As director of the Manitou Art Center and head of the Manitou Springs Creative District, Natalie Johnson plays a key role in supporting and promoting the arts as a tool of economic development.

She views art not just as something that attracts visitors, but as the essence of the community.

Johnson grew up in Marengo, Ill., a small town northwest of Chicago. She graduated in 1998 from Ripon College, Ripon, Wis., with majors in art history and English and a minor in women’s studies, and spent a summer as an archival assistant at the Art Institute of Chicago.

After taking a year off to live and work in Madison, Wis., she earned a master’s degree in women’s studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

She worked as an Americorps volunteer at the Cascade People’s Center in Seattle after grad school and became the center’s program coordinator in 2001 — a position that has informed her work ever since.

“The mentality of that community center was that the community creates the programming,” Johnson said.

Johnson had heard about Manitou Springs from several college classmates and, after living in five states in six years, she landed in Manitou in May 2003.

She meant to stay for a year, but “I realized I wanted to live, work and play here,” she said.

By 2005, Johnson had opened Black Cat Books in downtown Manitou, which featured not only new and used books but also local art.

As in other places she’d lived, Johnson got involved in the community, serving on the board of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and several community and School District 14 committees.

She joined the Manitou Art Center board in 2010 and became its director in 2012, reluctantly closing the bookstore in 2013.

In 2016, Johnson was named director of the Manitou Springs Creative District and in that capacity serves as Manitou Springs’ economic development officer.

Johnson spoke with the Business Journal about her dual roles and why she thinks it’s so important for communities to strengthen their connection to the art world.

Let’s talk about your job at the MAC.

I’ve been with the organization for a little over seven years. The first four years were very much hands-on — cleaning 28 toilets a week, doing 18 loads of laundry a week. It was a lot of physical activity. And then I would reach out to the community, writing grants, representing the organization throughout the Pikes Peak region and the state. It has progressed to the point where I really am working as an executive director and not a general manager, and that’s only been the last 2½ years.

What about the economic development aspect of your job? 

Going through the process of becoming a state-certified creative district, the bulk of that work is trying to create systemic support for arts, culture and heritage throughout the community. It took several years to really demonstrate to the state that we had that here. And then at that point, we became certified. … I think that when we talk about our future, our present, our past, art and culture is key to that. And I also think it’s key to the sustainability of Manitou Springs, in terms of diversifying our economy, in terms of surviving and weathering recessions and other changes in the economy. With intention and forethought and foresight, we can do all of that.

A lot of the work I’m doing — Manitou Made, the development of a creative corridor between Manitou Springs, Old Colorado City and Colorado Springs — that’s indirect support to the average artist, but it’s a thing that can really impact, long term, the creative community. And we have a number of organizations that are more directly taking on those roles.

What does the MAC do to nurture and support artists and help with the business aspect of their careers?

When the Business of Art Center [now the MAC] formed 31 years ago, the idea of an artist actually being a commercial business owner operating a business or running their business in a professional manner was not part of the curriculum in schools. And now it is. So the need that the art center filled 31 years ago is no longer there, and there are other resources that can support that piece.

As we’ve been recovering from the recession and investing as an art center, we’ve been investing in equipment that’s heavy, expensive or requires ventilation. Folks that are going to continue to pursue their craft will need that, so that has been an intentional change in how we do things. We only have space for about 20 studio artists, but you can become a member for $50 a month. You can come and use our equipment and basically have 24/7 access to do that. We have a number of people who are operating and running their businesses out of the art center. The art center really supports that model of minimizing the investment up front so that you can take risks without substantial financial losses.

How have you seen the arts community evolve?

It’s an exciting time to be an artist and creative in the Pikes Peak region. There’s more opportunity, and there’s more energy, and there’s more excitement. We are seeing a lot of creative entrepreneurs who have been up in Denver moving down into the Springs, and that is certainly changing the atmosphere here and the idea of what can be achieved. We talked about the creative corridor — there are almost 40 art galleries in a three-mile area. ….

I think the other part is that people are interested in experiences. So you look at those painting and drinking events, you look at the make-and-take experience that businesses are offering. I think artists are adding that hands-on piece. …

When we look at the loss of [Manitou artist emeritus] Charles Rockey this year, [it reminds us] that as our longtime creative artists age, we need to be replacing those amazing people with other younger, amazing people. And again, that investment needs to be there, and that support needs to be there. We seriously need to recognize that we may lose that connection to that fantastic, magical art world.

The other thing that’s exciting is that the art world and the history and cultural world have been using data and numbers to track their impact. That changes how we are able to talk about ourselves and how we are able to advocate for the business side of arts.

How do you view the role that arts play in economic development?

When you only look at artists in sort of that traditional way — you know, paintings and pottery — you’re limiting the economic impact that they certainly do have. When people come to Manitou Springs, they appreciate our historic downtown. That architecture and that intention to preserve our history are certainly artistic in nature. … By looking to artists to help us with answers to things like homelessness — Poetry Heals and the impact of that — when we look at our local breweries, our culinary experiences, all of those things, I would say, fall along the lines of that creative industry idea. … And so when I think of the economic impact of the arts, I look at Manitou and think that’s almost 100 percent of what’s happening here. …  Things that we’re working on, like the creative corridor piece, the idea of Manitou Made, workforce training, access to equipment, changing our labor force — we’ve been discussing the idea of some small-scale manufacturing happening in Manitou — that’s all coming through that creative sector. …

A part of that is trying to figure out how to fund and support these things. So we are working on a Manitou Springs arts, cultural and heritage ballot measure that will be on the ballot this November. It is all about supporting the Carnegie Library building, Hiawatha Gardens, Manitou Art Center, Manitou Springs Heritage Center, Miramont Castle, and then my favorite part, a competitive art and cultural grant for projects and programming throughout the community. And I believe that is integral to my job as the director of the creative district to figure out a way to fund in an ongoing and strategic way all of those events and activities.

How do the arts interact with and support other businesses?

In the 1970s, Manitou Springs was really trying to figure out who and what it was going to become. And they intentionally selected the art community as a huge component of that, so we have decades of support for the arts as an economic driver. The other businesses know and are aware of that, and they certainly work with their neighbors to make that happen. [This summer, a concert to benefit the Manitou Music Foundation] was canceled, and Manitou Springs Real Estate moved the concert to the parking lot in the back their building. That’s a very direct sort of way that an organization that is not affiliated with music was able to support music in the Manitou Springs community. When we stopped doing the fireworks in Manitou because of fire danger and other issues, our answer was to have concerts and music and food in the park. And so we fall back on the arts as that immediate sort of fix. …

I think that our more successful businesses recognize that connecting to the arts and connecting to our history and culture is key to success.

You touched on surviving downturns, and everybody says we’ve got another one coming. Do you think the arts community is prepared to weather that better than perhaps it was in 2008?

To some degree, the arts community never recovered from the recession. Artists who have been successful have found different ways of selling their work than they did before 2009. But ultimately, when recessions hit, folks almost immediately stop purchasing art. It’s a different world, and I think that it’s going to continue to be a different world. But at the end of the day, if you have something to share and express, and you are an artistic individual, it is an unstoppable force. And that unstoppable force will weather a whole variety of issues and changes and economic disasters.