The future of culture in Cortez

An identity crisis is fueling an economic crisis at the Cortez Cultural Center. In October, Director Shawn Collins announced that the iconic center is facing a budgeting shortfall due primarily to a drop in sales in the gift shop.


The Cortez Cultural Center is facing financial difficulties.

Collins said it may be $10,000 to $15,000, but said the center’s directors are facing the reality of it “by requesting additional community contributions and of course, presenting our fundraiser at the end of November.” The Holiday Bazaar, held at the Montezuma County Annex, offers craftspeople an opportunity to sell their products to customers shopping for local Christmas gifts. The application form is up on the center’s web site and the center is hopeful that the vendor turnout will be substantial.

Although crafts fairs have been a dependable source of revenue in the past, the two summer crafts fairs sponsored by the Cultural Center were cancelled in 2012 because of a decreasing numbers of vendors and attendees. Normally held in June and September, they create revenue for the center by charging vendor fees for space at the event. Booth space is $45, and discounted if a vendor needs more than one.

The notice posted on the center’s web site says that the summer craft fairs may continue in 2013 “with your help,” but does not offer further ideas on how to help revamp them.

The projected net income in 2012 is just over $1,000. The center’s general operating budget totals $235,000, much of which is garnered from other fundraisers, which include the Sweetheart Ball, The Annual R.B. Burnham and Company Trading Rug Auction, and Ladies Night, all held at the Elks Club.

Although admissions are not a major source of revenue for the center, the Patsy Brown Art Scholarship is supported by a $5 charge to attend Ladies’ Night. Admission to the center itself – museum, art gallery, gift shop and the Native American dances in summer – is free to the public, including tourists.

The center relies instead on memberships fees, grants, gift shop net income, rental income from the upstairs meeting space and donations to meet its annual budget.

Duplicated services

The gift shop, the most measurable quantifier of interest by tourists and residents, must compete with established single-market enterprises such as the tourist gift shops at Mesa Verde and Notah Dineh, a local trading company respected by Native American people. It is a destination stop with respect among locals as well as tourists.

According to center reports, gift-shop revenues have been steadily falling from what once was a $40,000 income stream five years ago to the low mark this year of just over $9,000 to date.

Grants have also diminished, according to Collins. “We did apply to Colorado Creative Industries with the City of Cortez for a Creative District grant this year,” she said, “but we did not receive the award.”

The Creative Industries Division merged the former Colorado Council on the Arts and Art in Public Places program in 2010 to create a business identity that aligns artists with the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade. Funding for the “Arts District” program is galvanizing the arts statewide in Colorado by providing a granting resource that can fund the creation of a designated arts district in a community.

Collins sees the potential for the cultural center to create such a district and is hopeful they can try again.

Revitalizing Main Street

Meanwhile, directly behind the center building, one-half block away, Cortez’s Main Street is experiencing a revitalization that includes support of the arts, cultural and entertainment industries. Three premier restaurants, a relocated public radio station, and a dance studio share the alleys and parking lots beside the center. All of them showcase top-line local visual artists in their spaces, employing the services of professional space planners, graphic designers and marketing pros to define their businesses. The result is a vitality that is spreading east and west on the thoroughfare. Music events in all genres are commonplace now, increasing in quality, return bookings and attendance.

Facebook is playing a key role in the arts dialogue, too, especially on all the restaurant sites as well as dedicated artists’ pages, like Four Corners Music, which is fueled by active musicians and their fans.

Downtown Cortez Main Street is becoming an arts district out of choice, with or without the Cortez Cultural Center. The only retail spaces that are lacking on Main Street are dedicated art galleries and museums. Therein lies a potential kernel of new vision for the center, an open door for collaboration and inclusion with the profitable, energetic downtown revitalization.

Questions of mission

The cultural center, housed in an historic department store building, has served the community for 25 years. It was formed out of a desire to provide educational programming by its affiliation with the University of Colorado. Originally named the CU Center, it received funding from the university until the affiliation ended. Out of that crisis, the Cortez Cultural Center with a broader mission that included cultural components and the arts, was born.

The shift away from the hallowed halls of academia offered the local center an opportunity to expand the mixture of events to include a bird-watching festival, marathon run, the Hawkins Preserve (an archaeological site south of town) and Native American dancing on the plaza for tourists during the summer months.

Some events have been popular, and break even, but even those are experiencing breaking points. “We have actually taken losses on some of our most important mission-oriented programs, including youth art classes,” Collins lamented, “and the Hawkins Preserve.”

Although attendance at the Indian dancing on the plaza remains steady, dropping revenues in other programs may indicate that the diversity or quality of offerings is not working in the center’s favor these days. Knowing what the center does best and expanding on it could freshen the offerings and give the not-for-profit the self-confidence to compete in a highly competitive expendable money market.

Struggling with vision

The center has struggled over the years with its finances and vision, and critics say it needs to make changes.

John Peters-Campbell, professor of Western art history and a resident of Montezuma County for more than a decade, is one of the only arts professionals invited to sit on the board of directors at the center.

In an email from his new home in Beijing, China, where he is professor of arts at an cultural institute, he said, “The center has struggled for years with its vision. It can’t be all things to all people so its direction has been driven by the people who have the most time to give it. It’s constantly re-created in the image of the people whose avocations have sent them to it.”

To the point, the greeter at the door of building is the gift shop, staffed by volunteers. The gray exhibition space is tucked behind it in the back of the first-floor space. The museum, located in display cases between the gift shop and the exhibition space, houses local personal and family relics that begin to give the visitor a cursory education in the diverse history of the region. A good enough introduction, it encourages a visit to the first-class Anasazi Heritage Center museum, research activities, lecture hall, gift shop and exhibition spaces located on the Escalante archaeological ruin sites 10 miles north of Cortez, above Dolores.

Attracting and keeping visitor dollars at the center has grown problematic. There’s a lot of other offerings to attract the attention of tourists in the community.

But for locals, some of the past magnets included adult art classes. Since a local art school, Whirligigs, closed last year, the center seems to be the only place to offer this activity.

But it is hard to imagine where they are held at the center, or even to get a sense of excitement about the classes, unless a visitor has a reason to walk up the stairs from the alley to the second floor, where a studio class space is available for rent.

“The arts at the center have rattled around through its history. Sometimes the arts found expression in classes, sometimes in an art school, sometimes a crafts camp,” said Peters-Campbell. “There never appeared to be a will, or even a desire, to bring the facilities up to professional American Association of Museums or educational standards.”

On the web site, the schedule of shows on the exhibition walls at the back of the first floor lists public-school art exhibits for six months – a duplication of school facility functions. Only two professional visual-art exhibits were mounted in the space the past year, one artist and one group exhibit from the Aspen Guard Station residency program.

Attendance is small, exhibition sales are minimal, yet out on Main Street, murals are being funded by the city and public perception is growing in Cortez that the arts community is thriving here.

The mural projects are public, large-scale, visible and funded. Yet peculiar to this impression is the fact that even the exhibition space at the center must share space with the gift shop and a museum and does not attract professional artist exhibitions, sales and revenue for the center.

Gift-shop offerings

The web site describes the gift-shop merchandise as “made by local artisans, including Native American – jewelry, pottery, figurines, art, and Southwestern foodstuffs.” The book store highlights children’s and adult books celebrating Southwestern cultures, as well. But the gift shop is not making money. Some critics wonder whether it is possible that it has just grown passé and is keeping the center from evolving into a vibrant collective axis of culture, stifling the creative future of the organization. Templates for small-town cultural centers have transformed basic revenue streams like cozy gift shops into cappuccino and wine bars attached to performance, film and exhibition events.

Collins is willing to listen. She accepts that change is inevitable at the center, but to accept change, to look critically at the competition and the market niche includes making a strong assessment of the facility as well as the programs.

Bill Teetzel, local architectural / spatial designer said, “I went in the cultural center a while back with an author. He had to pull his books out of the shelf himself to show me. The volunteers were sitting around behind the counter and didn’t seem to relate. It felt like a coffee klatch. It felt dim and dusty.”

As a designer, he sees the building as a major component of the issue. A check of events and activities shows that most events are held outside the facility – at the Montezuma County Annex or the Elks Club, suggesting that the facility resource does not fit the events and offerings of the center.

“Much of the renovation work on the building has been piecemeal,” added Peters- Campbell. “The back stairway was legally necessary. The repainting a few years ago was a fine job, but largely cosmetic.”

Over time, repairs to the building may be driven by an earnest cost-saving priority rather than a zealous enthusiasm for what could be happening there. Still, the cultural center is home to one of the most positive architectural spaces in Montezuma County – the outdoor plaza with mature regional landscaping, stonework, public seating, surrounding shade houses and hogan built on the north side of the building.

Peters-Campbell agrees that the center must be credited with that “and Buford Wayt’s fine mural. They are the hallmarks of the place, but the building itself, a former department store, is in rough shape. Work still needs to be done on the foundation, primarily, and then on the structural parts of the second floor that have suffered from unsure footing.”

Addressing design

Fears of closing the center have generated interest in saving it. Options include addressing the facility design and function. Teetzel believes the interest is here and the time is ripe for re-thinking the role of the center, renovating the building to reflect a vital offering of events and activities.

Even as a metaphor his comment strikes hope for the future. “It’s possible to dig down to create height in a building. Dig into the space beneath a building.”

He works with local architects and planners whom he suggests could build a design and campaign in support of a retrofit for the building. But he senses that the board is comprised around a system of nepotism and that the configuration is inbreeding reluctance to change and a lack of creative vision.

“How do we fix the cultural center? Turning it into a community issue is a good place to start; focusing on one thing that the community needs, excelling at that would be a great place to start. As it is now, the center tries to do too much and doesn’t do anything well.”

Collins disagrees. She feels the center is meeting its mission in many programs and remains open to suggestions to improve them.

And, of course, fundraising doesn’t stop. Efforts in 2012 netted more than $50,000, including corporate partners and event sponsorships.”

She is aware of the need to recruit board members who reflect the diversity in the community. “The Indian dances are popular, but I wonder sometimes if it is exploitive without Native American representation on the board and the Hispanic representation as well,” she said. “Both are issues I am addressing. We are currently recruiting board members, especially youth, artists, culturally diverse board members.”

As for qualifications, she said, “Our board is not a vetted board,” which means there are no qualifications. “A person can express interest, or be put forward by a sitting board member, but they must have attended a meeting and contributed to the center in a major way.”

The Indian dancing on the outdoor plaza is an example of a program that attracts commitment from an invested partner. It is funded annually with $23,000 from the local lodgers tax funneled through the Mesa Verde Country organization, a non-profit company marketing the tourist industry. The money is dedicated to stipends paid to the Native American people who perform dancing for the tourists six evenings a week for three months. Although there is no admission charge, the dancers do pass the hat for tips in addition to their stipends.

Collins doesn’t think the stipend amounts to a living wage for the dancers, and is looking for ways to add value to their work.

“They drive from Gallup to Cortez in an RV because of the costumes and staging for their performance,” she added, saying, “I am looking for collaboration in the community that will help with lodging for their RV.”

Other Native American dances and cultural programs cannot be found regularly within 60 miles of the center, she explained. On the surface it looks like a fine program, but ask a hard question as she did, like, “Is it exploitive?” and the answer from a Native American point of view may be, “Possibly.”

Cultural education includes more than entertainment., critics say It includes a commitment to education on tough subjects driven by the participation of Native American people in authority positions.

Real cultural education could include exhibitions on colonization, reservation relocation issues, language, natural resources, political arts, adornment and cultural awareness that can be found in the lectures and writings of local Native American academics and experts, and in the college faculties nearby.

Opening up mission priorities could change funding resources and expand revenue. Grant opportunities could grow. Recognizing that talent is a valuable commodity for any business district can infuse a community with new life from local resources.

A study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that Colorado ranks fifth among all states for concentration of artists. It categorizes creative industries into six sub-groups: design, film and media, heritage, literary and publishing, performing arts, and visual arts and crafts. Colorado’s strengths are design, literary and publishing, and film and media, which represent 73 percent of all creative industry jobs.

“Placemaking,” is the funding buzz word these days. Collins is aware of the term and related Colorado projects. She said, “We can’t afford to stay isolated. We need to build partnerships and collaborate.”

If the Cortez Cultural Center board of directors accepts that mandate, then, according to Teetzel, “We’re in a position to take destiny into our own hands. We’ve got the talent, the vision and the will to work on the issue. It could change the economic profile of the county. We really could become a major destination for arts in the Southwest.”

From November 2012.