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Local Creative Industries Feeling ‘Cautious, But Optimistic’ About Their Economic Footing

Courtesy Carbondale Clay Center
The Carbondale Clay Center cut class sizes and separated work stations by 6 feet after a 78 day closure due to the pandemic. This week, it was honored with an award from the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts.

Before COVID-19 hit, arts and cultural events and institutions made up 12 percent of the Pitkin County economy, according to a 2019 study recently released by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. That equals nearly half a billion dollars in economic output, and it is higher than the statewide average. The monetary value ripples up and down the valley, and data from 2018 point to over 3,000 jobs within the Roaring Fork Valley coming from the creative economy.

That industry continues to be hit by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but there’s hope that historically strong support for the arts will give local arts organizations the financial boost they need as they navigate the road ahead.

“This is a real economy in this valley,” said Carbondale Arts Executive Director Amy Kimberly. “The creatives, the performing arts, music, venues, restaurants—art adds millions. You just don’t realize the money that does come in.”

Carbondale Arts has been one of the organizers and supporting partners of a new “Arts Through It All” campaign to get through the interim. The initiative supports local artists by promoting shopping small and local for the holidays. It has also started a dialogue between art organizations from Aspen to Redstone about how to support each other during this difficult time. 

“Artists and arts organizations adjusted over the summer and the warmer weather kind of allowed for that, and now heading into the winter, we know we’re not all out of the woods,” said Red Brick Center for the Arts Executive Director Sarah Roy. 

The organization is another supporting partner of the Arts Through It All Campaign. Roy said it is going to take time to get the local creative industry back on its feet. Others agree, but with a vaccine on the horizon, there’s growing optimism that 2021 will be a better year than the current one.

“Honestly, I’m feeling pretty optimistic. Maybe that’s naive,” said Carbondale Clay Center Executive Director Angela Bruno. “I’m planning on getting us through this next year and then 2022 will be a great year for us.”

The Carbondale Clay Center shut down for 78 days during the initial coronavirus lockdowns in March, and cut $150,000 from its budget to get through 2020.

“It was terrifying,” said Bruno. “When we reopened, I didn’t know what was going to happen, what it would look like, if anyone would be interested in the programming.”

She said that between the hands-on nature of working with clay and collective Zoom fatigue, virtual classes were difficult. They spent those 78 days instead focusing on how to safely offer in-person programming once they could reopen. They cut class sizes in half, moved work spaces 6 feet apart, and now every piece of equipment gets sanitized each time it is touched. 

There has been some silver linings to the changes; there is more one-on-one time with instructors, and there was even a waitlist for their last class session. The organization is also looking at hiring a part-time position for next year, and this week, it was honored with an award from the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts for its navigating of the pandemic. 

Credit Courtesy Carbondale Clay Center
The Carbondale Clay Center took a financial hit from cancelled special events this year, like its annual cup auction. Other local arts organizations say that limitations on in-person events will continue to be a challenge into next year.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of in-person special events, however, remains a huge question mark for the year ahead. Like other arts organizations in the valley, the Carbondale Clay Center took a huge hit from the cancellation of in-person, special events in 2020. Overall economic uncertainty is also leading executive directors across the valley to take a cautious approach as they look at next year’s budgets.

“It’s going to take years for arts and cultural organizations to get back to maybe where we had been pre-COVID,” said the Red Brick’s Roy.

Meantime, though, art is still happening.

“Just because you don’t see an artist’s work doesn’t mean that they’re not creating,” said Megan Janssen, the executive director of the Dance Initiative, another Arts Through It All supporting partner. “You might not be going to the theater or a gallery, but it’s still there, and it’s important to support all of those artists—they’re still out there even if they’re not as loud as they’d like to be.”

At Carbondale Arts’s annual Deck The Walls Holiday Market, sales are up from last year. The market sells gifts made by 60 Roaring Fork Valley artists. 


“Before, arts were looked at as something nice, but we can do without,” said Carbondale Arts’ Kimberly. “My favorite saying these days [is] ‘Science may solve this problem, but the arts will get us through it.’”



Kirsten was born and raised in Massachusetts, and has called Colorado home since 2008. She moved to Vail the day after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2011. Before relocating to Basalt in 2020, she also spent a year living in one of Aspen’s sister cities, Queenstown, New Zealand.
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