Giving Thought: Arts vital for a thriving community |

Giving Thought: Arts vital for a thriving community

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought
Allison Alexander
Courtesy photo

While many come to our region for skiing and natural beauty, the vibrant arts scene adds additional color, culture, and depth.

This past Tuesday, the State of the Valley Arts Symposium brought together local artists, non-profits, supporters, and funders gathered at The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW). Together, attendees discussed and celebrated the incredibly diverse artistic ecosystem within the Roaring Fork Valley.

Based on the number of summer art-related events in Aspen, it is probably no surprise to learn that the arts are an economic driver for the city. Yet it is important to point out that the arts ecosystem extends well beyond the roundabout with world-class artists and organizations creating connections to the arts in a variety of ways for locals and visitors alike. Tuesday’s gathering provided a forum for individuals working within the region’s art ecosystem to connect, learn, and explore opportunities while acknowledging the hardships.

In national surveys, Colorado ranks in the top 10 for participation and consumption of the arts. Additionally, Colorado ranks No. 1 in the percentage of residents who personally perform or create artwork, according to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Participation Study. Yet despite our residents recognizing the value of art and its place as a life-changing (and arguably saving) role, at the state level, we rank in the bottom five for arts funding, which has created challenges for many non-profits.

Data presented by the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts (CBCA) at the event highlighted numerous ways the arts are critical for a thriving economy. Having just one performing arts organization in a rural community doubles the probability that other local businesses will be able to innovate and recover faster from economic crises, and we are fortunate to have multiple in our region. Supporting arts organizations is good for business and economic vitality.

Panel experts shared the value of transparent communication about struggles with donors and funders as critical for building trust and sustainability. Several panelists advocated for reducing the burdens placed on non-profits that are already stretched thin. During the pandemic, many funders adjusted granting protocols to ensure organizations survived the uncertainty of the moment. Grants were made based on trust, allowing flexibility and ultimately supporting survival.

The audience challenged funders to consider permanently adopting some of the innovations and changes made in grant applications and reporting, reducing burdens on non-profits, and allowing funds to reach need in unrestricted ways quickly. This model was referred to as, “operating at the speed of trust,” by Meredith Badler, deputy director of CBCA.

While funding for organizations was highlighted throughout the day as a struggle, housing artists and non-profit employees also rose as a critical issue impacting our arts ecosystem. In recent years, the Aspen Music Festival and School has been unable to find housing for all of the musicians they typically bring to Aspen and has cut back on their offerings. This year, they are unable to secure housing for their AmeriCorps fellows and are unable to get them to the region, ending a long-standing program. The impact of these decisions and struggles creates ripples in our ecosystem.

A study shared by Carbondale Arts revealed over 68% of surveyed members of the artistic community in Carbondale have considered or are considering leaving our region due to housing struggles. However, of the 300 individuals surveyed, 100% said they would stay if stable housing were accessible.

The high cost of living, inflation, housing crisis, and shortage of state funding opportunities undoubtedly add up to a number of obstacles; but despite the mounting hurdles, the tone of the day was hopeful and energized. Relationship building was underscored as the key for collective thriving.

“Resources are available through relationships,” shared Louise Martorano, executive director of Redline Contemporary Art Center, on the funder’s panel.

This was demonstrated by attendees: In breakout groups, non-profit executive directors organized themselves to explore how rehearsal space might be shared to leverage resources. Additionally, conversations emerged around partnerships and collaborations creating opportunities for connection among organizations that might leverage shared funding.

The mental health and social benefits of participation and exposure to the arts are well-documented by countless research studies. Arts invite us into opportunities for expression as well as connection — across cultures and differences. Our artists and arts organizations continue to create opportunities for engagement despite the challenges.

Arts organizations are also filling in areas traditionally covered by schools. Non-profit leaders shared they are supplementing education in our local school districts filling in gaps for unfilled teaching positions, often at lower cost. This ensures our region’s children have access to artistic professionals and opportunities that might otherwise be inaccessible.

Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, has said, “One of my core beliefs is that the arts don’t exist in a bubble. There is immense opportunity in understanding the arts comprehensively and holistically, recognizing their intrinsic value and understanding how arts and culture can strengthen other fields — health, community development, education, transportation, among others.”

As our community collectively continues to grapple with our changing region and its numerous challenges, we can learn from our local artists and continue to lift them up as a vital part of our future. Research and data make the business case for supporting our arts community. Still, as everyone present at Tuesday’s event heard, this community comes together with passion, commitment, and a deep desire to connect for our collective benefit.

Allison Alexander is the director of strategic partnerships and communicationsfor the Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.