Mancos has always been home to a large number of artists, but 2017 was its first full year as a certified Colorado Creative District.
Colorado’s first Creative District was certified in 2012. Since then, 21 places in the state have received the designation, which qualifies them for grant money and other benefits designed to support local arts. In July 2016, Mancos became one of the smallest towns in the state to be certified.
Creative District leaders said their application resulted from about two years’ work. Rena Wilson said she and four other women, including then-Town Administrator Andrea Phillips, started the process in 2014 after going to a conference held by Colorado Creative Industries, the state department that awards certifications.
Christy Costello, program manager for Creative Industries, said Creative District applicants need to demonstrate potential for leadership and a strategic goal for the future of their arts communities, among other criteria. Mancos scored high in every category, she said.
“We felt that their vision for the future was realistic,” she said. “There was a really clear commitment from their community and the local government.”
Wilson said that, at the time of the application, the Mancos Valley was home to about 160 artists of various kinds. While many of those artists live in the rural areas outside town, there is also has a high concentration of art galleries along Grand Avenue and Main Street in the heart of Mancos.
The Creative District’s goals, as outlined in its strategic plan, include job creation, honoring the heritage of the Mancos Valley and “promoting social cohesiveness and understanding through cultural activities,” among other things.
Certification as a Creative District came with a $30,000 matching grant. Some of the things that money has paid for so far include a professional photographer and videographer to help market the art district, training for the board of directors and the establishment of the Mancos School of the West, which offers a wide variety of art classes for all ages. Now the town is also be eligible for other arts-related grants that aren’t available to towns without Creative Districts. Mancos is still waiting for a few other perks that come with being certified, such as highway signs advertising the gallery district.
Mancos has only had a Creative District for a year and a half, but its members said it has already left a significant mark on the town. Artists with the district have painted three new murals and helped to spruce up the small “pocket parks” within town limits. Sarah Syverson, the district’s director, said the marketing efforts have helped cross the divide between Mancos’s agricultural and artistic populations.
“There’s a cohesiveness and a coming together that wasn’t there before the Creative District,” she said.
Many local farmers and ranchers have helped organize fundraisers to support the district, Wilson said.
Another district staff member, Carol Mehesy, said she believes the district has helped improve the town’s image.
“(It’s) building some regional awareness of Mancos as a really special place,” she said.
The Creative District has helped to organize several events in the past year, like the Grand Summer Nights celebration and, more recently, the holiday arts market held downtown. The Creative District put on several of these events in partnership with the Mancos Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Mount Lookout Grange and other local organizations.
Although the majority of Colorado’s Creative Districts are in larger cities – three are located in Denver – Mancos is not the only small town on the list. The Ridgway Creative District is located in a town of only 932 residents. Costello said she believes small towns have some advantages over cities when it comes to promoting the arts.
“In Denver and other urban areas, there can be any number of big initiatives for people to get involved in, and the smaller neighborhood initiatives can get lost,” she said. “In a small town, it’s easier to get the word out ... people tend to be really engaged in what’s going on.”
But rural areas like Mancos also have more isolated residents and fewer sources of information, she said. Part of the purpose behind the Creative District’s public events over the past year was to raise awareness of local artists.
The Creative District’s board of directors is also relying on town engagement to pursue its next big projects. In 2018, the Creative District plans to put up 11 signs pointing visitors to the downtown galleries, build a new “maker space” with the help of a new Creative Industries grant and host more Grand Summer Nights. Mehesy said the artists in the district also hope to collaborate on a series of visual, musical and performance works on the theme of “belonging.” She said the series will focus on specific issues Mancos is facing and on “how the small town comes together across these perceived differences.”
One of the Creative District’s long-term goals is to make Mancos more attractive to artists and art lovers. For Lille Diane, an artist who recently moved to the area, it’s already working.
“I can see more here,” she said. “It’s stimulating to me, visually, as an artist.... Here, you feel welcome.”