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The ever-evolving Crested Butte Creative District

By Dawne Belloise

When the coal mines of Crested Butte shut down in the mid 1950s, the new ski area that opened in 1962 began attracting a demographic far different from the people and families of the late 1800s whose men came to work below ground.

Following on the heels of those first ski bums, many of whom were Western State College students and athletes, came the artists—the musicians, the actors, the writers, the painters, the dancers and the dreamers who saw beauty in the surroundings and the potential to live a nonconforming creative life in a tiny, dusty town in the back of beyond.

Today, Crested Butte is a haven for “creatives,” a made-to-order noun that expresses inclusivity of all aspects of creativity, from art to food and beyond. The reasons creatives flocked to this space at the end of the road are fairly obvious, as is their resulting influence on the town’s decades of evolution and aesthetic development.

Crested Butte was officially designated a Creative District by the state of Colorado in the summer of 2016. The expressed purpose is to develop cultural patronage so creatives and creative businesses thrive, by nurturing a vibrant creative culture in downtown Crested Butte. This is through support for local artists, increased collaboration between creative organizations, and increased visibility of the arts and creativity throughout the Creative District. At the same time, this designation helps preserve the fun, funky character and cohesive community identity that sets Crested Butte apart from other mountain resort towns.

Creative is a larger definition than just artistic. It’s a broader term, that the Crested Butte Creative District Committee (CDC) worked on to redefine what constitutes a creative and why. From this, a comprehensive valley-wide directory was organized with more than 90 businesses and individuals listed. Melissa Mason, chair of the CDC explains, “There are 300 businesses registered at the chamber of commerce, so we’re looking at one fifth of our businesses being part of the creative economy. Our Creative District designated and defined certain categories of creatives: craft food and beverages, design, film and media, heritage, literary arts, makers, performing arts, and visual arts.”

There are now four subcommittees focused on the areas of marketing, professional development, public art, and education. New in education is a mentorship program that partners with the Crested Butte Community School (CBCS). AP art students, who are working on their portfolio for college, are paired with a local artist. Mason says, “We’ve had huge success with the local artists sharing their expertise. The students get to see how a pro artist works in the world.”

The CDC also purchased a ceramic wheel (used to throw pottery) for the CBCS arts department. They also funded the school’s kindergarten arts class and helped with production costs for the dance production of Celebrate the Beat.

Crested Butte has teamed up with four other Creative Districts on the Western Slope to generate a 331-mile route through the neighboring creative districts of Paonia, Carbondale, Ridgway and Salida. Enabled by a $25,000 state grant, the corridor’s purpose is to invite tourists to lesser-known recreational destinations and experience the mountain towns of the western Rockies in an expanded adventure.

“The corridor is focused on the creative districts,” Mason says, “and part of the beauty of the Creative District is that it brings in visitors with a disposable income who have a low impact on our backcountry. It’s a marketing effort that says we’re not only an outdoor recreational town but we have a huge cultural scene. We want visitors to know there’s more than just mountain biking or skiing. We want them to know what else we have to offer culturally and we want to inform tourists of all the cultural events and options before they get here.”

“Marketing is a huge piece of what we’re doing,” but she also points out, “It’s not that we want to bring in more people, but more that we want to inform the people who are coming here of our cultural offerings so they can mountain bike as well as go to the Crested Butte Music Festival.”

Already more than one quarter, 27 percent, of visitors choose to come to Crested Butte solely to attend arts or cultural events. “There’s a tendency to think we’re only a sports town, but we have more creatives here than most towns and we have excellent cultural events,” Mason says, describing this as a creative economy.

“We don’t get a $20 million arts center in a community that doesn’t care about the arts. One of the cool programs we developed is a comprehensive calendar,” an overall, all-inclusive events listing at Gunnisonvalleycalendar.org, which the CDC created and funded. “We figured out that to have your event publicized online you had to post it in about 90 different places,” Mason says of the recognized need to develop a consistent online calendar where anyone can get pertinent information on valley-wide events from one searchable source. “KBUT stepped in and volunteered to manage the calendar.”

With a public art mandate now in the town code and law, Mason explains, “We have a public art policy. Prior to the code, there was no rhyme or reason as to how art got onto the streets. Now, two percent of any town capital improvement projects goes to public art. The ordinance also allows for the CDC to say where to put monies planned for art projects so that we’re not limited to the specific location of the capital improvement.”

Some of the recent public art projects include the mural in the public town bathrooms, and Mallardi Cabaret’s capital improvement, which features a metal sculpture in the lobby by blacksmith creative Ben Eaton. The Red Lamp Post and plaque on Elk Avenue, in front of Montanya’s, was one of the projects awarded to Jeremy Rubingh and commemorates the fight against a mine on Mt. Emmons, a.k.a. the Red Lady.

Professional development focuses on supporting working creatives and businesses in our community. Most recently, CDC paired up with the Crested Butte Center for the Arts to create a class on how to craft a résumé, how to write an intelligent bio and get professional photos or head shots, because creatives are sometimes not the best when it comes to marketing themselves. “They get the expertise they need to promote themselves. We pay for the majority of the class, which is basically a free, two-day class with headshots to help them get into galleries, or gigs, or magazines.”

In addition to the online calendar and creatives’ directory, the CDC also helps inform visitors and locals of what’s available in the community, bringing an awareness through a marketing campaign to buy from local creatives. “It’s another way for us to support our creatives and businesses by encouraging people in the community to buy from our own locals, from jewelry to show tickets. We don’t need to source things from Amazon or other online outlets, or even other places, because we have locals who can do it here.”

The Crested Butte creative community, cultural tourism and the many events have grown enough to warrant the massive expansion of the Crested Butte Center for the Arts. The district also includes the many art galleries exhibiting local artists and artisans.

Crested Butte has become known for its events such as the Gypsy Jazz Fest, the Mountain High Music Festival, the weekly concerts of Alpenglow and Live from Mt. Crested Butte!, the Crested Butte Arts Festival, the People’s Fair, the Plein Air (Art) Invitational, the Crested Butte Film Festival, the Crested Butte Dance Collective, the Crested Butte Dance Company, the Crested Butte Mountain Theatre—which is the oldest community theatre in Colorado—community radio KBUT, the Wildflower Festival, the Iron Pour, the Beer and Chili Fest, and the week-long community harvest celebration and passion play of the wild and earthy Vinotok, just to name a few of the creatives and events that keep this town funky and dynamic.

When you combine all of these happenings, there’s hardly a moment the town isn’t immersed in a cultural event.

The long-time local artists, the creatives, as well as the current influx of artisanal and art-appreciative residents, have further fueled the flavor and soul of Crested Butte, grooming it into a place that brings more visitors to the area who recognize its wide variety of aesthetic offerings. It’s a small art town that is the sort of place where people can find a true sense of community. Mason feels strongly, “We need to make sure people know about this amazing district. The outdoor aspect goes hand in hand with why artists are here. Look around you—you want to write a song, paint a painting, take a photo, create a sculpture.”

For more information  about the Crested Butte Creative District and the CDC, or if you are a local creative, you can register yourself, services, and talent for free online in the Creatives Directory at cbcreativedistrict.org

For the comprehensive calendar of events online visit Gunnisonvalleycalendar.org.

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