Grabbing the pie in the sky

The Office of Arts and Culture details plan for cultural improvement


While revitalizing a city’s art scene seems like a daunting task, there are people in Boulder working to make it a reality. Think: more venues, more art districts, more festivals and more resources for artists and the community.

“We want to make sure it’s a realistic plan, not just some pie in the sky,” Martin Cohen said in the Taste Test, a series of meetings held April 9 and 10 to discuss the future of Boulder’s cultural scene.

Cohen is one of the consultants from the Cultural Planning Group that is working alongside the Office of Arts and Culture to assess the cultural needs of Boulder and how to address them. In the fall, they took to the streets to find out what Boulderites wanted with a series of community outreach events called the Culture Kitchen. Through these events, they learned Boulderites want more outlets for the arts. They also found that Boulder is composed of a lot of artists who want more venues to showcase and cultivate their work. With this response, the team has outlined a blueprint for the future and is working toward a plan that will unfold over the next nine years, focusing on three-year increments.

Partners and staff of the Office of Arts and Culture held the Taste Test so members of the community could hear a presentation of their findings and engage in a dialogue about the future, all in an effort to draft a cultural plan for Boulder. The meetings drew 10 to 20 community members, both artists and non, and the voices were loud and passionate.

“The conversation has been really robust and sophisticated,” says Matt Chasansky, manager of the Office of Arts and Culture. “We’ve been challenged on a lot of great things, which is exactly what we needed. It was our worst fear that the room would be absolutely silent or that there would just be consent.”

The missions they’ve identified are to grow Boulder’s creative vitality, make arts and culture a civic priority, elevate Boulder’s cultural identity, and to enhance the visual and experimental environment. To achieve those goals, they’ve divided the strategies into six parts: building resources for cultural organizations and for artists; fostering environment for artists and creatives; building awareness in the community; providing access, inclusion and equity; making a public art plan and increasing cultural facilities and spaces. Some examples include supporting art districts, throwing neighborhood-focused festivals, developing cultural spaces in the community and providing resources for artists.

The next step is finalizing a draft of the plan. Chasansky says they will gather everything they heard through the Taste Test and wrap up some ongoing research projects including a benchmark study, a creative vitality index study, cultural asset mapping and a study of foundational documents. He plans to also attend city board and commission meetings, which will be another chance for the public to weigh in. All of this information, including dates and times of meetings, will be available on their website ( He says they will present a final draft to City Council at their July 14 meeting and will hopefully begin right away with implementation.

While the plan seems thoroughly thought through, it all boils down to implementation, and there was some skepticism at the meetings.

“One of the things I find a lot in Boulder is an idea is presented and everyone gets excited, but then the follow-through doesn’t seem to happen — the actual making-it-real part,” said artist Sally Eckert.

To answer this question, Jerry Allen, of the Cultural Planning Group, said that each step of the process will be met with an identification of resources, strategies, timelines and searching for commitment in the community from organizations or citizens to provide further support. They anticipate problems will arise, but Allen reassured meeting attendees that they’re focused on action-oriented plan-making. The strength of those strategies will be assessed as the plan continues to evolve.

One big concern rose to the top during the meeting: “We all know,” Eckhart said, “it’s all about the money.”

The plan calls for an increase of the Office of Arts and Culture’s grants program, meaning doubling the current budget of $250,000 to $500,000. That money will then be repurposed to create tools and resources for cultural organizations, including building capacity, creating innovation funds and sponsoring different projects in the community. With the new plan, Chasansky says he hopes the city staff will see the value in the arts and will repurpose funds.

“It’s about priorities for the community,” Chasansky says. “This [plan] should demonstrate to City Council and to city staff that the community’s priorities for art are at a new level. There have been priorities about open space, social service and municipalization of the electrical system. If the arts are elevated to that level — and [the plan] should be the proof of that — it should back up any decision making for the budget.”

As the project expands, he says, he hopes the funding options will continue to grow. He knows the key for the future is continuous cash flow so that organizations can count on funding even in times of change.

“The fact of the matter is that when there’s an economic downturn or different initiatives come up, the arts are the first to be scrutinized for reduction,” he says. “In order to create a type of program that the community is demanding, we need that sustainable funding.”

As ambitious as this plan is, it begs the question of executable manpower. Right now the Office of Arts and Culture only has two full-time employees, Chasansky says. The office also receives substantial help from library employees, volunteers, different departments within the city and from various cultural organizations around Boulder, but he sees an obvious need for more people to help execute the plan, which will hopefully come after City Council approval.

“We need to grow,” he says. “We need to have the help and the partnerships and more volunteers in the future. We do need to be honest about the fact that this is going to require a large amount of people that we don’t have yet. We need to staff up.”

One place they’ll be looking for help, Chasansky says, is the community. Part of their plan is to integrate more artists into positions of power on boards and committees. City councilwoman Mary Young attended the April 10 meeting to show her support of the project. She said that it all starts with making connections 

“The process is very open — open to anyone,” Young said. “The only constraint on an applicant is if they live in the city. … [Being on a council] is a really good way to influence policy. That’s how you begin to infiltrate.”

But several members of the crowd insisted there needs to be trickle-down effect from the top to pull in key people. Some meeting attendees insisted that artists can be introverted and don’t usually partake in these roles. Artist Nii Armah Sowah said that there’s an intimidation factor that stops people from joining boards and committees. Originally from Ghana, Sowah also pointed out a need for diversity in these conversations.

“A lot of minority groups and artists do not push themselves into higher positions because they don’t want to be dismissed,” Sowah said. “So how do we get invitations? [It’s about] identifying key people and reaching out.”

Diversity, or lack thereof, is an issue that surfaced frequently in the meetings. Out of the estimated 2,000 people surveyed, only about 4 percent were self-identified as Latino, 3 percent African American and 1 percent Asian. There’s a consensus that these numbers need to increase to include diversity among ethnicities, generations and economic class.

Chasansky says he plans to reach out to diverse communities and identify organizations to work with. He says he wants to work to properly represent these voices in the community and have authentic conversations about what those communities want.

“[The survey number] doesn’t meet our very high expectations of this plan,” he says. “We’d like to overcorrect for those groups and understand their needs fully. We want to do more work to build some trust, build some bridges and continue to make sure these programs are the right fit for everyone involved.”

Apart from diversity issues, the attendants of the meeting were antsy to get projects rolling and concerned about the nine-year timeline. One specific element they’d love to see is a proposed website that will aggregate all the cultural events happening around town. The immediate goals, what Chasansky calls the “low-hanging fruits,” include public art and the grants program. Not everything will take nine years, but he also begs for some patience.

At the conclusion of the meetings, it was clear that much more work needs to be done. While some questions went unanswered, that’s not surprising in this stage of the plan. The mission of the Taste Test was to present the findings, gather feedback and identify weak spots. Now, Chasansky says, they can look to the future with a clearer vision.

Accountability for future success ultimately falls with the public. The Office of Arts and Culture will be a commited to being transparent and setting deadlines, Chasansky says, but now the community has to get involved.

“If this plan’s going to be successful, people need to come forward. I’m not worried about it, honestly. The response to these events have shown that there are passionate people in the community,” Chasansky says. “There aren’t a million people showing up, but the people who are showing up are convening on their own to have discussions. We want to erase all barriers. … If this really is a civic priority, then they’ll show up. And it is. And they will.”

Eckert says she felt better after attending the meeting. She sees a clear structure and plan for the future, and she also acknowledges the vital role of the community. As an artist, she says, she’s learned to speak up because no one is going to do it for her.

“We need everyone to get up, stand up, write letters saying, ‘Yes. This is important,’” she says. “You want to keep Boulder, Boulder? Keep the artists here. Bottom line. … They have a good structure, but now it’s up to the public to implement it. I see this as a good step, but now it’s up to us to do the work.”