Plein Air Festival aims to document and grow Central City

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A row of store fronts, some vacant some leased, on Eureka St. in Central City.
Amanda Tipton

On Friday, Sept. 28, 20 artists will travel to Central City for Central City Opera’s inaugural Plein Air Festival. For three days, they will set up their easels on the streets and paint whatever it is they see before their eyes.

Artists might depict the orange-stained talus surrounding closed mines, or the golden aspens on house-covered hills, or Main Street, as full of tourists as it is of shuttered doors and windows. Experts in the art of observation, each plein-air painter will capture a slice of the city. Together they will create a comprehensive vision of the town in this specific place and time.

Such documentation offers timely insight into Central City’s best attributes, as its stakeholders wonder how they might be strategically leveraged. It’s a consideration that’s been bubbling under the surface since gambling revenues began to decline in the early oughts, and which was clarified in Mayor Kathryn Heider’s 2017 end-of-year address to City Council. She commended Central City on being a casino town as well as a historic destination, but still challenged the city to move beyond those two associations.

“We have a class and a culture here that I think gets forgotten about. We have history museums, art galleries, the Central City Opera … we need to make our [cultural] assets help our town come to life,” Heider said, offering her vision like a call to action. Everyone in the room nodded along in agreement, but the questions of how and where to start remained unanswered.

For a long time, Central City has struggled with the elusiveness of its identity, a confusion that started when the gold boom busted in 1934 with the passage of the Gold Reserve Act, outlawing the private possession of gold. And it wasn’t until 1992, when the City legalized gaming, that it found its modern relevancy. But still, the town is in an awkward position, perhaps best described as being an off-shoot of Black Hawk, its busier and richer neighbor that boasts more than a few sky-scraping casino hotels.

But what Central City lacks in Vegas-like sparkle, it makes up for with scenery and historic charm. Founded in 1859, the town of Pikes Peak Gold Rush fame is seven years older than Colorado itself, and its Victorian architecture is an ongoing testament to those early mining days. But today, more than 50 percent of the city’s commercial spaces lie vacant, not including Central City Opera’s 29 historic properties that are empty during the Opera’s nine-month off-season. But Central City’s new wave of cultural visioning hopes to change all that and, while there are no official strategic plans, key players are already collaborating on ways to attract new audiences, artists and developers to liven up the town.

“From an overarching perspective the Central City Opera is totally aligned with the City and other cultural organizations in wanting to create an arts district that is focused on diverse, year-round programming for the arts,” says Lisa Zetah, marketing director for Central City Opera. “Our goal is to do what Aspen did in the 1970s and create an arts district with livable spaces and an endless stream of cultural events to bring people up here, and convince them to stay, including talks with developers to turn the historic Teller House into a boutique hotel.”

Already, during the summer of 2018, the town experienced significant cultural growth including the revival of the long-dormant Central City Jazz Festival, the winterizing of the 71-year-old Gilpin Association’s Art Gallery at Washington Hall that will house an exhibition of the Plein Air Festival’s completed works, and the extension of the Opera’s season for a week of “Encore” performances. And this fall, with the launch of the Plein Air Festival, the Opera is testing the limits of its own identity, offering the first non-operatic programming in its 87 years.

“Of course, the main organization will continue to focus on the Opera but, in the face of our aging demographics, we are looking for new ways to expand our programing,” Zetah says. “According to our studies, plein air attracts our target audience, 30- to 40-year-old, first-time art buyers who don’t just want to buy art, but to experience it.”

Artist Lorenzo Chavez, judge of the Festival, has spent more than 30 years painting western landscapes and describes the craft as an experience, “like a sport,” in which artists step beyond the comfort of studios into nature — snakes, wind and spectators included. To judge the competition, Chavez will look for technical mastery, yes, but also beyond it, awarding the pieces that best achieve the emotional affect of the artist.

“Good plein-air work has a feeling of joy and freedom,” he says. “In a great piece you get to experience the shifting of the light. You get the spirit of the scene, the spirit of the artist, and of the day.” 

Fittingly, he points to “Van Gogh of the American West” Birger Sandzen’s 1932 plein-air work of Central City as an example. It was the year of Central City Opera’s inaugural season and, surrounded by the buzz of cultural and economic vitality, Sandzen’s paintings convey similarly ebullient landscapes.

“Plein-air painting might not be the first thing you think of when wondering how to attract new audiences to art, but I think Sandzen’s work is a testament to the enduing relevancy of the form,” Chavez says, “not to mention to the enduring relevance of Central City.”

On the Bill: The Plein Air Festival. Sept. 28-30. Various locations, Central City, centralcityopera.org.  Select paintings on exhibition Oct. 1 – Oct. 28 at Washington Hall, 117 Eureka St., Central City. 303-582-5952