The pandemic hit the arts hard, with devastating losses in employment and earnings nationwide. Locally, a variety of grant and low-interest loan opportunities and resources have been offered to help arts organizations navigate the rough waters.
They include funds through the federal CARES Act, U.S. Small Business Administration, Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, Colorado Creative Industries, the city of Colorado Springs and El Paso County.
Locally, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation and Bee Vradenburg Foundation partnered to create the Artist Recovery Fund, which provided emergency support for individual artists. The Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region steered artists and organizations toward funding sources and other forms of support through a page on its website.
These resources were vital, but local artists and leaders of arts organizations say the support they’ve received from the community and from each other has been just as important, if not more so.
Pandemic-forged partnerships have helped owners like Abigail Kreuser of Kreuser Gallery and Gundega Stevens of G44 Gallery to supplement their income. The two formed Curate Your Space, a business that takes their art expertise into patrons’ homes.
The Manitou Art Center has become the home of Pikes Peak Library District’s Manitou Springs Community Library. That partnership has helped sustain the MAC by expanding its membership and offering additional services.
Some of the 74 artists and businesses that are a part of the Cottonwood Center for the Arts survived the pandemic because of support from the organization.
Executive Director Jon Khoury said Cottonwood was able to do that through reserves built up before the pandemic.
“When the time came, we were prepared,” Khoury said.
And most of all, artists and arts organization leaders alike found that their customers, old and new, rallied around them.
“I feel like art is important and everybody should have it in their lives, and we have a vibrant arts community,” Kreuser said. “But to see how much so many other people felt that way was really heartwarming.”
Kreuser said she was worried at the start of the pandemic about whether people were going to buy art. Her gallery in Downtown Colorado Springs relies on commissions from sales of work by the artists she features and promotes.
Kreuser said she received assistance in the form of a Survive to Thrive loan through startup accelerator Exponential Impact, multiple matching gifts through the Downtown Partnership’s Virtual First Friday program, and grants from the El Paso County Regional Business Relief Fund and the Downtown Development Authority’s Small Business Relief Fund.
She ramped up her online store, which she had already set up but which rarely was the source of sales. Compared with 2019, her online sales to date have increased by 824 percent. Sales through social media outlets also have grown exponentially.
“I have been very lucky,” she said. “My sales have actually increased through the pandemic.”
Kreuser said she got great support from her regular customers.
“One collector in particular, whom I had never met, every month consistently was buying a piece of art from me,” she said.
When the two finally met, the patron told her, “I’ve been spending so much time in my home, and I decided I wanted to start supporting local art. I did my research, I found your gallery, and I like what you do.”
Paintings and other hanging art pieces have sold well throughout the past 18 months, Kreuser said, but at the beginning of the pandemic, she saw an increase in sales of jewelry, pottery and smaller items.
“I feel like people wanted to help, and that’s what they could contribute — those lower-priced items,” Kreuser said.
Kreuser’s friend Stevens moved G44 Gallery three months ago from Eighth Street to a space on East Boulder Street next to Kreuser. Stevens describes the pieces she displays as “local, regional, sophisticated yet approachable, high-caliber artwork.”
She had several reasons for moving downtown, including her friendship with Kreuser and the help she received from the Downtown Partnership.
“I wasn’t located downtown, but they included me in their marketing and promotions, and they did all kinds of things for the arts,” she said.
Stevens built up her online sales during the pandemic but found it was a lot of work.
“You had to just constantly put up new inventory on the website, and doing social media was very important,” she said.
Now that people are back to visiting galleries in person, in-store sales have rebounded to pre-COVID levels.
During the pandemic, Stevens and Kreuser were both making a lot of deliveries to people’s homes and getting requests to recommend artwork.
“During the pandemic, a collector hired us both within the same week,” Kreuser said. “And we were like, ‘Why don’t we just do this together and make a business out of it?’”
That was the genesis of Curate Your Space.
“We go into people’s homes, and we curate and install the collection they already have or bring in new artwork and install that for them,” Kreuser said. “Sometimes we take all of their artwork down and rehang it; sometimes we just go hang a piece that they purchased at our gallery or elsewhere.
“That has really helped us both during the pandemic, because we both run our businesses by ourselves and we don’t have employees,” she said.
Kreuser and Stevens think many visual arts businesses have emerged stronger, but they knew that the performing arts suffered greatly. They decided to start a ticketed performance series at their galleries that will feature musicians, poets and other performing artists.
The first one will be from 4-6 p.m. Oct. 9. For information, visit g44gallery.com.
Johnson said joining Manitou Made, an online shopping site for Manitou artists and small businesses, was a huge boon during the pandemic.
The site, hosted by the Manitou Springs Creative District and Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce, took the burden of maintaining an online store off the art center.
The MAC derives revenue from a variety of sources besides sales, including rental of on-site offices, apartments and studio spaces; classes; and donations and grants.
“When we lose one source, certainly we can drop 25 percent,” she said. “But we’re able to get through for short periods of time with that 75 percent. We’re vulnerable like anyone else, but I think we are a little more sustainable than we realized.”
COVID-specific grants and an SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan “allowed us to be strategic in our thinking about how we were operating as an organization and what staffing we
needed to be successful,” she said.
Sharing its space with the library “has offered grounding and stability we weren’t anticipating,” Johnson said.
Before COVID, the MAC had 65 members. Now it has more than 250, including working artists running businesses, retired people getting into crafts, individuals finding ways to re-engage with others and people “trying to figure out where they need to be.”
The MAC also now has three full-time and two part-time paid staff, the most it’s had in the past 20 years, Johnson said.
“We are, without a doubt, a stronger organization than we were before COVID,” she said.
When he became executive director of Cottonwood nine years ago, “we had zero reserves,” Khoury said. “We currently operate with eight months in reserve. That’s unheard of for a nonprofit.”
The center was able to tap those reserves to support artists who were temporarily unable to pay their rent.
“The people that had the most challenge were the ones who were more attached to their need to express themselves artistically than to take care of their financial obligations,” Khoury said.
“That’s not a judgment; you need people like that who tirelessly produce important cultural things. That is a currency, as much as money is a currency. That cultural currency is part of our product line.”
The center’s operating expenses — $72,000 a month — are generated by programming including classes, events and space rental. The organization’s revenue approaches $1 million a year, Khoury said.
The center also leases art to hang in businesses and public spaces on a three-month rotating basis, charging a monthly fee. “We now are in 18 buildings in Downtown,” Khoury said.
The center has ventured into fundraising only recently. “We flipped the idea that artists should have their hands out,” Khoury said. “This past six months is the first time we’ve ever gone out for any type of fundraising, because I’ve always tried to prove that the arts can be monetized.”
The center added a 6,000-square-foot outdoor facility with help from El Pomar that has become a significant revenue-producer.
Funding organizations “have been approaching us,” he said, “because we never asked before. So now we’re talking about how we can continue to expand the facility.”
Khoury said he thinks population growth and demographic changes in Colorado Springs are driving greater demand for arts and culture.
“That demand is not just about quantity of arts and culture but the quality,” he said. “As the arts consolidate, which is what’s happening now, we’re losing some of these galleries that are still doing just paintings of Pikes Peak.”
Greater support for the arts “will happen not by asking the patrons for support,” he said. “That’s the mistake that arts organizations make. It will happen when the artists realize they need to produce a product that the patron says, ‘That’s worth something to me.’ … Cultural currency ultimately translates into