Until 2008, Colorado Springs was one of the only cities of its size in the country to lack a formal, overarching city arts organization. Today, the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, or COPPeR, fills this need, with the vision of building a community united by creativity.
Executive Director Christina McGrath said their ability to “speak for arts organizations with a unified voice” is one of the non-profit’s strengths. COPPeR employs their strong online and community presence as a source of information for upcoming arts events, of education and ways to advocate for local arts groups, and as a tool to build strong communities.
“We look at challenges that our community faces and [find] ways to use arts and culture as a solution,” McGrath said.
The “Arts and Economic Prosperity Study,” conducted in 2010 by Americans for the Arts,reflected exactly how large of an impact the arts have on the creation of strong communities: $72 million worth. A strong arts and culture presence in a city not only improves the atmosphere of an urban setting, but also has a direct, positive impact on the local economy.
“I think, even without knowing it, people come to cities for the art,” CC alumnus Michael Dooley, ‘12, said. Dooley now works part time for COPPeR. “If you try to imagine a city without any architecture, theatres, cafes with local art, street performers…What’s left except banks?”
Dooley discovered COPPeR through CC’s Public Interest Fellowship Program (PIFP). Selected to be a summer fellow for COPPeR, Dooley spearheaded a downtown revitalization program titled “Art in Storefronts,” and the organization subsequently hired him to continue the project.
“Art in Storefronts” targets vacant spaces downtown and introduces art installations as a way to beautify the downtown scene and engage pedestrians with their surroundings. The program is not unique to Colorado Springs. “Art in Storefronts” has gained popularity in urban metropolises such as Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco, indicating the viability of COPPeR’s idea.
After conducting a study of revitalization methods for downtown Colorado Springs called “The Era of a New Renaissance,” which included economic stimulation, infrastructure development, and residential and cultural improvements, the Urban Landscape Institute proposed the movement of the project to the Pikes Peak Region, and Dooley eagerly accepted the challenge.
“Public art is a way of giving [art] to everyone, making it more accessible, and thus uniting everyone,” Dooley said.
In early 2012, COPPeR posted an online call for artists to enter their pieces in a selection process for the “Art in Storefronts” project. A jury of local arts advocates, including “Modbo Collective” artist Brett Andrus, then judged the work and made their selections.
Today, three installations of the project exist in the downtown vicinity, including photography by CC senior and Art Studio major, Sarah Velez, titled “Body Knowing Space Part 2,” found at 117 E. Bijou Street.
“Working off of my final project for photography, I wanted to look at people’s relationship to space and their interaction in a very textural way,” Velez said.
She shot the photos for the project inside of the vacant space on Bijou, incorporating the cold, disintegrating interior in her compositions. By utilizing the space in both the shooting process and display of the final product, Velez naturally opens a dialogue around the potential occupancy of the vacant space.
“For me I always think of the audience, no matter what,” Velez said. “I really like experimenting, but I usually end with wanting some sort of a dialogue that asks questions in a non-verbal way.”
For Dooley, the success of the project is “as simple as people walking by fast and turning their heads, craning their necks to see the art even if for a brief moment.” Like Velez, his interest lies in the “conversations that are happening around it about how beauty can be used to fill empty spaces that would otherwise be neglected, causing people to reevaluate their surroundings.”
The spark of interest in local business owners is another indicator that “Art in Storefronts” is a success. COPPeR already received a request to assume a current installation for a private business once the installation is taken down.
COPPeR hopes to continue the “Art in Storefronts” project and will have a second call for artists in the spring. In time, the organization wants to extend the installations beyond the downtown area.
“Art draws the right kind of attraction,” Dooley said, “sparking someone’s imagination for a space’s potential for a business, or even a creative business.”