Spotlight on NEA Our Town: Arts Incubator of the Rockies

by Paulette Beete
A participant at the first SHIFT workshop presented by the Arts Incubator of the Rockies. Photo © Harper Point Photography

A participant at the first SHIFT workshop presented by the Arts Incubator of the Rockies. Photo © Harper Point Photography

As we recently announced our newest round of NEA Our Town grants to support creative placemaking projects across the country, we thought it would be fitting to take a look back at one of the projects that received support when the program debuted in 2011. In that inaugural round of funding, the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, received project support for the Rocky Mountain Regional Arts Incubator, which was intended to give "students and professionals a multitude of services to assist them in creating, redefining, and sustaining their creative careers in the new economy." Housed in a historic building in downtown Fort Collins, the renamed Arts Incubator of the Rockies today offers a wide range of opportunities for creative professionals, including workshops, individual coaching, and other resources. We spoke with City of Fort Collins Cultural Services Director Jill Stilwell and Arts Incubator of the Rockies staffer Mary Beth Polce to get an update on the project.

NEA: What sparked the idea for the Arts Incubator of the Rockies, and what is its mission?

JILL STILWELL and MARY BETH POLCE: In 2010, the City of Fort Collins Cultural Services Department and Beet Street (a local arts agency) hosted an Arts Summit in Fort Collins that identified the need for professional development for the creative community. Beet Street decided to take on the task of creating a professional development program that evolved into the Arts Incubator of the Rockies (AIR). The City and Beet Street partnered on [applying for] an NEA Our Town Grant to design and develop the curriculum for the arts incubator. The AIR curriculum task force found many communities throughout the Intermountain West had a similar lack of professional development and decided to leverage our local community’s assets to help others, and have greater impact and success for our regional arts community. AIR is more than an arts incubator. AIR is an empowering ecosystem that elevates creatives and the power of creativity throughout the Intermountain West.

NEA: Where are you in the process of creating the incubator?

STILWELL/POLCE: AIR launched its powerful website in Fall 2012, which includes a knowledge and opportunities center, regional calendar, member directory and portfolios, and a collaborative portal called AIR Share. After several rounds of pilots, the first official AIR Shift Workshop sold out in March 2013. The weekend workshop focuses on new ways for art and business to connect through innovation and collaboration---using the power of practical business skills combined with creativity and design thinking to transform careers, businesses, and communities. The AIR Evolve Program is currently in its final pilot, a six-month program that guides attendees through developing and launching their own creative ventures. Right now, we are focused on getting the word out about our resources and curriculum, building our membership, and developing partnerships with affiliate organizations that are interested in being hubs for AIR programs in their community.

NEA: What have been some of the challenges? How about successes to date?

STILWELL/POLCE: As with any start-up, financing is always a challenge. The NEA Our Town Grant was a huge boost for the development and visibility of this project. We have experienced amazing support from our local community of artists, businesses, and local government. More than 100 individuals throughout the region were involved in the process of developing and piloting the curriculum. We’ve seen a lot of traffic on the website, and membership grows daily. Our first workshops were sold out and we are beginning to expand into the region with several more programs scheduled in the coming months.

NEA: How does the arts incubator fit into Ft. Collins' cultural plan?

STILWELL/POLCE: The Arts Incubator of the Rockies fulfills goals of Fort Collins’ Cultural Plan, adopted in 2008, including strengthening the local economy by supporting and encouraging creative business to add to the economic engine of the region and employing the creative industry’s ability to attract business and improve quality of life. An arts incubator was also identified IN the City’s Urban Development Plan as a strategy for increasing the livability of Fort Collins, and the Economic Health Strategic Plan to bolster the creative industry and diversiFy the local economy.

NEA: How do you think the arts incubator will benefit the community-at-large in addition to artists?

STILWELL/POLCE: The AIR curriculum is not just for artists. It provides the opportunity to discover how the power of the arts and creativity can transform business and community. Collaboration is a hallmark of the program, as is communication and problem solving. In fact, the AIR Shift Workshop focuses on real community issues and uses collaboration and creative problem solving to generate solutions. The curriculum fits all types of backgrounds, and---although founded for the Intermountain West---it is applicable to any community.

NEA: There are several partners involved in the arts incubator? Can you please say something about the importance of collaboration and partnerships?

STILWELL/POLCE: Without partnerships, the Arts Incubator of the Rockies project would never have gotten off the ground! The City of Fort Collins partnered with Beet Street on the NEA Our Town Grant, designated an historic building to serve as the home of AIR, and provided some start-up funds. Colorado State University School (CSU) of the Arts partnered on the development of an internship program, administered and run by AIR, that brings students together with local artists and non-profits. AIR is already planning to expand this program to other college campuses in the region and CSU is also launching an Arts Administration minor and master’s program that will partner with AIR. Plus we collaborated with local artists, regional arts agencies, and funders to make the project possible.

NEA: What's next on the wish list for the arts incubator?

STILWELL/POLCE: Now that we’ve launched locally, we are ready to travel our curriculum throughout the region and beyond. We want to build membership and participation and make available the great tools and resources AIR has to offer to as many people as possible.

NEA: What's your advice to other communities that might want to do start an arts incubator?

STILWELL/POLCE: Use ours! Don’t recreate the wheel---we want to share all the work we have done and would love to bring the AIR program to any community. AIR is available virtually through the website and streaming, or we can work with local organizations that would like to become affiliates and help bring the full curriculum to their community.

NEA: What does creative placemaking mean to your community?

STILWELL/POLCE: For us, creative placemaking took the form of repurposing an historic building located near our downtown. We reactivated the space with new cultural programming, including the arts incubator, a community gallery, and performance space. The building is becoming a hub of creative activity and as a result is helping to build a stronger, vibrant, arts-focused community. We hope this will spur redevelopment of other under-utilized buildings in the surrounding area and will also be a conduit for the arts to influence and build other areas of the community that may not have considered themselves in the creative realm.