How Art Is Making Breckenridge More Than Just Another Ski Town
When Art Comes to Town: This story is the first in a series as KUNC arts and culture reporter Stacy Nick explores the impact art has on Colorado communities — and the impact those communities have on the art that comes out of them.
Every January for the last 10 years, Claire Beedall and her family have traveled from England to vacation in Breckenridge.
“We come out skiing here normally, but we try and coincide it with the snow sculptures,” Beedall said, referencing the Breckenridge International Snow Sculpting Competition.
Now in its 28th year, the event is an ingrained part of the mountain town’s identity -- almost as much as its slopes.
“You can’t really get this anywhere else,” Beedall said, watching a team from India pose for photos in front of their sculpture of a giant Ganesha, the elephant-like Hindu god. “It’s nice to come down here and see them, you know, and it kind of gets people out of an evening into the town.”
That’s kind of the idea. While people have come to expect sculptors chipping away at giant snow blocks in the winter, town officials also hope people will start expecting creative events like this in what used to be known as the “off” season.
“It was an expectation for years that both sides of the ski season -- we call it the ‘shoulder season’ -- was slower,” said Austyn Dineen, public relations director for tourism in Breckenridge. “So, you would get a break and a breath. The nice part is that we’re seeing so much more tourism during those times that a local that typically would be eating ramen for two months out of the year, they’re seeing more year-round employment.”
Dineen’s story of moving to Breckenridge is a familiar. Twelve years ago, she came up for the season to work as a lift operator -- and to get a free ski pass -- and she never went home. Well, almost never.
“It was funny because the spring would come around, and you’d be like, ‘I need to go to Denver; I need to get smart again,’” Dineen said.
But with the increase in arts offerings over the last few years, she doesn’t go to Denver to get her culture fix anymore. The last time she took a trip to the city was last summer -- to visit family.
“Now we’re in this new realm of arts and mountain town, and I don’t ever want to leave,” Dineen said.
Creating A Creative District
People never wanting to leave is the plan, according to Robb Woulfe, president and CEO of Breckenridge Creative Arts -- or BreckCreate, as it’s more commonly known. BreckCreate is an underwriter with KUNC.
The arts nonprofit was created four years ago to shepherd in the rebranding of Breckenridge as more than just a place to ski in the winter and hike and bike in the summer. BreckCreate was just one part of the town’s $25 million investment to make its arts scene a true economic and tourism engine.
“You know, you hear politicians talk a lot about investing in the creative economy -- and then nobody puts any money up, or they give you a thousand dollars and say, ‘Good luck,’” Woulfe said. “And here was a town ... that really had this vision, and they didn’t quite know what it meant, they didn’t know what it was going to look and feel like. But they recognized the trend of creative tourism, and they recognized that it could help color the personality of the town.”
Among the new offerings are more than a dozen studios and performance spaces created from historic structures to form the town’s Arts Campus, and a host of new festivals. For the last two years, Breckenridge has hosted the Wave: Light, Water and Sound Festival. The event, which combines art and the outdoors, got national attention last year thanks, in part, to the massive inflatable, light-up rabbits in the middle of town.
In 2016, the town was certified by Colorado Creative Industries as a creative district -- the state’s highest seal of approval in regard to the arts. In 2017, it took the top spot on the Arts Vibrancy Index for towns with populations under 100,000, beating out places like Summit Park, Utah and Jackson, Wyoming.
Finding Breckenridge’s Voice
A town embracing the arts isn’t exactly a unique concept and there’s a lot of competition for Colorado’s almost $20 billion tourism industry. That means you must really stand out.
“We were looking for what’s new, what’s different, what’s not on the festival landscape,” Woulfe said. “Which is challenging because in Colorado every weekend there’s a beer festival or a bourbon festival or a dance festival.”
Initially, BreckCreate began its first couple years trying to get into the concert business, he said. Town officials wanted more year-round use of 750-seat performing arts venue, the Riverwalk Center. But it soon became apparent that they needed to focus on a less crowded landscape.
“We weren’t trying to be the Aspen Art Museum and we weren’t trying to have the music profile of Telluride,” he said. “Those folks do that, and they do it brilliantly. So, we had to find something that was relevant to us and that resonated with both our local community and our guests, and I think we’re still trying to find that.”
Where they have been successful is on the arts festival circuit.
“Instead of using the concert hall, we started to use the trails,” Woulfe said. “Instead of using the gallery, we used the river. We decided to embrace the reason people live, visit and work in a community like this: the outdoors.”
But while festivals bring the tourists out, a big part of Breckenridge’s cultural investment was the less flashy Arts District.
Talk about creating an arts campus began about 15 years ago, Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula said. It was projected to be a slow build out, but with the state-wide push to support creative districts, town officials decided the time to move was now. The campus was completed in 2015 along with the opening of an international art festival.
More than $8 million went into the one-acre campus of historical buildings renovated into studios and art classrooms. But while the Arts District was completed quickly, the programming that followed took a bit longer.
“So, people would say, ‘How come you spent so much money on this stuff and the buildings are empty?’” Mamula said. “Well, that was something that just took a couple years to really organically establish an arts program that was robust enough to fill all those little buildings.”
It also features the Breckenridge Theater, home to the town’s longest running nonprofit Backstage Theatre.
For much of its 44-year history, the company performed serious dramas and classical theater. When Chris Willard started as the group’s artistic director 12 years ago, he says he immediately changed the theater’s focus to more fun fare.
“People come off of the mountain at 4 o’clock and they’re looking for something to do other than go to the bar,” Willard said. “They don’t necessarily want to come and see a Eugene O'Neill play cycle.”
That first season, Backstage performed the comedy Nunsense. Currently, the company is finishing up a run of the risqué parody Forbidden Broadway. Up next, the theater will be the perfect backdrop for the world debut of the original ski musical Totally Awesome Ski Town, USA.
Changing the style of shows brought in bigger audiences, Willard said. But there was still the hurdle of the venue itself, a renovated butler building with a past.
“It was a candy store, it was a garage, and then, for the longest time, it was a biker bar -- Seamus O’Toole’s Saloon,” Willard said. “If you listen carefully you can hear the ghosts -- the clinking of beer bottles. It still hasn’t gone away.”
As part of this renewed focus on the arts, the theater got a $2.5 million facelift. The money was used to expand the lobby and seating areas and update the lighting and sound equipment.
Now, the Arts District is bustling with classes from pottery to 3D printing. Breckenridge mom Kael Leigh and her 22-month-old son, Kjell, are regulars at the toddler art class.
“It’s nice to now have opportunities to get them out and into this stuff while they’re younger,” said Leigh, as she helped Kjell craft a ‘snow sculpture’ using cotton balls and construction paper.
She also appreciates having more creative options than just festivals geared at tourists. Many of the BreckCreate classes are free or low-cost and are open to the public.
“I have done the glass blowing class and then also the beginner’s ceramics,” Leigh said. “There’s so many options, so it’s nice.”
It’s nice for local artists, as well.
Jewelry designer Annie Kerr still remembers the early days when she first came to Breckenridge 10 years ago.
At one point, Kerr worked four jobs: a baker, a soap maker, a sales clerk at a clothing store and a babysitter -- “On the side,” she joked. That doesn’t even count designing earrings for her company, Wild Balance.
“It’s just hard to live up here and to make a living,” she said. “And as an artist, it takes a long time of self-promotion to see any returns on that. So, you know, working those four jobs, you don't have very much time to make art.”
But four years ago, when the town decided to truly dive into the arts, so did Kerr. She moved her business off her kitchen table and into a studio at the Arts District’s Fuqua Livery Stable. Now her earrings can be found in Whole Foods throughout Colorado.
Next, she wants to do for others what was done for her.
“I have a couple of girls that work with me and I’m looking forward to creating more jobs and offering this space for more people to come in and find a creative outlet,” Kerr said.
Art That Gives Back
Making sure the benefits aren’t just for tourists was a key component to Breckenridge’s “second act,” Woulfe said.
“We’re not just about shiny light shows and concerts on the trails and sort of the spectacle of what we have been for the past few years,” he said. “That’s been great. It’s brought us profile. It got a lot of press. I think in some ways, it put Breckenridge on the map. But now we’re sort of turning that a little bit and we’re saying, ‘OK, well what’s important to our community and how can we be a good community partner in that?’”
Now BreckCreate is collaborating with other local nonprofits and government organizations to address issues affecting the community.
Most recently, BreckCreate began embarking on a new initiative to bring awareness to Summit County’s high suicide rate. Later this year, Woulfe hopes to bring in international artists for month-long residencies focused on works addressing mental illness.
“It’s really important for us to be at the table in those discussions,” Woulfe said.
As its popularity has grown, Breckenridge has between 30 and 60 “uncomfortable” days a year where traffic is bad, parking is worse, and just trying to get into the grocery store can take some planning, Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula said.
“The term you often hear in a place like this is: You don’t build the church for Easter Sunday,” Mamula said.
But as those days begin to increase and spread out to have more of a year-round impact, it became clear something needed to be done. A lack of affordable housing and parking are two of the biggest sticking points right now, according to Mamula. To address the problem, more than 1,000 workforce housing units have been built, and a contentious move to pay parking went into place last year. A new parking garage is slated for construction beginning this summer.
“Those are the things we sort of work on,” he said. “How do you mitigate that impact from all those people that end up loving the place as much as we do.”