitors and encourages people to linger, enjoy, and invest. That matters, Swinford says, because cities with thriving Downtowns do better overall, with positive outcomes for jobs, talent retention, public health, economic resiliency and civic engagement – things that affect every resident of the Pikes Peak region.
“We’ve known for years that our cultural organizations and galleries contribute measurably and significantly to Colorado Springs’ economy and quality of life, but in this season of rapid citywide growth we need to be attentive to mounting pressures that affect the long-term viability of these assets,” says Swinford.
Local cultural attractions draw both visitors and residents. Overall visitorship to regional cultural attractions grew by 15 percent in 2018, and the 2019 Public Art Master Plan citizen survey reported over 90 percent of respondents say regular exposure to the arts is a “high or very high priority” for their families.
Ongoing support for these local businesses and attractions is critical. Swinford says you can make your presence felt by buying local art, attending cultural events, talking about your experiences on social media, and volunteering with an arts organization.
Becca Sickbert took on a new task in May 2020 – Economic Recovery Director and Executive Director of the Manitou Springs Creative District. Even in partnership with the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and City of Manitou Springs, it’s a heavy lift, but one that Sickbert remembers has been done before.
“In the 70s and 80s, artists drove economic recovery,” she says, noting the impact of painters, pottery, and textiles at the time.
During the pandemic, COVID-safe ways to engage community came to the forefront. Manitou Made allowed people to learn new skills. The “Still Manitou” photography project showed that life went on and smiles could still be had even if they weren’t in person. And a hula-hoop fencing project for local restaurants combined the outdoor seating needs of restaurants with the talents of local artists.
“The Manitou Springs community rallied to provide artist relief well before anyone else,” Sickbert says. “That’s really special for a small community.”
A combination of collaboration and inspiration – with the requisite dose of safety – are themes for the Manitou arts community moving forward. That means artists supporting artists, along with a more holistic approach to programming arts events, such as live music outside of venues with the option to go inside if comfortable.
To Sickbert, digital support is as important as visiting in person – streaming, sharing, and talking up your favorite artists and galleries on social media, subscribing to their newsletters, and more.
In short: “Keep showing up for your creative community.”
On the first Friday of each month, galleries, museums, and retailers across the Avenue Creative Circuit stay open late for art openings, artist receptions, performances, and more.
One goal of the monthly event is to offer visitors something extra – whether it’s meeting artists, watching demonstrations, or giving them the opportunity to ask questions about art creation and the life of an artist, how art connects us, and where artist inspiration comes from.
“I’m a business owner, but with heart of a teacher,” says Sharon Hunter-Wolff, owner of Hunter-Wolff Gallery in Old Colorado City. “Art Walk is a vehicle to learn, to talk to the experts. It’s for them, not for me – the creators, the collectors, the curious.”
As pandemic restrictions eased, First Friday surged back to life, with 90 percent of participating downtown venues returning to regular programming by June 2021. First Friday attendance has also rebounded. In July, downtown galleries finally exceeded their 2019 monthly headcount for the first time since the pandemic started.
PeakRadar.com/FirstFriday has details on each month’s gallery openings, plus an interactive map to help guide your excursion. PeakRadar.com/GalleryGuide has ideas on where to explore next, whether virtually or in-person.
Beyond the Circuit
The Tri-Lakes region is full of great local art, and the monthly Monument Art Hop is one of the best ways to experience the visual arts of the area. Art Hop takes place every third Thursday from May through September.
NOTE: This article was originally published in the 2021 Cultural Office Guide to Arts Month, crafted in partnership with the Colorado Springs Gazette and published as an insert in the paper on Oct. 3, 2021. See the digital copy in its entirety at https://issuu.com/springsgazette/docs/cultural_office_guide_to_arts_month_2021