Fort Collins, CO: Arts Incubator of the Rockies

historic downtown brick Carnegie Library

Photo courtesy of the City of Fort Collins

How can a new artist training center help revive an old building and serve artists across the Rocky Mountain west?

When the Fort Collins Museum moved out of the city’s historic Carnegie Library Building in 2011, it left the City of Fort Collins with a vacant property in one of its most impressive buildings. Reaching out to the community through a series of public dialogues, the city asked residents how they would envision using the building. What they heard was a strong desire to turn the space into a community arts center - the Arts Incubator of the Rockies (AIR). Searching for ideas that could reach multiple constituencies, the city happened upon a synergistic partnerships with Beet Street, a non-profit arts organization, and Colorado State University to establish a facility that could support the education and development of the artistic community throughout the region.


Fort Collins, Colorado, is a city of 150,000 residents, just one hour north of Denver. It has become known for its entrepreneurial and environmental focus, with many well-known breweries and other innovative businesses that place an emphasis on sustainability and the environment. With easy access to the Rocky Mountains, it has an abundance of recreational opportunities too. The downtown, which was built starting in the 1880s, has a lively scene of restaurants, music, and other cultural activities. Just two blocks away from the center of downtown, the historic Carnegie Library Building, built in 1904 in a park-like setting, is known as a center point for cultural activities (there are 14 cultural facilities within a 10 block radius).


Fort Collins is a hub for the interior mountain west region, which has a cumulative population of more than 16 million, with an average of 19 people per square mile. Demographic data shows that there are over 6,000 creative professionals living in Fort Collins and the surrounding county and more than 280,000 in the intermountain west region.


With such an abundance of creative and art-related professionals dispersed throughout the region, there was no shortage of strong, local arts initiatives. What had been missing, though, was an established place where the artist community could regularly meet, learn, and network together. In an earlier survey, the City of Fort Collins reached out to the artistic community to ask them about the kinds of things that were needed. “We of course heard ‘money,’ but we also heard questions like, ‘How do I become a business person? Where can I interact with my community? How do we build a more collaborative community to help support ourselves and each other?'” recalled Fort Collins Cultural Services Director Jill Stillwell. From the business community, the city heard how they wanted to work more closely with artists, but that they were not quite sure how best to go about those partnerships. Members of the city’s creative community also were interested in learning more about business but found it to be equally difficult to understand.


Beet Street, a non-profit organization that supports arts in Fort Collins, was hosting a professional development workshop and invited staff from the city and Colorado State University (CSU). At the workshops, city representatives knew they were looking for ideas about how to use the Carnegie Library building, the University was looking to create a program in arts leadership, and Beet Street was hoping to expand its offerings in professional development. “We were all on different paths, but we saw there was a lot of connectivity, so we tried to draw the lines that connected these ideas brighter,” says Stillwell. The three partners came together to form Arts Incubator of the Rockies (AIR), designed to provide the educational resource and support needed to grow the careers of local artists. AIR programs would be located in the former Carnegie Library building and would connect artists, creatives, and the community by providing professional development classes, entrepreneurial and business training, coaching opportunities, and social networking opportunities.



The primary partners on the project were Beet Street, the City of Fort Collins, and CSU. The City and Beet Street worked as a team in managing the project. Beet Street led the curriculum development, outreach to the regional partners, internship development, and business planning. The City served as the fiscal agent and actively participated in curriculum development, outreach, and business planning. The City also led the interior space planning for the Carnegie Library building. The Beet Street team under Beth Fowler taught classes, designed the curriculum, engaged different state organizations, and promoted the program throughout the region. Colorado State University was also able to join the project team in their efforts to start the LEAP Institute for Arts Administration, a new minor/graduate program the University is looking to offer. Working with the AIR project allowed them the opportunity to design and develop a new internship program.



The partners developed a business plan to account for the market and financial feasibility of their vision. They also designed interior spaces to repurpose the historic library as the new home for AIR and held multiple community meetings and events throughout the planning process to gather input and share ideas on potential activities. The team also directly engaged artists in designing and planning the AIR curriculum; in total, 22 community artists and arts organizations' representatives volunteered to serve on different curriculum committees over a six-month period. These volunteers reached out to the business community to hear its concerns and found that it was looking for ways to form more substantial connections with the creative community. Using the results of this curriculum development phase, the partners then moved to populate the Carnegie building with different programs and tenants. Having ownership of the building also allowed the city to rent out gallery space to artists at very low rates, opening up the potential for many new artists to exhibit their work.


AIR now provides training, opportunities, and connectivity for artists, arts organizations, and creative businesses in Fort Collins and the intermountain west region. “We’ve really created a space where artists and business people have ownership. It's opened up a lot of communication and connectivity,” says Stillwell. The rented gallery space is almost completely booked year-round. The program/occupancy plan for the historic building helped the project team develop the visuals that allowed people to see what the physical manifestation would be for the art incubator, enabling them to present the idea to potential grantors. Beet Street staff has been actively seeking support toward the implementation phase, bringing the program to the attention of regional, state, and national stakeholders and funders. Thus far, AIR has received a two-year grant of $50,000 each year from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. The City of Fort Collins anticipates investing $50,000 in 2013 and $60,000 in 2014 as part of the City's budget, and the Americans for the Arts announced that AIR will receive one of three $250,000 InnOvation grants.


Finding it difficult to transition from “startup” to a full- fledged business, the partners learned some key business development lessons. “We knew what the end result would be, but we didn’t know at the beginning what our transition plan would be,” says Stillwell. “We were unaware that there was going to be a gap between seed money and running the business at full speed.

  1. Independent artists and creative professionals who would like to improve business skills to make a living with their art
  2. Degree-seeking arts students—and their parents—needing access to the many career paths where artistic skills can be applied in the arts, culture, and creative industries
  3. Working professionals looking for ways to re-align their careers with their creative passions
  4. Non-profit arts organizations in need of business skills
  5. Creative industry businesses recruiting employees
  1. Community Summit hosted by Beet Street and the City of Fort Collins to determine priorities for furthering arts and culture.
  2. Beet Street prioritizes an incubator project to address the need for professional development for artists and creatives.
  3. Partnership between the City, Beet Street, and CSU to address the ongoing needs of professional development for artists and creatives.
  4. Beet Street and the City applied for and received an NEA Our Town Grant to plan the arts incubator and the building in which is would be housed, the 1904 former Carnegie Library building.
  5. A Regional Summit is held with representatives from state arts agencies from the intermountain west to get their interest in and support of the arts incubator project.
  6. More than 20 volunteers take on the development of the curriculum, doing interviews, research, and focus groups.
  7. Several pilot classes are held, engaging more than 100 people, including representatives from state arts agencies within the intermountain west.
  8. An architectural space use plan is developed for the Carnegie building to house the arts incubator program in conjunction with other creative spaces including a gallery, performance space, and workshops.

In July 2014, the Arts Incubator of the Rockies spun off as its own entity from the local arts service organization, Beet Street. AIR’s focus and reach went far beyond the local Fort Collins community, and the Board of Directors determined AIR would be most successful as its own entity in garnering support, developing partnerships, and raising funds.  AIR is developing significant regional and national partnerships and a new location will result. Beet Street continues to serve our local community and have a presence at the Community Creative Center, hosting networking events, First Fridays, and managing the Streetsmosphere program.  Beet Street and the Community Creative Center will also host the local presentations of AIR’s professional development programs.