Art Base rallying support for a new era

With a post-pandemic future in sight, Basalt community art center campaigning to raise $3 million and opening new building in May

The Art Base is set to open in its new building next month. The community art center bought it last year for $1.7 million. Photo Olive and West

With saws whirring and hammers banging nearby, on a recent walk-through of the Art Base’s soon-to-open, new two-story home in downtown Basalt, the community art center’s director said she has seen an outpouring of support for the nonprofit in recent months as it launched an ambitious fundraising campaign to pay for its new building and fund its post-pandemic future.

“I was blown away by the response,” said Art Base executive director Skye Skinner. “It was like magic.”

The art center has quietly raised $910,000 toward a $3 million goal. It is set to open the new building in May, with its first art exhibition — by Boulder artist Heather Cherry —opening May 28. The center’s art classes for kids and adults will remain at its current space, in Lions Park, through summer as the remodel of two upstairs classrooms at the new building is expected to continue until fall.

The organization, founded by Deborah Jones and formerly the Wyly Community Art Center, is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2021. The new center’s opening puts it at the forefront of a new flowering of arts and culture in the midvalley alongside the Arts Campus at Willits, which also is set to open this summer.

A downtown cultural anchor

Skinner and the Art Base board of trustees began the process of buying the Three Bears Building downtown last summer. When the $1.7 million purchase contract was made public in October it was a shock to the local arts community as the Art Base had been earmarked to build a new center on a 6,000-square-foot parcel at the Basalt River Park development.

Changing course, Skinner said, was the right thing for organization and the people it serves.

“Not only is what we’re trying to do more financially responsible — it’s about a third of the price tag of what we thought we were going to be doing there — it’s also that we need space right now,” Skinner said, referring to the limits of the cramped 1,500-square-foot space the Art Base currently fills. “We’re really hogtied. And I haven’t seen a shovel in the ground (at the River Park).”

Skinner said an Art Base board member called her with the news that the Three Bears Building — which had been home to the popular pop-up Art Base Annex in 2016 — was on the market last July. She and the 10-member board quickly decided pursuing it was the right thing for the organization.

Joining the organization on an interim basis in spring 2020, Skinner said she did not think she would have signed on as a permanent director if the Art Base board had continued down the path of building in the River Park.

“It didn’t feel like us,” she said. “It didn’t feel like what a community art center should be doing.”

A replacement nonprofit has not yet been announced for the River Park parcel.

The Art Base’s move to buy downtown came amid the economic shock and public health crises of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which forced Art Base operations online, and came just months after Skinner joined the organization as interim director. Former head Genna Moe left in March 2020 for the Aspen Institute.

In August, the Art Base began a quiet $3 million fundraising campaign to pay for the building and a cash reserve.

The adverse conditions would appear to be unthinkable for a small, scrappy nonprofit — running on about a $500,000 annual budget — to succeed in such a campaign.

But the fundraising push has borne fruit, allowing the organization to put down a $500,000 payment on the building purchase and to embark on a first-phase $250,000 remodel. Raising more than $900,000 to date, Skinner is hopeful that they’ll pay off the entire $1.7 million building purchase this year.

About $750,000 of the fundraising haul came in the six weeks after the Art Base began pursuing the Three Bears Building in late summer 2020. The most recent addition was a $50,000 grant from Alpine Bank, which also is providing the Art Base its loan on the property.

“I don’t think we would have made this happen without them taking us seriously,” Skinner said of the bank, “because we do not look good on paper.”

Alpine Bank regional president Ian Bays said the bank wanted to support the nonprofit and be a part of the revitalization of downtown Basalt, creating a new cultural anchor in the historic district.

“The Art Base represents the creative nature of Basalt, the education of our youth and the local community which are important values to Alpine Bank,” Bays said via email. “We wish them all the best and know that their new home in downtown Basalt will have a profound impact on the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond for many years to come.”

Inside the new Art Base

Many locals and Art Base supporters have an idea of what the street-level art gallery space will look like after experiencing the memorable pop-up shows of five years ago, which gave a prominent and elegant platform to locally based artists like Wewer Keohane, Lynn Goldsmith and Glenn Smith.

But that gallery and the larger two-level, 4,800-square-foot facility is currently in the midst of a major makeover.

The remodel so far has taken out walls to create a more expansive and adaptable street level art gallery. This space alone nearly equals the square-footage of the current Art Base home in Lions Park. Along with showcasing local and regional artists in that space, Skinner and her team are planning on creating a small permanent gallery for local artists and a small curated museum-style store.

“We want a lot of reasons for people to walk through that door,” Skinner said of the gift shop area.

The future classroom spaces upstairs will revolutionize the Art Base’s popular art class offerings, Skinner said. A space for youth classes, overlooking Midland Avenue, is bathed in natural light. A second art-making space for adults is on the quieter backside of the building. In between, Skinner and Art Base curator Lissa Ballinger are considering creating a rotating youth exhibition gallery, art library and reception area, which also includes a small patio.

Art Base officials have pegged Oct. 1 as the start for classes in the new building (the lease on the old building expires this month, but the Art Base has an agreement with the town of Basalt to continue teaching there through summer).

The property also includes a street-level alleyway space that runs from the Midland sidewalk to a tree-shaded rear patio area. The alley’s brick walls have the potential to host rotating murals, Skinner noted, while that outdoor space and a rear patio will be ideal for art opening receptions and other events.

“I’m looking at how we can make this a really great place to hang out,” Skinner said.

A second phase of remodeling, tentatively planned for 2022 and estimated to cost $250,000, will include installing an elevator and remodeling bathrooms to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, among other upgrades. Installing the elevator as soon as possible is vital, Skinner said, because the Art Base has many disabled students and partnerships with organizations like Mountain Valley Developmental Services. She hopes to have it installed by January.

The location also will be a game-changer for the organization, noting the difference between the high-traffic of Midland among restaurants and shops, compared to he dearth of humans just a stone’s throw away at Lions Park.

“We are prepared to have our minds blown by the foot traffic,” Skinner said. “Yeah, we’re only a block-and-a-half away (from the old location) but that may as well be in the outback of Australia.”

‘For the long haul’

So far, the Art Base campaign has been fueled by gifts ranging from $250 to $250,000 and has mirrored a trend that has seen Aspen-area nonprofits find fundraising success during the pandemic and, often, increased giving over pre-pandemic times. The Aspen Music Festival and School, for example, recently reported that it has a record amount of new donors in the year since the pandemic.

While the pandemic spurred record unemployment rates in the Roaring Fork Valley, the upper echelon of local philanthropists proved impervious to the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19 and have responded by giving more to some causes including Aspen-area arts organizations.

“We’re fortunate in this valley,” Skinner said. “A lot of people are doing really well. … Philanthropists during the pandemic really want to stand by the organizations that they want to see on the other side of this thing.”

She noted that, by late summer 2020, it was clear conditions were surprisingly favorable for a community arts center to start a major fundraising push.

The Art Base supporters who wrote checks during the early, quiet fundraising push last fall, Skinner noted, all had decades-long relationships with the organization, had seen it grow and evolve, and wanted to enable it to get the new building. They responded to the urgency of being able to buy Three Bears.

As the fundraising campaign goes public, Skinner believes it and the new building will pave the way for the Art Base to serve the community for the next 25 years and beyond: “I think this incarnation of the Art Base is 100 percent going to secure the organization for the long haul.”


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