When Jeff Weinmeister took over the directorship of the Cortez Cultural Center in 2015, the not-for-profit was called by some on the street a sinking ship. The board was fractious and the mission and offerings – including archeological collections and a gift shop – had grown dusty and marginalized in a regional tourist market dominated by Mesa Verde National Park, the Anasazi Heritage Center, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and numerous retail outlets.
Except for the magnificent mural painted on the north side of the building by the late Buford Wayt, the arts offerings at the cultural center received little attention.
The center was rapidly becoming unable to compete in either tourism or cultural niches while enduring seven continuous years of operating deficits.
Last year, shortly after his appointment to the center, Weinmeister and the board of directors assessed the facts and faced the possibility of shutting the doors of the historic “old building with a great plaza” on North Market Street.
In June 2015, the board decided it would be necessary to close in September. In a letter to its membership and the city the cultural center announced the gallery and gift shop would not continue, museum items would be returned or sold, classes and annual events such as the Pueblo-to-Pueblo Run and the Birding Festival would end, and ultimately the non-profit would sell the building and the plaza.
The announcement stirred community concern, but reviving the organization would depend on the administration and board’s ability to scrutinize the reasons for existing. What did the center have to offer tourists as well as locals? If a new vision could be developed, it would be critical to find outside support and grant opportunities.
Today, a visitor to the center finds a new and refreshing layout. The center’s displays have changed. The gift shop is played-down and the exhibits played to the forefront. The space has moved. Light floods the room. Inventory is visible. It represents quality while reflecting community and cultural life in the past and present. The direct approach entices visitors to the generously spaced objects and provokes them to participate and learn, to connect to the people who left behind the objects of their daily living.
In late November, Weinmeister attended a workshop in Denver by the Colorado Tourism Office. A pile of brochures landed in his lap. He found one that seemed like a fit for the cultural center. The Cultural, Heritage/Agritourism Mentor Program, CHAMP, purported to stimulate the development of high-quality tourism experiences for travelers in Colorado.
The peer-assisted training program focuses on farms and ranches, businesses, museums, attractions and organizations wanting to improve or expand their own cultural, heritage tourism or agritourism attractions.
Weimeister applied, submitting a business plan to CHAMP administrator Kara Penn.
“It happened quickly,” Weinmeister said. CHAMP wanted to help because their organization was vested in the mission of our organization and felt we were in a position to benefit from the advice they offer.”
“The toughest part for the organization was differentiating themselves from other regional offerings done better than they could,” said Nancy Kramer, program coordinator for the Northwest Colorado Cultural Heritage Program. Her role with the project focused on the center’s financial and revenue arm. “There were a lot of low-hanging apples out there, so what of their vision could set them apart?”
In meetings with Weinmeister, the center’s board and an advisory committee from Montezuma County Historical Society, the mentors searched for the story at the core of the center’s inventory and purpose. Eventually, it became clear that the center could tell the active, living story of Cortez inside the region, a broadbased and more inclusive approach to a niche history.
The experience they wanted to share at the cultural center was not dead history. It was not appropriated Native American history or stoic Anglo Western expansionism. Instead, it was alive, a story of people who live here now as it connects to those who came before.
Implementation of the new vision began with team designer Jackie Noble, certified interpretive planner and trustee of Historic Denver Inc. In a telephone interview she said “the knowing and feeling of the cultural crossroads had gotten lost in the organization. During the evaluations a universal theme was found again.”
The group saw that the center’s vision focused on the role of women in all the cultural artifacts found there. The storytelling could begin with them. “We began bridging the gap from history to a Way of Life today through the women’s stories.”
With members of the administration, board and historical society, it reorganized the space, discovering gems – such as a large pre-historic, tripod basket of unknown origin and a set of outsized ledger books from the turn of the century displayed in an elegant antique case.
Interpretive panels now hang on the walls above a new floor contributed by Top-Line, a business in Cortez. Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute and pre-Puebloan displays have been redesigned. A stack of classic turn-of-the-century bolts of cotton cloth was donated by Cortez Quilt Company. Many of the display cases came from the historical society, yet much of the inventory is stand-alone. An old, classic typewriter sits beside a large set of antique publishing stamps, a cup of pencils and sheets of paper. It’s a place to try your hand at typing.
“We hope people will write down their responses to the display of photographs we found upstairs, tell the stories that come to mind,” explained Weinmeister, “or type them, if they wish.”
Weinmeister has taken a job as executive director of the Cortez Chamber of Commerce, but he reportedly plans to join the board of the cultural center.
Kramer sees a stable future for the center’s operations, timelier fundraising and sponsorship for expanding program support, and increasing membership. “If the visitors – locals as well as tourists – engage in the idea of the displays, then the organization is well on the road to healing.”
“They helped us create a solid baseline for the center and the next couple of years,” said Weinmeister. “The new displays are only Phase 1 of the process. The reorganization has made it possible to move into Phase 2, which involves a one-year assessment grant for the architectural consultation needed to renovate the building structure.”
The Pueblo-to-Pueblo Run is on the calendar, April 30. It offers a 5K run and a 28-mile bike ride. The Birding Festival is set for May 11-15 and the annual membership drive will be in June.
“We are trying to be more truly representative of the entire history of the county. We’ve demonstrating that with this beginning phase and hope the community appreciates the direction we have taken.”