The Downtown Longmont Creative District has become the centerpiece of a thriving community of artists and musicians as the city distinguishes itself from nearby Boulder.
Outside the Dickens Opera House on a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of six young musicians stand in a semi-circle, discussing their gigs for the night. One will play cello at a wedding, as part of a string quartet. Another will DJ a private party. A young woman with what looks like a clarinet case slung over her shoulder is headed to a good old fashioned rock-and-roll show at a club off the main drag.
It's a good time to be a young musician in Longmont, the historic town about an hour's drive north of Denver. That's part of the plan. Literally. In 2014, when Longmont was among the first waves of small towns across the state to be certified as a Colorado Creative District, it made expanding and nurturing the local music scene an express goal of the plan for the Downtown Longmont Creative District.
Today, music-related activity in Longmont is up 75 percent over 2011. There are more gigs for more players in more venues, both traditional and nontraditional. On a given Saturday night, you could begin an evening with a performance by the Longmont Symphony Orchestra, catch a folk band, then close it down with electronic dance music, somewhere, in the wee hours.
A lively scene for music as well as performing arts, jewelry design, graphic design, theater, visual arts and craft brewing helped Longmont land its Creative District designation. It's a small, culturally saturated place: The population of 90,000 includes several hundred artists and dozens of arts-based organizations, from music schools to historical museums. The Longmont Museum is regarded as one of the best small museums in the West, known for thoughtful historical programming as well as edgier fare; the current exhibition is a celebration of the Lowrider and its place in Chicano culture.
A network of resources
The Creative District designation formalized a movement that local cultural leaders had been slowly, if not entirely methodically, building for decades, says Joanne Kirves, executive director of Arts Longmont, one of the district's institutional anchors.
"Longmont is a very collaborative city, and the artists here love to work together, which is something I've always appreciated," says Kirves, who also leads a group of local arts leaders who help steer the district's strategic and aesthetic vision. "We knew we had a lot of really good assets in Longmont and we were always looking for opportunities to bring them together. When the notion of the creative districts came together, we were like yes!
"In the past, it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride: We'd be so excited to have a new restaurant or a new creative business, but then, a year later, it would close," she continues. "Over the past five years, we've had people coming in to start business, start restaurants who see the potential of Longmont and they're coming in with a plan. The Creative District has been essential to that, and it's been very important to our success."
On Main Street, works by Colorado potters, glass artists and sculptors beckon tourists to Arts Longmont's storefront gallery, which exhibits and sells works from artists all over the state. In many ways, the gallery embodies proof of the Creative District concept: Artists can work, show and sell through Arts Longmont, with access to a network of resources to support their artistry and livelihood, which in turn elevates the town's identify and local economy.
"You can see it, when you walk downtown, there's art everywhere you look," says Beryl Durazo, executive director of Firehouse Art Center, which anchors Longmont's contemporary arts scene from a historic building that houses events, classes and exhibitions by local, national and international artists. "The Creative District has helped the art scene in Longmont to really blossom; it helps to attract new artists and also supports the artists who have been here a long time."
Founded in 1871 as a kind of colony of Chicago, Longmont is Boulder's still-weird younger sibling -- a little country, a little groovy, with a few edges intact. North of the main drag, a large guns and ammo shop sits around the corner from a mindfulness studio. More than 25 percent of the population is Latino, a demographic fact that's evident in the mix of art as well as restaurants and small businesses.
While Longmont is still several degrees more affordable than Boulder, costs here are rising, especially as it's come onto the radar of upwardly mobile young families and commuters to the nearby University of Colorado as well as the Interlocken tech hub in Broomfield. In April, Longmont was named the 23rd most livable city in the United States by Livability.com.
"Housing and space are definitely constant challenges for artists, and affordability is a big topic here right now," says Kirves, noting that affordable housing will be an important element of Longmont's next Master Plan, which is in its early phases. The city is looking to build live/work space for creative people and businesses, including a development in the Roosevelt Park Apartments downtown. "The irony, always, is that if things get too successful, we price ourselves right out. We're conscious of it and constantly looking at space and how we use it."
A creative community
In the meantime, artists and the cultural nonprofits that support them are, by nature, creative -- and art finds a way. Ron Gallegos houses an art gallery, Conejos Fine Art, inside the office of his financial services company, for example. When the Barrio E' Cultural Center abruptly lost its space this fall, the community began looking for ways to keep the the dream alive while the organization searched for a new home. Firehouse Art Center allows members to use studio space for $40 a month, less than a membership to most local rec centers. It also offers members the opportunity to apply for residencies and inclusion in high-profile exhibitions that open doors to buyers as well as local markets.
"Our goal is to keep the artists at the center of the conversation especially as Longmont grows," says Durazo. "We want them to have the tools to be able to create and then go and show their work. We've had lots of artists who had their first exhibition through one of our residencies and then went on to have a showdown in Denver, or in other places. We help them get that experience into their portfolio, and to connect the local community to artists that may not have otherwise known."
In 2013, the Longmont-born street artist Gamma Acosta was commissioned to paint a 200-foot mural illustrating the area's history. Stretching along an alley artery downtown, the mural is a massive pastiche that suggests how Western expansion, indigenous influence, industry, agriculture and the arts combined to form Longmont's heart and soul. Art Longmont's Kirves says the process of Acosta's commission reminded her why she, as an artist as well as administrator, has made Longmont her home for more than 20 years.
"We got all of these artists together and said, 'Let's just start brainstorming what to do with these while walls in the breezeway,'" she says. "We started sorting through the idea and I realized: I'm standing here with all of these amazing artists, and now I have to pick one [to do the piece]. One by one, they kept coming up to me saying, 'This is a Gamma project.' It wasn't about them, it was truly about the community. I said, 'You know, that's really why I love you.' That kind of spirit is really at the heart of what makes this whole creative community successful."