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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Arts /  Vision quest
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Thursday, August 21,2014

Vision quest

BOULDER ASKS WHAT LOCAL ART AND CULTURE WILL NEED BY 2023

By Josh Gross
Courtesy of Peter Kageyama

How big is the project that Boulder’s Office of Arts and Cultural Services is about to launch?

“There’s going to be people who are telling their kids about when they were kids contributing to this plan,” says Matt Chasansky, manager of the Office of Arts and Cultural Services with the City of Boulder.

He’s not exaggerating the timeline. This week, Chasansky and company will begin a nine-year effort to remake Boulder as a magnet for the creative class: the city’s Creative Cultural Plan.

“We’re going to ask the community what their vision for culture is over a nine-year horizon,” says Chasansky. “So what does Boulder culture look like in 2023, and then how does the city provide programs and tools to meet that?” 

The city will begin by surveying the public about arts and culture with a series of public discussions and web-surveys at www.BoulderArts.org and www.InspireBoulder.com through the end of the year, then hit the books to do research on the issues raised through March of 2015, and it will then begin testing and presenting ideas in the second quarter of next year.

If all this talk of public policy proposals for community art programs sounds as abstract as a public mural by Jackson Pollock, that’s because it is. And it isn’t just that the plan doesn’t yet exist — just a plan to make and execute some sort of plan — it’s that the strategies, tactics and even the end-goals of a community cultural plan are not always clearly tangible or universally accepted as valuable, especially not in a city like Boulder (which many would argue has plenty of culture already) and in a state like Colorado (which often feels the government that governs best is that which governs least). Public art is a popular target for groups opposed to “wasteful spending,” and government attempts to influence or foster culture are often painted as indoctrination, control or just plain old hegemony. But what Chasansky and company are gunning for isn’t a few more statues or concerts in the park. There is a growing belief in the city-planning class that just as businesses need roads and sewer systems to do business, they also need business districts, physical spaces and cultural environments that appeal to consumers and to new entrepreneurs looking to locate their startups. And that just like it is the role of government to ensure there is physical infrastructure to create the conditions for economic success, it can also be the role of government to create the conditions for culture and the arts to thrive, thereby increasing economic vitality on the whole. Though, Chasansky says, sometimes it is stuff best left to the market.

“Nashville did this little thing of letting people sell food directly onto the street,” says Chasansky, of another city’s cultural plan. “And I’m not saying that’s right for Boulder, but that was just a little policy change that didn’t cost a thing. But what happened is that people start to gather and the streets become full of activity. And that compliments the buskers.”

And the buskers make people more interested in shopping on that street, which generates more revenue for those businesses, who can hire more people, and so on and so on and so on as the theory goes.

The goal of the Community Cultural Plan is to identify as many of those policy shifts as possible, and implement them along with whatever government programs are required, anything from public facilities to rezoning to grant programs to installations.

“We’re hoping to get a series of strategies and make it be very pointed,” says Chasansky. “Things that are achievable, but also visionary. And we’re also trying to set it up in a way that it’s iterative, so that that there’s three-year benchmarks and one-year workplans. We don’t want this thing to get shelved. We don’t want it to get watered down. It needs to be focused and achievable.”

The first step in the nine-year process will be a series of public launch events on Monday, Aug. 25 and Tuesday, Aug. 26, that will have heavy focus on explaining the concept and value of a cultural plan, as well as extending the tentacles for the initial public input phase, a thorny process in its own rite. Even more so considering the class disparities that often go hand in hand with government engagement.

“When we say we’re going to put this out to the community, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to go over to Salt and have a community forum and call it a day,” says Chasansky. “It’s definitely strategic. So we’re looking at what are the diverse populations here. How are they represented? How do we overcorrect for certain aspects of the population that don’t participate in these conversations? And then what’s the spread over nine years, how do we anticipate Boulder changing over that time? What are the challenges to that? What are the people who are going to be most effective communicating that? And while there’s a certain sort of vocal and prominent demographic that we want to engage with for sure, I think every one of them would agree, there’s a future for Boulder that lies outside of that, and that it can’t just be the same forever.”

Chasansky says that the Office of Arts and Cultural Services is planning to seek out people where they are, including online, presentations in churches, HOA clubhouses and on the streets, as well as Spanish language programming, and traditional Town Hall-style events, all of which will lead up to “The Festival of Ideas,” a big-tent event that will happen in mid-October.

“Let’s make sure that when we say we’re going to cover the community, let’s not let that be lip-service,” says Chasansky.

A major feature of the launch event will be a presentation from Peter Kageyama, author of For the Love of Cities, which has become something of the new bible of city planning. He will speak and then be interviewed onstage by Colorado Public Radio’s Chloe Veltman in the Canyon Theater at the downtown library Tuesday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m.

“I talk about emotional engagement with places, why it’s a good thing for more people to fall in love with where they live,” says Kageyama. “Arts and culture plays a really critical role with that emotional engagement with places. Arts and culture are what make a city fall in love with itself.”

It might sound a bit fluffy, but that emotional resonance was something that was given a lot of weight in the Knight: Soul of the Community Survey, which Chasansky cites as a major influence in Boulder’s current efforts.

“What they found was the higher level of attachment in the city, the more resilient the economy,” he says. “And Boulder was one of those places they studied, and they said the reason Boulder survived the recession so well compared to other communities was because of this economic resiliency, the main driver of that economic resiliency is the fact that people are so attached to Boulder.”

“The study provides empirical evidence that the drivers that create emotional bonds between people and their community are consistent in virtually every city and can be reduced to just a few categories,” reads the introduction. “Interestingly, the usual suspects — jobs, the economy, and safety — are not among the top drivers. Rather, people consistently give higher ratings for elements that relate directly to their daily quality of life: an area’s physical beauty, opportunities for socializing, and a community’s openness to all people. Remarkably, the study also showed that the communities with the highest levels of attachment had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth. Discoveries like these open numerous possibilities for leaders from all sectors to inform their decisions and policies with concrete data about what generates community and economic benefits.”

But the Knight study states clearly that it is not prescriptive; it just provides data to show what counts. That’s where Kageyama comes in.

“What I’m going to try to to do is try to show people a few different approaches to engagement, maybe a different way of thinking about it,” says Kageyama. “Most people think that city building is something that someone else does. What I do is try to change that perspective so that people realize there’s more involved in making more lovable cities.”

Some of Kageyama’s favorite examples are already big in Boulder, things like increasing the amount of areas for bikes and dogs, things that get people out and associating with their community. But others are still lagging a bit, like public art, which — while acknowledging the skill required to make the Pearl Street Mall’s bronze collection — can be a bit dry. He offered up the example of Candy Change, a New Orleans artist that took a series of blackboards destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and stuck them on the side of a building with the words “Before I die,” on them as prompt for people to write down their bucket list, something he says isn’t exactly what most people think of when they think of public art, largely because it has a different sort of outcome.

“It’s not high concept public art, but it’s highly engaging public art,” he says. “It spurs dialog and is the kind of thing that brings communities together, as opposed to beautiful public pieces that just sit on a pedestal.”

That sort of example is hardly revolutionary, and has even made appearances in Boulder before, like the mural at 13th and Arapahoe that asks “Who inspires you?” But Kageyama cautions communities not to rest on their laurels.

“The people and the city have a good relationship, but sometimes we can end up taking relationships for granted,” he says.

Some of Kageyama’s all-purpose strategies are to increase opportunities to people-watch, realize that fun is a legitimate objective and for cities and designers to constantly be asking themselves “where’s the fun?” and to embrace the temporary, pop-up stuff that only lasts a summer or a weekend.

“Those kinds of projects are cheaper, experimental,” he says. “Embracing temporary allows us to find that fun thing.”

Anyone who attended Washington D.C.’s Alley of Doom art exhibit, in which they were offered a fedora and a chance to flee a giant inflatable boulder rolling at them like in the start of the Indiana Jones film, or “Oh Heck Yeah,” which turned a Denver street into an interactive building-sized video game, is likely to agree that temporary is where you find the fun.

But one of the challenges Boulder faces when creating a Community Cultural Plan is that in many ways it knows all of the above, and is filled with an educated populace that wouldn’t dare dispute the value of the arts, even those in public places. Boulder’s challenges to fostering a creative class may be less abstract. As former New York City mayoral candidate Jimmy McMillan famously said in his campaign: “the rent is too damn high.”

A nationwide study published by the The Washington Post of housing prices found that Boulder County is the 94th most expensive in the nation, and that the wage required to afford a one-bedroom apartment here is $18.31, more than double Colorado’s minimum wage of $8 an hour. For comparison, the same study found that Seattle, where minimum wage was just hiked to $15 an hour to compensate for the high cost of living, ranked lower than Boulder County with a required hourly wage of $17.56 to afford a one-bedroom apartment. And that disparity is only getting worse. Data released from Boulder Housing Partners as part of a City Council study session packet on Aug. 12, shows that if left to the market, Boulder is on track to have absolutely no housing that is considered affordable by 2021, two years before the Community Cultural Plan is even complete. And for the young and hungry, those most often in the business of creating the culture the city is seeking to cultivate, even “affordable housing” (typically defined as requiring less than 30 percent of overall income) can be a struggle. Cities or neighborhoods known for their bohemian creative upswells are also often those that are dirt-cheap to live in. That makes the housing issue a serious challenge indeed.

Talking Heads frontman and noted visual artist David Byrne got to the heart of the issue in an op-ed he wrote for Creative Time Reports in October 2013 about how he moved to New York City in the 1970s because while it might not have been a comfortable living, it was an affordable one, and now rampant inequality driven by the financial sector is squeezing the creative class out, something which is making him consider moving away.

“Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated,” he wrote. “If young, emerging talent of all types can’t find a foothold in this city, then it will be a city closer to Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi than to the rich fertile place it has historically been. Those places might have museums, but they don’t have culture.”

Patti Smith, another icon of New York City culture, one that was also attracted there by the cheap rents, put it even more bluntly in a staged conversation with writer Jonathan Letham in 2010. She was asked if young artists could still make it in the big apple and said, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie ... New York City has been taken away from you ... So my advice is: Find a new city.”

But those creatives fleeing the high rents and close quarters in NYC, exactly the kind that a Community Cultural Plan is designed to attract, aren’t likely to choose open-space-rich Boulder when its rents are headed the same direction.

“Affordable housing and affordable studio space for all arts disciplines is a big deal,” says Chasansky. “It’s bigger than my office. It needs to be taken on by economic development and different agencies. But the community has already expressed that there’s not affordable places to open a studio or even perform. There’s not a lot of affordable places to rent a hall and do a performance. So that’s going to be an important part of it, but it’s wrapped up in the cultural facilities aspect of [the plan].”

To Boulder’s credit, it is an issue that is on the City Council’s radar, with recent study sessions addressing affordable housing and a potential increase in the minimum wage.

Cost of living is a challenge Denver is also facing in the implementation of its Imagine 2020 cultural development plan, which is currently in its first year.

“One of the major goals of the cultural plan is we need to not only nurture our talent, but we need to keep people here. We want creative people to understand that they don’t need to go to Chicago or New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles to have a career in the arts,” says Dan Rowland, assistant director of marketing and communications at the City and County of Denver Arts and Venues. “Giving them infrastructure helps. Giving them places to live and work. It opens new markets.”

That’s why a big part of Denver’s plan is a series of live/work spaces in the Riverfront North district.

“It’s great if you have all these creative people making stuff, but if you don’t have a way for them to make money off it, it’s not going to last,” he says.

Similar low-rent live/work spaces have been implemented in arts meccas like Portland, Ore, Austin, Texas and even New York City.

That isn’t the only component of the Denver plan though.

Rowland says a major goal of the Imagine 2020 plan, its catchphrase really, is “art should be unavoidable.”

“Instead of having to go to a museum, you’re going to get off the bus after a long day at work, and be delighted by this old alleyway that will now be an active, interesting space,” he says.

Rowland says the idea of Denver’s plan is to puts arts and culture at the forefront of city planning, to say the city is just as responsible for building arts and culture infrastructure as it is for street lights and snow plows.

And it’s tricky to pull off. 

“It’s different than doing a neighborhood plan or a master plan for development where you basically have a map and say, here’s where the building

is going to go, and here’s where the park is going to go,” he says. “It’s harder to get meaningful feedback at the outset, because you’re not even sure what you need to ask.”

Rowland says it can even be a bit nebulous to figure out who is going to be affected by a topic as broad as arts and culture.

That makes the path Boulder is setting itself down a thorny one indeed.

And there is reason to be skeptical. 

“The city wrote a really good plan in ’05 and ’06, but it was never implemented,” says Ron Broome, a local sculptor and member of arts advocacy group Boulder Art Matrix. “There was no money put behind it. No emphasis. It was a checkbox so that the city could say ‘We have a cultural master plan.’” Broome and other members of Boulder Art Matrix point to recent speedbumps thrown in the way of developing the Armory into a multiuse space as evidence that the city is more interested in lip service than action.

“Someone being willing to build affordable housing for artists is unheard of, and it’s getting roadblocks,” says Broome.

The Armory redevelopment is a perfect example of what Boulder Arts Matrix says would make a big difference, not just in the area of affordability, but because it is the sort of facility that serves as an anchor for a district to grow around, since the downtown core has primarily become a magnet for high-priced boutiques.

“It’s like Field of Dreams,” says Neshama Abraham, another member of Boulder Arts Matrix. “If you build it they will come.”

Broome pointed to the recent fiasco over the library’s proposed big red “Yes!” sculpture as example of why he’s skeptical of this new process.

“Because of the top-down approach, they picked something mediocre and inoffensive,” he says.

For any real progress to be made, Broome says the city will need to embrace a more bottom-up approach.

Amy Tremper, another member of Boulder Arts Matrix agrees.

“What I’d like to see come out of this is a different relationship,” she says. “They picked a few people for the steering committee, and it’s the same old faces.

They’re not including new voices. Voices from different parts of Boulder.”

And though that sentiment could easily be written off as a few disgruntled outsiders, the Knight study also said Boulder needs to do a lot of work on being more open.

“Less than one quarter of residents rate Boulder highly as a good place for immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and talented college graduates seeking work,” it said.

“Openness is actually something we scored a little lower on, that we could work on,” Chasansky admits.

For his part though, Kageyama remains optimistic even in times of hegemony.

“Sometimes when it does seem the conversation is being dominated by a few key players,” he says. “Some will say, it seems like there’s no room for me. But others will say that it creates an opportunity for me to be heard over here. Creativity finds a way.”

But the problem with Kageyama’s market-based theory that creatives will move from the core to the fringes and thrive there is that Boulder’s strict urban growth boundaries and height restrictions put a cap even on those fringes.

One example is Dietrich (not his real name), who runs an underground art and performance space in a Boulder warehouse and is exactly the sort of person that a Creative Cultural Plan would be targeting.

“We’re already as far out as you can get in Boulder,” says Dietrich. “We’re outside of town. That bus stop is the last thing in Boulder. But we still are too close to people, as a metaphor even, we can’t go any further to the fringe than we are. We’re hanging off the edge.”

But even on the city’s outer rim, Dietrich is struggling with high rents and noise issues.

“We’ve had the cops called on a fucking poetry reading,” he says.

And Dietrich adds that it wasn’t even an especially loud poetry reading.

Repeated visits by the police for sound have impacted the venue’s ability to function.

“We can’t go as late. We can’t advertise as much. I feel like I can’t even focus on the acts as much because I’m worried about whether the cops will come,” he says. “It’s just being more cautious, which in general means curbing fun.”

Doing fewer events out of concerns about noise has also made it more difficult to make rent.

But Dietrich doesn’t blame the city for that, or the police even. He knows they have to come when they’re called. He puts the onus on people who live in the area, knowing full well that they moved into an industrial district, but then making a stink about it. In an entertainment district like the Hill, noise might be more accepted, but besides their even more outrageous rents, Boulder has taken a series of steps in recent years to limit those districts as well, including forcing many bars to shut down at 11 p.m.

“If you don’t just look at it as silence as the norm, and noise being a violation of that, but as the clash of two competing lifestyles, then you can see that one is always winning because it can call the police on the other,” he says.

City regulations are specific to “amplified sound,” meaning that to some degree, noise regulations exclusively target electric music, which can be read as a form of censorship. Dietrich says that he has joked about staging a performance art piece using power tools, since they aren’t technically “amplified sound.” But actually pushing through with that sort of prank also risks shutting down the venue, something no one wants.

The noise issue might be solved by moving to a more expensive location in a different part of town, but Dietrich says those locations aren’t on transit lines, and without accessibility, the ability to make noise doesn’t really matter.

“Not everyone has a car and the buses stop running at 11:45,” he says. “It’s not very conducive to setting up a nightlife if you can’t get anywhere in town after 11:45.”

Dietrich says that if the city is serious about its plan, then it needs to take steps to ensure not just that there are affordable places to create venues, but that they are accessible, and that they are given the legal lattitude to create whatever their form of culture is without the constant threat of being closed for doing so.

Another thing he thinks would be helpful is if the city eased the costs and restrictions with getting a catering permit or temporary liquor license so that there could be more legal pop-up venues.

“Liquor makes money,” he says. “And in a place that is expensive, you need something that makes money.”

Unfortunately, Boulder’s alcohol regulatory agency is openly hostile to the sorts of businesses that cater to the young, and outsiders, and the loud — the creatives. That closed-off nature in terms of process is a big part of why Dietrich is a bit skeptical of the city’s plans.

“There’s a lot of kids who are 17 or 18, who are weird in Boulder, who are into weird experimental shit, not afraid — but they feel estranged,” he says. “They feel like there’s not a place for them. And I can’t imagine Boulder wanting to tell people who complain about them, ‘Too bad.’” 

As the Knight study put it: “For attachment to continue to grow and for people to want to come and stay in Boulder, all residents must feel welcomed there.”

“I don’t want to be cynical about it, but I can’t imagine the city having this planning process and having anyone that’s an interesting creative person A., knowing, or B. Giving a shit,” he says.

But Chasansky is used to naysaying. It’s part and parcel when working in both art and government.

“There’s a conversation around the role that public art plays,” he says. “That’s not always one that has an immediate answer. And it’s something that’s a bit more emotionally charged. Those are things we’re going to have work through and make sure the outcomes are real assets.”

And to get there, Chasansky says, they are looking at the broadest possible umbrella, taking as much interest in demographics as culture.

“Not only are we including the sort of subgroups of what a Boulder resident might mean, but we’re also looking at what is our tourist population,” he says. “We want this to be an amazing place for people to live and visit. We want this to be a place where people can sustain a business. Where people can transition from CU to entrepreneurs to a long-term resident, or come in for a few years and do something amazing. It is as broad as possible.”

And though the fact that it may play out over the course of nine years may make some of it hard to track, Chasansky says, that will make it no less robust.

Some of the scheduling details are still being rolled out, with online surveys expected in October and a rolling series of events. But Chasansky says that people can stay up to date at www. BoulderArts.org, or by signing up for the newsletter at that site.

And it all starts with Kagayama’s presentation on Tuesday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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