The state of Durango arts

by Patty Templeton

Durango is booming with fascinating people making remarkable art. DGO wanted to find out what was going on behind the creativity curtain. We spoke to savvy scenesters in theater, visual arts, large and small performance spaces, dance, and literary circles. We asked what was going fantastic in the art scene, what needed more support, and what their big dreams were for the arts in Durango.

THEATERMona Wood-Patterson, co-founder of the Merely PlayersThe goodFor a town this small, we have so much theater with Merely Players, FLC, the high school, the Arts Center, Imaginario, and others. I think that people see it as a, “What should we do this weekend?” and people see theater as on the list. We are on the radar for a viable entertainment option. We consistently sell out our performances. We consistently hear from people that they appreciate having Merely Players in town and I know that that extends to other theater groups here, as well.

And, the city of Durango and the Durango Friends of the Arts have made it a priority to support artists with grants because they understand that our expenses are far more than what ticket sales can provide.

The needI would like to see more young people give theater a try, particularly young adults … Time after time, we do rush tickets for college and high school students where, if there are any tickets left the night of the show, they can snap them up at the door for 10 bucks. It’s rare that anyone takes that opportunity.

We are getting to launch another season and it would be great if people understand that buying a season subscription – first of all, it’s a substantial discount, but also it’s important for us to have the money up front because then we can begin to operate the season.

Also, people see sold-out houses and they go, “Wow, you’re doing really well.” Well, yeah, but as a found-space company, we can often only have 60 people in the audience. The ticket sales don’t come close to making theater happen here. We rely on donations, and that’ a nation-wide model. Nationally, ticket sales account for about 40 percent of theater’s budget and the rest comes from fundraising. We run at about 50/50. We have to pay for the rent on the venue, our storage, our royalties, our costumes, our talent. The list goes on and on … The reality is you can’t produce the kind of theater that we want to produce without spending more money than we can get from ticket sales.

The big dreamThe big dream would be an actual theater space with real seating, some height, good acoustics, and lighting. There is the college, but they have no backstage, and they use their space. There’s the Art Center but they have first dibs on their space and book quickly.

I travel quite a bit. I have been to communities smaller than ours that have these great theater spaces where everyone can have equal access, not just one entity. It could be for music, theater groups, and everyone could work together on the scheduling issues.

VISUAL ARTSPeter Hay, Exhibits Director at the Durango Arts Center and member artist at Studio &The goodI think we have as strong of a commercial gallery scene as we’ve ever had and that’s really great for people who enjoy traditional arts and for keeping tourists happy and entertained.

I also think that the contemporary, more exploratory visual arts are growing constantly with venues like Studio & and with the Arts Center now having an open-proposal system. People can propose their own shows or curate shows that are anything from traditional exhibits to time-based, multimedia-based works. Next year will be our first year of fully functioning off the proposal system. That’s really exciting.

I’m also happy to see more public art around. There seems to be support growing for that. The Dumpster Beautification Project, the Art Matters mural at the Everyday gas station, I think all those things are really great and are continuing to expand.

The needI really think it would be wonderful if we had more interdisciplinary work, in general: things that are visual plus performance, plus sound, exploring more than one outlet. Maybe more collaboration between artists and more experimentation with technology.

Maybe we’ll see more technology use with the MakerLab at the Powerhouse. That’s one of the things I want more of, visual artists using modern tools – fancy routers, 3D printers, laser cutters, vinyl cutters. I want artists to see how that informs the work and makes life easier for them and how it creates new visual challenges. How do we push artists to do more works that are installation-based or time-based or technology-based? How do we support that? I would like to see more community-engaged projects like community murals, even community meals we can host to brainstorm and make this city even more diverse and more fun and more creative.

The big dreamI think what I really, really wish we had in Durango is more open studio space for artists to use. That would fold into more interesting collaboration. And larger-scale projects and space is a problem with artists in Durango, in general. I would love to see a dozen or more subsidized studio spaces with an open work area. I would love to see even residencies brought about where local and national artists can work together and let their ideas melt together. Feed the creative juices of our community.

DANCEJessica Perino and Anne Bartlett, artistic directors of 20 Moons Dance TheatreThe good

Perino: I forget so easily because I live here that it’s pretty amazing how much dance is supported in Durango and how many people participate in dance for enjoyment.

Bartlett: If you broaden your scope and think dance is movement-art for expression and pleasure and physical engagement then there’s Nia and Zumba and power dance and African and social dance and salsa and tango and there’s an amazing array of dance opportunities for all ages being offered in Durango.

The need

Perino: When people hear the term “dance” they think of one particular thing rather than understanding that it can take so many different forms. It is our hope and mission to help broaden our community’s understanding of what dance can be.

We have gotten to collaborate with a lot of artists in town and that’s something we want to continue. Discovering and working with people and thinking, “How do painting and dance go together? Does it? Let’s try.” We like to continue growing in that respect.

Bartlett: One of the things that we often wish for in Durango is an affordable venue for performing arts. An affordable, flexible, easily-transformed space that could support different types of performing art events. Not only a theater, which is important, but a big, easily-adaptable open space that could be used by lots of different groups with lots of different needs.

One of the issues for artists all over, especially in the U.S. and possibly even more for artists in Durango, is that artists can’t make a living doing what we do. To do what we do costs a lot of money. It costs a lot to rent a venue in Durango, to rent rehearsal space and to perform. It’s constantly fighting the battle of we love what we do and we want to continue to do what we do, but yet it’s not financially feasible. We’re struggling all the time to make ends meet. The big dream

Barlett: I think our big dream is that the performing arts are supported in this community and valued enough that community resources are dedicated to making it possible for artists to do what they want to do and having an affordable, big open studio/rehearsal space that could serve community-wide as another arts center.

Perino: A flexible performing space could look like a lot of things. What we’re lacking is large and flexible.

LITERARYSandy Irwin, director of the Durango Public LibraryThe goodI think the good things that are happening are the variety of literary events and the partnerships that happen. We partner a lot with Maria’s Bookshop. They’ll bring in local authors or regional authors and we’ll hold events here and if we hold an author event, Maria’s will come in and sell books.

I think across the spectrum, there’s a lot of literary events going on. Look up at the Fort, they have their Common Reading Experience, which we’re very excited about. Joy Harjo is the 2017-2018 author. They’ve got journalist Nicholas Kristof and Garrison Keillor coming in and David Sedaris.

And, (the library) has picked our literary festival author for 2018. It’s totally different than we’ve ever done before. It’s Carl Bernstein. Mark your calendar for May 3. I’m so excited. It’s Carl. Bernstein.

There’s a lot of cooperation with the college and the Reed Library and the public library and libraries in our region. There’s all sorts of author events and that’s really fabulous. People think that libraries and bookstores are in competition. But we’re not. We all like each other and we want all of our bookstores to succeed.

The needHow do we get kids more engaged in books and literary events? How do we have more author events with teens and young adults in mind? I think that’s an area that needs some improvement.

I think it’s really challenging because nothing is free. How do you get a dedicated funding source? It’s not easy to do. That’s always going to be the challenge. We all love events but somebody’s got to pay for it.

The big dreamI would love for Durango to have a multi-day, multi-age real literary festival, not just one event happening at the Durango Public Library. To have a three-day weekend where you bring in the big, bestselling author, but also have workshops and readings and the bookshops are involved and it spans multiple venues in town.

I also think it would be really great to have a small comicon or event where we brought in people who write and illustrate graphic novels or comic books … It would probably bring in a lot of people and could be really cool and it is unexpected for Durango.

PERFORMANCE SPACECharles Leslie, director of the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis CollegeThe goodThe live music scene has grown a lot. There’s been some tried and true events like the Bluegrass Meltdown or Snowdown and now there is this Celtic Festival, a Bach Festival, a Chamber Music Festival, the symphonies have grown, Music in the Mountains has been around a long time.

What’s happened here, since I’ve been around the last 10 years, is that we’ve become much more known on the national and international scene. If you look at our programming in the last five years or so, we’ve had a lot more international and world music. The national booking agencies have always known about Durango but I think they’ve become much more aware of us partially because of FLC and partially because of Animas City Theatre.

Also, it’s super encouraging to know that there’s people in city government and community leadership positions who have the arts on their minds as an element to nurture.

The needA really well-known show, like upcoming performances by Garrison Keillor, David Sedaris, and Jay and Silent Bob, those will be fine, but Post Secret? It’s a niche thing and if you don’t know about it, you might not try it. To talk about the challenges, it’s sometimes tough to get people to try something new. I hear that not only for us but from other arts organizations.

We have a core group of audience members that come to a lot of things. I just had a conversation with a couple on Monday and they said, “We go to things because we know it is going to be interesting and cool.” That’s nice. That 100 people is awesome. I would rather it be 600, but that’s true across the arts.

It’s a town with some really interesting and creative people and if there were more outlets for those folks, I think that would be key. Part of it is real estate is so expensive. Fort Collins has a really strong pop-up arts component. If there’s an empty store front, there might be a pop-up performance, gathering, or a gallery. I think that is one of the laments. We have the energy and creativity to do that but we are a little real-estate-bound.

The big dreamFor us, for Fort Lewis College and the Concert Hall, I call this end of the campus the cultural hub because we have Southwest Studies here, the art building is right there with really nice studios, and then there’s the music department is just across from us. There’s this potential here for this area to become a place where students congregate and collaborate. I would like to develop a space or infrastructure to facilitate a cultural student hub. It could be exhibit, performance, maker space, whatever, but I think we are at a point that there is so much student creativity I would like to see more of a place for it.

Another big dream is that Durango is a bit of a sleeping giant. We have an airport and hotels and a really nice downtown, so how about a really cool 5,000-to-10,000-person space to host large festivals?

We need the infrastructure. If you think about the Telluride model, a bunch of people 30 to 35 years ago said, “We want to do concerts.” And they started with a baseball field and every year they added a little more to that baseball field. There’s camping, showers, a really nice stage, lots of infrastructure that has grown up and the city decided that that was a priority. The political leadership has to be a part of that. Then the business community came along and the nonprofit community came along. Over time, they built this really amazing destination and that’s the big dream for Durango.

Alex Vick, co-founder of Sweet 101The goodSweet 101 is a small space it gives an open opportunity for people who have yet to become active in the scene, whether that’s performance or art, a launchpad. It’s not as intimidating as trying to approach a main gallery or Fort Lewis. We get to showcase people that would not be seen in the greater community because we can seem approachable and we’ve gotten positive feedback from people on that.

Also, we’re getting a lot of touring acts rolling through, which has also been really awesome … I think because we have the opportunity to treat touring acts so well and so personalized, they go h
me and tell their buddies and other bands, “Sweet 101 put on a show, fed us dinner, gave us a 12-pack, had somewhere for us to stay.” Then we get even more touring acts rolling through.

The needThere are things we are trying to do to lure other folks into our space. I like to call it cross-contamination. [laughs] I want to see us working with other community members and facilities more and the community reaching out to us.

And, if bigger venues are already booked, having that establishment send that band or artist our way saying, “Hey, we’d love to help but we’re booked. Check out these guys and see if they have space.” That falls on Sweet 101 approaching other venues to bring up the idea, but I think more communication would be good place to build on.

The big dreamIf there was a city-based stipend for artists and an artist space, that is a big dream. If they designated a couple warehouses out in BoDo for artists and reduced rent costs in an attempt to support the lower income creative community of people who want to do what they love and build not only the artistic community but the greater community as a whole. I think more city support would empower artists and musicians.

It would be nice, in a big dream, for us to work with the city so that Sweet 101 could head up an artist space, but I guess that first takes us extending a hand to the city.

Our goal is to build the community up. We’re not trying to make money, we’re just trying build community and have a good time.

Editor’s note: Sweet 101 is no longer in the alley behind 858 Main Ave. Shortly after this interview, the need to search for a new space cropped up. If you have leads on an affordable, DIY-friendly performance and gallery space, please contact Sweet 101 at

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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