Rural Arts Connect



Introductory Letters


Project Overview


The RAC Network


Promising Examples




Virtual Convening


Sustainability & Recommendations




This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [grant number MA-20-19-0414-19]. The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. To learn more, visit



In 2019, Aspen Art Museum began a new project to explore connections between rural arts organizations and to understand how those connections affect the organizations themselves and the communities they serve. Michelle Dezember, the AAM’s former Learning Director, saw an opportunity; although there had been studies on the importance of networking across rural communities, there were no studies that included an anchoring institution. Outreach is a large part of our mission and the museum’s former Director of Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion, Annie Henninger, had existing relationships with schools in rural communities across western Colorado. As the only accredited art museum on the Western Slope, the onus was on us to connect and serve rural arts organizations in this capacity. Dolly Hayde and Justin Meyer from the Center of Science and Industry had previously helped the museum with a visitor evaluation survey and strategic plan, so we knew we had amazing partners who could help us collect and evaluate data. With the generous support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we set out to study what happens when rural communities come together. A lot of what we learned could not have been predicted. Because so much of this three- year period has been affected by the pandemic, mutual support has proven to be the through-line of our story and connection the cornerstone of the work we have done together. We have reflected, responded, and shifted plans during this time, which has only served to strengthen our network. Over the life of this project, we’ve had the opportunity to observe how other organizations operate and thrive, and how to mine each other’s resources. The research gave smaller organizations the opportunity to see how their communities perceived them, and the communities that took advantage of this were able to learn more about themselves. This experience has involved building solidarity, empathy, and mutual respect—becoming more aware of the unique challenges that we face and those that we share as organizations. Our communities, already isolated geographically, saw isolation magnify during the pandemic. The landscape loomed larger and people seemed further away. By forming this network and collaborating, we have all connected with people we may never have crossed paths with otherwise—people we now know and admire, and who we can call on for advice and support. It is the inherent nature of the arts to foster connection, and that’s what this project is really about—connecting and being better for it. Beyond the project timeline, we hope to enrich, deepen, and sustain the professional and interpersonal network we have created over the past three years. In the coming months, AAM’s education department will visit each of our western Colorado partner organizations and bring art


supplies they can use for their programming. We’ll collect audio interviews from our RAC partners about their hopes for the network’s future, which will complement and add context to the data we present in this resource guide. Those interested will continue to meet quarterly, and we look forward to collaborating with each other on programs into the future. Ultimately, we hope that this work will create lasting change. Despite administration change and people moving on, those of us involved were affected greatly by this experience and feel what we take with us will have a ripple effect in our communities and beyond. Above all, we hope to shed light on the power that exists in rural communities, particularly around arts and culture. In towns where the houses are fewer and farther between and the landscape is unencumbered, you can trust that there are amazing, creative, unique, and passionate people working to sustain and foster the arts in their communities. This project has instilled in us a newfound respect for, love for, and loyalty to those of us in western Colorado who are connected by the arts.

Never underestimate the power of an arts organization in a rural community. They are small, but they are mighty. And never underestimate the importance of supporting one another.


Teresa Booth Brown, Director of Education and Community Programs Rai Omri, Community Programs Coordinator

Annie Henninger, Art Supervisor, City of Glenwood Springs and former Director of Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion & Rural Arts Connect Project Director at Aspen Art Museum



In 2018, we happily accepted an invitation from colleagues at the Aspen Art Museum to collaborate on an ambitious proposal to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The proposal was exciting to us because it centered on a bold but simple goal: Explore the possibilities for building community between rural arts organizations to improve opportunities for art experiences across their region. As the project’s research and evaluation team, our work has been to explore the perceptions of the organizations themselves, as well as how their institutional presence and collaborative efforts have been felt among the audiences they serve. Above all, we have had the unique privilege of being welcomed into a network of professionals from across Colorado’s Western Slope. While our role on the project has included close collaboration with our colleagues in Aspen on the launch and stewardship of the grant itself, the accomplishments, legacy, and ongoing plans of Rural Arts Connect belong to the organizational partners you’ll hear from in this guide, and we are proud to have served as a geographically distant but committed “critical friend” along the way. When we first began working on this project, we could not anticipate how much change would take place for all of us between our initial proposal submission in 2018 and now, in Summer 2022. As the project progressed, we saw the COVID-19 pandemic and significant political changes affect rural areas particularly acutely, both in Colorado and in our own state of Ohio. While these changes did at times hamper some of our colleagues’ best-laid plans and force unexpected and difficult transitions, it has also been immensely heartening to see the ways community and professional support can emerge and thrive in particularly challenging times. As we near the end of the funded grant, we celebrate the contributions of everyone connected to this work over the years. These efforts have given us renewed optimism about the resilience and creativity that can be found when we intentionally seek community and prioritize mutual benefit. In this spirit, the Rural Arts Connect (RAC) Leadership Network offers this resource guide to share the best of what we have learned together. In the pages that follow, you’ll find some of the Network’s most promising examples of collaborative programming, as well as some practical lessons learned from our partners. Together with all of our RAC colleagues, we invite you to try things, to adapt and remix things, to share alike, and to reach out.

Dolly Hayde + Justin Reeves Meyer COSI’s Center for Research and Evaluation



The Rural Arts Connect (RAC) project connects arts & cultural organizations in rural geographies across western Colorado to research the role that art plays in catalyzing connectivity and to increase both arts education and capacity among RAC partners to serve their various communities and audiences more effectively.

The project includes four distinct components:

Research & Evaluation The AAM engaged COSI’s Center for Research as an external partner to study the perceptions and experiences of project participants in a segment of the Western Slope of Colorado and their evolving relationship to the AAM and art. Community Programs Building on existing partnerships, this project serves to create a scalable and sustainable model of programming for rural communities who face barriers to museum visits. RAC Leadership Network & Summits Partners from nonprofit cultural organizations in western Colorado participated in annual online summits, in addition to meeting online regularly for networking, professional development, and to design community programs. Rural Art Museum Convening Staff from museums in rural locations across the US were invited to share in new reflective models of practice for museum programming in remote rural communities that were developed as a result of this project, building capacity for project participants and in museums across the country.







The Collective Impact Model is a framework for coordinating collaborative efforts & refers to the commitment of a group of people from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific large-scale social problem.

Aspen Art Museum has served as the backbone organization for the project, and Dolly Hayde and Justin Meyer of COSI derived our shared measurement systems. RAC organizations’ common agenda has been to learn together and explore how the network could expand capacity among project partners to serve their communities. Our online meetings and annual summits have served to keep us in regular communication, and our collaborative programming and professional development sessions have offered mutually reinforcing activities (see “Promising Examples” beginning on page 16). The Collective Impact model has been revisited since the inception of this project, and more details can be found on page 31 of this guide. As we continue to collaborate beyond the project timeline, the RAC network will incorporate aspects of the new model into our leadership structure.

The model is defined by 5 conditions:


- A common agenda


- Shared measurement systems


- Mutually reinforcing activities


For more information, see:

- Continuous communication

Leveraging Change: Increasing Access to Arts Education in Rural Areas by Lisa Donovan & Maren Brown


- Presence of a backbone organization impact



The RAC network includes nine project partners and an external advisor:

- The Art Center of Western Colorado (Grand Junction) - Arts for All (Paonia) - Aspen Art Museum (Aspen) - Bookcliffs Arts Center (Rifle) - Chaffee Arts (Buena Vista) - The Creamery Arts Center (Hotchkiss) - Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center (Cedaredge) - Gunnison Arts Center (Gunnison) - The National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum (Leadville) - Tracy Gallegos, RAC Advisor

RAC Network

Art Institutions

Creative Businesses

Civic Institutions

Maps created by CRE team member Justin Reeves Meyer for Rural Arts Connect


Four Word Introductions

In the first year of the project (February 2020 Summit) we asked network members to provide four words that they felt characterized their organization. Partners’ responses emphasized a few major categories of response:

- various institutional aspirations, especially organizational change for the better (via funding campaigns and strategic planning) and striving for improved community access and opportunity)

- perceived audiences, with a strong tendency for any given organization to focus exclusively on children or on a very general sense of diverse publics

- audience experience goals, with particular focus on positive leisure experiences and experiences that could support learning and curiosity

- specific domains of content expertise, which despite a shared arts mission, reflected individual organizations’ strengths in interpretation and engagement related to visual art, music, theater, history, geology, and industry . Though many of these organizations have evolved and changed over the life of the project, this information provided an early snapshot of the network’s challenges, strengths, and commonalities. In the table below, each number refers to an individual Network member; for example, all words tagged “1” came from the same person.

Institutional Aspirations

Perceived Audiences

Experience Goals

Content Expertise

11-equity 5-in transition 11-identity 11-empowerment 7-collaborative 2-free 2-far-reaching 2-changing 3-cooperative

1-kids 3-kids

1-fun 3-play 5-new discovery 7-relax 11-learning

1-art 1-music 2-art

7-children 8-children

4-history 4-geology 4-art 4-industry 8-theater 9-music 10-visual arts talent

3-community 7-community 6-cradle to grave education

8-diverse-population 9-diverse population 9-community



The Art Center of Western Colorado

The Art Center of Western Colorado is a regional arts organization dedicated to enriching lives by promoting the enjoyment and understanding of the arts. As a non- profit rural community organization, The Art Center provides engaging exhibitions in five different galleries. The Art Center also provides art educational programming for all ages, performing arts, programs for

mentally and physically challenged individuals, and a collection of opportunities designed to enrich the lives of our community at large. We do this because we believe art is for everyone and is essential to the human experience.

Chaffee Arts

Chaffee Arts has been in existence since 1985. Our organization is 100% volunteer based and we partner with local businesses to provide our artists with venues to show and sell their art. We put on an Open Awards Art Show once a year that typically has over 50 artists participating and up to 100 pieces of art entered. We give away over $2,000 in prize money at this week long show. We also provide free art classes to local students. We display art from our members in the BV Library for two months in the summer—high season for tourists. Our Dine N Paint events are a fundraiser for our organization and bring art to our community. We are only limited by funding and the number of volunteers we can recruit.


Arts for All

Arts for All was created in 2016 to serve the needs of multiple organizations in the North Fork Valley. Arts for All is dedicated to providing high quality arts education in the form of in-school and after-school classes, workshops, outreaches, and summer camps. To date, we have brought a variety of musical programing from Gamelan bands to opera to the students of Delta County, and continue to be active in bringing the arts to youth.

National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum (NMHFM)

The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum’s (NMHFM) mission is to “tell the story of mining, its people, its importance to the American public, and to society’s sustainability.” The NMHFM includes the Hall of Fame with annually inducted contributors to the mining industry, the museum with over 25,000sq ft. of exhibit space, and the historic Matchless Mine.


Creamery Arts Center

The Creamery is a centerpiece of downtown Hotchkiss as well as an attraction to visitors. We provide low cost art classes to both area youth and adults, as well as gallery space to 44 local artists to display and sell their work. We offer classroom space where highly qualified instructors teach classes in a variety of mediums. As a Colorado non-profit organization we depend greatly on support from our community and membership. ​

We have a fully equipped clay studio where we often have free demonstrations and hands-on activities taught by our volunteer artist members for senior citizens in our County. We host a Saturday Farmers Market during the summer in the Creamery Park, welcoming local growers and crafters to sell their products in our outdoor pavilion at no charge.

Bookcliffs Arts Center

Established in 1989, the Bookcliffs Arts Center, a 501c3 nonprofit, has been an advocate for arts and culture in western Garfield County, Colorado. This is made possible with the generous support of regional funders and a devoted membership who share a strong commitment to our unwavering mission. The Bookcliffs Arts Center currently offers a selection of art classes and a summer concert series. Our current campus offers classroom space and studio space in addition to our 100 year- old renovated Stone House. Located on five-acres, there is also an outdoor stage and community gardens. Future plans include sculpture gardens, picnic pavilions, and expanded classroom and studio workshops and an art gallery.


Grand Mesa Arts & Events Center (GMAEC)

Mission: Enhancing the quality of life and inspiring our communities through visual and performing arts, education, and advocacy.

Vision: To be a vibrant and thriving arts, cultural and educational destination.

The Grand Mesa Arts & Events Center was first envisioned when David Starr, a singer songwriter and Nashville recording artist and his wife, Cindy were inspired by the venues they experienced in small towns while touring. Cindy shared her vision with other community members and soon a group of art’s enthusiasts began meeting with the goal of establishing a local performance and art’s venue. By September 2017, citizens had organized themselves into a board of directors, established a non-profit 501c3, and the site of the historic building at 195 W Main was selected. Renovations and fund-raising commenced. A multitude of community members donated money and in-kind services to transform the old movie theatre into a state-of-the-art black box theatre and the salon and spa into a light filled, professional gallery. The outpouring of community support allowed the Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center to celebrate its grand opening on June 15, 2018, less than a year after the community had launched its adventure into supporting the arts.

GMAEC collaborates with the following entities in striving to make the town an economically healthy and culturally thriving community:

• Delta County Libraries District to bring “Voices of the Western Slope” a series of presentations on topics of interest on the Western Slope • Delta County School District to bring stimulating and diverse educational experiences to area students • Veteran’s groups to design programming that will recognize their service and engage their interests • We support local Non-Profit organizations by hosting their fundraisers and meetings in our facility, at no charge • Pioneer Town to develop programs and activities that will bring the community together with like-minded missions • Town of Cedaredge to enhance the economic and social opportunities in Cedaredge • Community Options to provide yoga and art classes to intellectually and developmentally disabled adults.


Gunnison Arts Center

The Gunnison Arts Center is Gunnison’s primary venue for bringing the arts into your life. Whether you are enjoying downtown Gunnison during an ArtWalk, creating with clay in a pottery class, sipping a glass of wine while painting with watercolors, or showcasing your acting skills in our theater, you are sure to find creative avenues to enrich your mind and spirit. We invite you to discover your inner artist, and be a part of the extraordinary evolution of the arts happening in the Gunnison Valley! Vision: As a vibrant community-based arts organization, the Gunnison Arts Center contributes to the “wholeness” of our community through an educated, adventurous, and integrated approach to the arts that cultivates participation by community members and visitors as well as engages other organizations in meaningful partnerships and alliances. Mission: The Gunnison Arts Center cultivates and promotes the arts in the community by unleashing creativity, connecting people, and enriching cultural horizons.

Tracy Gallegos, RAC Advisor (Mesa County School District 51, Formerly of Colorado Migrant Education Program)

The Colorado Migrant Education Program is designed to identify and serve all migrant children/youth and families with a recent history of working in

temporary or seasonal agricultural work. Our vision is to provide equitable resources and outcomes to ensure that all migrant children/youth are postsecondary and workforce ready and that all families are empowered to succeed. As the Director of the West Central Region for the Migrant Education Program, I worked with this project as an external project consultant. I have a working relationship with the school districts in the RAC network, and I worked with students and families in these areas. This allowed me to inform the RAC members of some of the needs and barriers our underserved students face to gaining meaningful access to art experiences. I shared insight gained from my experience of over twenty years as an educator working with historically underserved students and families. I also facilitated a variety of culturally rich artistic experiences with some of the RAC members and the Aspen Art Museum.



Arts for All “Being in a rural environment is deeply tied into everything that Arts for All does. We create opportunities for youth to experience arts in ways that they would normally not have access to. From our marimba project, which brought in 16 practice marimbas to schools that provided in-school musical learning opportunities, to providing high quality specialized arts, movement, music classes, and outreaches, we bring experiences that most rural youth would not have access to.”

Gunnison Arts Center

“Gunnison’s community (population of 6,937) is over 4 hours from a metropolitan area (Denver) and the next closest town is Montrose or Salida. Our activities are geared towards a wide audience, from our large Cora population to our youth, the retired, our educators, and artists. We strive to provide something for everyone in our small town, where resources are limited. Whether it be a clay class, theater camp, or gallery opening, we hope all of our citizens can find their creative spark at the Gunnison Arts Center. After COVID consumed our small town, our purpose became clear. We exist to serve our community by connecting artists, giving performers a venue, and educating Gunnison’s kids and adults in various media. We provide an outlet to discover and express through the arts. We serve as a conduit for the Gunnison Valley’s creative current. Being able to connect our current with other rural communities has been invaluable. We feel supported, strengthened, and emboldened to create together across Colorado.”

Chaffee Arts

“Our community (population of 3,000 in winter/7,000 in summer) is 2.5 hours from the Denver metropolitan area and the next closest town is Salida (population 7,000). All our art activities are funded by artist memberships and local donations. We attract many talented artists because of the beauty of our local scenery. We are close to several 14’ers and the Arkansas River runs through our town which draws many tourists during the summer. We struggle with collaborating with other arts organizations because we are a distance from other towns, but this has been enhanced by RAC. Being rural means we live in a beautiful area and get to know mostly everyone in our small town—this helps us get things done without relying on outside assistance.”



“The NMHFM is located in Leadville, CO, which is the highest elevation city in America, sitting at 10,200 ft. above sea level. Leadville has a population of roughly 3,000 people and the city doesn’t offer as much public programming as it used to. Residents used to enjoy free educational and art classes at the local college and Leadville used to have a public swimming pool for summer exercise and leisure activities, however, these are no longer available. Being located in a rural community can have its downsides, however, it enables the community to work together to achieve what it wants. Locals have taken the initiative to form different groups in town to strengthen their community. Some examples include Ladies of Leadville, pick- up sport leagues, hiking groups, and clothes and good exchange groups. These groups help the community feel close to each other, however, they don’t necessarily have the funding to do all the activities they truly want. This is where we are lacking in formal programming in Leadville. The NMHFM museum is the only museum open year-round in Leadville, and we are the leading tourist attraction in town. The museum focuses on mining’s history and mining’s future, which allows for visitors to learn more about the mining industry historically while also recognizing the essentialness of mining to sustain the way we want to live. By being able to cater to these different interests, we attract almost 25,000 visitors annually from most states and many countries.”

The Art Center of Western Colorado

“Being part of a rural art center allows us to have more personal connections to patrons and students who come through The Art Center’s doors. The Art Center contributes to and improves the community’s quality of life by sharing cultural identities and engaging disadvantaged groups, including youth, and mentally and physically challenged individuals. The Art Center is the only resource in Mesa County and the region that provides year- round arts education programs for children and adults of all abilities and ages and an exhibition venue for students of all ages, local artists, and art guilds.”

Grand Mesa Arts & Events Center

“Being rural is part of what has made the Grand Mesa Arts & Events Center so successful. Our community has 2500 residents, and the entire county has a population of 35,000. Being rural allows us to establish enduring relationships with our patrons because we see them often. The support GMAEC has received from the outset indicates the commitment and the importance of GMAEC to the economic and cultural viability of the Surface Creek Valley.”


Tracy Gallegos

“In the public education realm, being rural often means prioritizing the academic and social/ emotional needs of the dominant culture of students over the needs of the historically underserved students. Since we are a local control state, our local school boards have a lot of power and influence over how their school districts are run. In addition to this challenge, there is a huge disparity of diverse school leaders in rural Colorado. Both of these factors have led to unfavorable results for many students, especially students from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, multi-lingual students who are not yet fluid in English, students whose cultural norms are not part of the mainstream culture of the community they live in, and students with learning disabilities. Thank goodness there are well-intended art centers and museums all over our RAC region that are willing and able to provide intentional opportunities to expose these underserved student populations to programming that can help them feel valued, important, and seen and heard! Our RAC partners have such an amazing opportunity to help change lives and improve community perspectives.”



The following are promising collaborative programs that RAC Network members planned and executed. Though we were limited programmatically by the COVID-19 pandemic, these events were successful and serve as possible models for future collaboration.

Articulating Together (Gunnison Arts Center + AAM)

In celebration of the Bauhaus idea that everything is art, Gunnison Arts Center and Aspen Art Museum collaborated to host a virtual collaborative cocktail party where participants learned to express opinions on art in a judgement free, learning zone. Centered around a comparison between Gunnison Arts Center’s own Kristin Gruenberger and Aspen Art Museums exhibiting artist at the time, Barbara Kasten, we explored how to look at and discuss works of art from across the spectrum and discussed the value of art in our every day lives.

“Articulating Together was the project that brought me into the RAC loop. Together with Annie [Henninger, AAM] and Carlie [Kenton, Executive Director of GAC], I was able to plan an event to invite people into galleries and talk about art without judgement. This event is pitched as a party, so cocktails and fun should be had. Attendees learn art terms and how to express their ideas about pieces in front of them. We were able to compare the work of Barbara Kasten with local ceramicist Kristin Gruenberger. This opened the discussion to high vs low art, and functional art and display. Each of our attendees were art novices and nervous to enter a gallery and express any opinion. That is the audience. Make art viewing fun again. Educate attendees with terms and provide a safe space to discuss what they see, where no one is wrong. This has led to an educational opportunity at the Gunnison Arts Center. We ran a critique club for professional artists and an articulating together class, where students learned basic art terms and how to enter a gallery with confidence.”

- Brieanna Radford, Gunnison Arts Center


Plein Air (NMHFM + AAM)

“In August 2021, the NMHFM, in collaboration with the Aspen Art Museum (Annie Henninger), hosted a Plein Air Painting Workshop where attendees were provided with free painting supplies and invited to paint a landscape scene at the museum, Matchless Mine, or wherever inspiration took them. Then everyone was invited back to the museum for a free lunch and given the opportunity to display their art at the NMHFM. Guests were also given free entrance to the museum for the day. This was all made possible by the IMLS grant.”

“I am still continually asked by those who attended about when we will be doing this again. The feedback we received about this workshop was incredibly positive.”

- Jordan Bennett, NMHFM

Plein Air (Creamery Arts Center + AAM)

In September 2021, the Creamery Arts Center and Aspen Art Museum hosted a plein air workshop taught by Hilary Stein, a local artist. The IMLS provided supplies, refreshments, and an artist stipend. Students met outside where Hillary led a three-part workshop. “The artist started with a lecture and slideshow of still life in art history. She then led an exercise on imitating a piece of art using sketching pencil and paper. In the third portion, she had students move to a view of farm fields with the West Elks in the background where they did their own plein air paintings for two hours.”

- Terra Hegy, Creamery Arts Center


Remote Art Workshops (M.A.P.S. + Migrant Education Program)

“In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, MAPS has been teaching free weekly remote art workshops to youths in the U.S.

Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program in western Colorado. These workshops allow rural, migrant children the opportunity to have some fun, exciting, relaxing, hands-on art time.

In these art workshops we examine artworks made by historical and contemporary artists as we discuss a variety of artistic concepts like color, line, shape, form and composition. Exploring these concepts not only enhances these young artists’ toolkits, but also helps them build literacy as they practice their English- language skills. We create an imaginative art-making space that encourages kids to become creative thinkers, and allows them opportunities for social and emotional engagement and development. We have been focusing our studies on artists who have shown work at the Aspen Art Museum, including Barbara Kasten, Maren Hassinger, Kelly Akashi and others. The kids in these workshops have been able to relate to this work in an even deeper way since they can imagine Aspen, some of them having been there with their families and MEP, a trip that is “long enough that

I need snacks, but not so far,” as one kid put it. When we viewed the installation view of Maren Hassinger’s Nature, Sweet Nature the children were all very excited to see the Rocky Mountains in the background, a view they know well.

At M.A.P.S., we deeply believe that all kids, regardless of financial circumstance, deserve a quality, fulfilling education in the arts. Some of our students have told us that they love art but their school does not have an art program. We are thrilled to fill this gap in partnership with MEP, and even more so that we get to utilize the wonderfully curated collection of the Aspen Art Museum.”

- Rachel Sherk and Aaron Rourke, M.A.P.S. (Music, Art, Puppets, & Sound)


Illuminating the Beauty of the Underrepresented - Professional Development (Tracy Gallegos + RAC)

In April of 2021, Tracy Gallegos, Colorado Migrant Education Program Regional Director (with special guests, Rachel Sherk and Aaron Rourke of M.A.P.S.), gave a virtual presentation to our RAC members about the impact of the pandemic on underserved students and ways that RAC members can help support them. Tracy’s session focused on ways to collaborate with local school districts and art organizations to create intentional programming that highlights the positive contributions from underserved populations within their prospective communities. Rachel and Aaron shared their perspectives on what it is like being part of an art program that is currently working with an underserved student population in Grand Junction, CO.

Free Classes for ElevateHER Girls (Chaffee Arts + AAM)

Chaffee Arts hosted a virtual watercolor class for the ElevateHER girls in Buena Vista on Thurs Oct 1 on the shore of the Arkansas River. Annie Henninger of the Aspen Art Museum led the class via Zoom showing the girls watercolor techniques before they started their painting class. Each girl received a watercolor paint kit, brushes, and paper. Following the Zoom class, the girls headed outside to paint using the techniques they had just learned. Program Director for ElevateHER, Josie Johnston, said, “the girls were so excited to have this art class as another activity to add to their outdoor adventures and were especially happy to receive the painting kits!” ElevateHER, founded in early 2017, is targeted towards young women, grades 6-12. The holistic approach is focused around empowering the mind, body, and soul, with a mission to foster self- worth and grit in young women through mentoring, outdoor adventure, and holistic wellness programs.


Native American Heritage Month & Plein Air Workshop (The Art Center of Western Colorado, Mesa County School District 51 + AAM)

Staff from The Art Center of Western Colorado, Aspen Art Museum and Mesa County School District 51 partnered to host a Plein Air Workshop in honor of Native American Heritage Month for Palisade area middle and high school students and teachers on November 6th, 2021. The event was generously hosted by Therese Moran from District 51. Therese engaged participants throughout the day with an overview of Native American customs, storytelling, and an art object and artifact display, which included textiles, vessels and several squash blossom necklaces. Additional contributors were Annie Henninger and Ryan Prince from the Aspen Art Museum, Rachel Egelston from the Art Center, and Tracy Gallegos, District 51 Director of Equity and Inclusion.

A great deal of information was shared aiming to build cultural awareness including the practice of non-traditional art making - in which artists are encouraged to see the world around them through connecting to the spirit and life in all things, including the life in their paint palette.

In addition, participants learned simple watercolor techniques and were given ample time to practice and create paintings inspired by their experiences. The different ways in which participants connected to their surroundings could be seen and felt in their paintings on display at the Art Center of Western Colorado.


Gainfully Getting Grants - Professional Development (GMAEC + Gunnison Arts Center + RAC)

In May of 2021, Carlie Kenton, Executive Director of Gunnison Arts Center, and Deborah Shaffer, Executive Director of Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center, partnered to lead a presentation on grant writing to the RAC Network. Combined, the two directors have over 10 years of grant writing experience, and they shared their expertise with the group.

The presentation included advice and resources that many RAC Network partners reported to be very helpful. The professional development session received particularly positive feedback from those leaders who came from backgrounds outside the nonprofit sector.



Gunnison Arts Center

“When Annie from the Aspen Art Museum first walked in the Gunnison Arts Center, we honestly couldn’t believe such a large institution wanted us to be involved in their project. Being approached by such a large museum with such an incredible reputation was a shock and honor, and we agreed immediately. Carlie Kenton, our Executive Director, was the first to join RAC. When Carlie and Annie were planning Articulating Together, I was brought on board for my current art knowledge. We were knee deep in COVID planning and this event brought me onto RAC just as we all encountered the same obstacles. As a curator, I immediately found solace in the struggles of my fellow rural communities. We continued to meet, plan, and just talk about our struggles. We helped each other find solutions and collaborated in new innovative ways. I now have trusted personal relationships with arts professionals across Colorado that never would have existed without Rural Arts Connect.”

Grand Mesa Arts & Events Center

“The importance goes back to the circumstance of being rural, limited resources. Collaboration utilizes our resources to the fullest, one marketing campaign, one contract negotiation, one grant proposal. We are able to share our expertise to benefit each other.”

Chaffee Arts

“This has been my first experience running an arts organization. RAC allowed me to make connections with others in the art world to ask for help and work together on programs. I would never have had this opportunity without RAC. Most large arts organizations don’t even answer phone call requests, so these contacts I’ve made have been invaluable. I was even able to get Salida (not part of RAC) involved because of a collaborative program we are planning with Gunnison.”

NMHFM “We are in a rural community that doesn’t offer much educational or public programming. Thus, by being part of RAC and with the grant funds from IMLS, the NMHFM was able to fill a need that the public has been asking for. Some of those in attendance signed up together, but it was obvious to see the new connections that were made by those who hadn’t met previously. Additionally, the workshop also provided space for reflection, connection with nature, the community, and the NMHFM and Matchless Mine.”


Creamery Arts Center

“The most important aspect of this workshop was to be able to impart the experience of art to local people who may not have known much about art. It was hoped that, after this, those who work outside (farmers, ranchers etc.) will have a better appreciation of the landscape around them. Also, we hoped that adults would encourage their children to attend art classes and appreciate art.”

Tracy Gallegos

“We need to be intentional about honoring and educating our communities about the positive contributions that our underserved communities have made. Art is a cool and effective way of doing that. Art in all of its forms is an important component to include when recognizing and valuing culture.”

Arts for All

“At our local high schools, sports dominate. The arts on the other hand, offer a creative outlet to all students regardless of interest or ability in athletics. Particularly for the non-sports oriented students, the arts provide an outlet, a chance for recognition, and a chance to build self-esteem.”



To what extent and in what ways did RAC community programs affect perceptions of art, the AAM, and the region among participants? The COVID-19 pandemic required the CRE team to adjust the study design and data collection protocols for research and evaluation. In particular, the CRE team added a community questionnaire to measure perceptions of art and the AAM in the community while programming was put on hold due to the pandemic. This community questionnaire method allowed the CRE team to “take the temperature” of potential stakeholders in the RAC network communities throughout the year and gauge the possible changes occurring in their areas as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed during the project. The CRE team distributed the community questionnaire to email lists provided by RAC member institutions three times during the project: Summer 2020, Autumn 2020, and Spring 2021. Email lists, while not representative of the general public in the geographic areas surrounding the RAC network institutions, do include self-selected stakeholders likely to be especially attuned to changes in the arts in their areas. Programming at RAC organizations started to slowly come back in Autumn 2021, including programming specifically organized as part of the RAC project. Although it was delayed, this gave the CRE team some opportunity to evaluate perceptions among community program participants. The program questionnaire, given to participants in two RAC-sponsored programs in Autumn 2021, captured the perceptions of arts in a given community, as well as attitudes related to the arts as a result of their participation in the program. Items on the questionnaire related to perceptions of the arts in communities matched the items included in the community questionnaire. We used these matched items to test whether each group differed significantly from the other.


What we’ve learned from the community questionnaire:

• Respondents had strong agreement that there were free places to gather and a strong sense of geographic identity in their communities.

• Respondents had weaker agreement that people in their communities had interest in art programs, and that people in their communities experienced some cost and transportation barriers to those programs/experiences.

• Looking across the data collection time periods, respondent perceptions remained consistent throughout the pandemic.

What we’ve learned from the program questionnaire:

• Nearly all respondents felt positive enough about the art program experience to share something about their experience with a friend.

• Most respondents agreed that they learned something new about art/art-making processes in Western Colorado.

• Respondents in the program questionnaire had very similar perceptions about art and art access in their communities as respondents in the community questionnaire.

So what?

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the alteration of both RAC programs and our study, we were still able to learn a little about perceptions among program participants and the broader audiences for RAC Network members. For instance, data from both questionnaires suggest that there may be potential for improving visibility and attendance of arts programs in RAC communities. Respondents noted much higher agreement that their communities had environments conducive to accessible arts programming (e.g., free spaces for people to meet; strong geographic identities; strong tourist-driven economies; and only modest cost and transportation barriers) than actual community knowledge of arts programming. With respect to the effect of RAC programming, preliminary data suggests that participants do indeed have positive experiences that they are likely to share with others, and that they did (though to a lesser degree) learn something new about art in Western Colorado.



To what extent and in what ways did participation in the RAC Leadership Network result in increased connectedness and capacity among partners? An important area of focus for the project’s research and evaluation team was how the RAC Leadership Network itself emerged throughout this project. We studied the development of the Network through a combination of questionnaires, group interviews, observations, and regular participation in Network meetings. Our analyses examined how the relationships between the organizations in the RAC Leadership Network changed over the course of their participation, as well as what features of the Network seemed to be most helpful or important to the organizations involved.

What we’ve learned:

• The same examples of collaboration that Network participants said were most helpful for the Network as a whole were also the examples they said were most helpful for their individual organizations. These examples included opportunities to exchange ideas in synchronous meetings, the “promising examples” of programs that emerged over the course of the grant, and Network-funded professional learning opportunities. • When asked what they felt were the greatest strengths of the Network, participants cited relationships between Network members, shared passion and mutual respect, having a common cause and a champion for that cause at an anchor institution, as well as individuals’ personal creativity and understanding.

“If it wasn’t for RAC, I would never have met all of the staff at Aspen Art Museum and other groups that are represented. I now feel I can call on anyone in the group in the future to get help.”

—RAC Network member (October 2021)


So what?

• According to our Network members, the core of this type of collaborative work is not policy prescriptions, but relationship-building; the tactical solutions and infrastructure to address common concerns must emerge from those relationships. • Situating the administrative and fiscal functions of a network like RAC in an anchor institution can benefit all partners. While an anchor institution is likely to benefit from the local credibility and knowledge of place that smaller partners can bring to outreach efforts, smaller partners can leverage the resources, reputation, and infrastructure of anchor institutions. • After several years of collaboration, the experiences of the RAC Leadership Network suggest two main pieces of practical advice for others hoping to foster similar networks in their regions: Create and nurture connections between individuals . Intentional introductions to other personnel within organizations can create positive redundancy that helps sustain relationships when emergencies or transitions happen. Actively seeking partners who share a common goal but have not worked with your organization before can be particularly helpful for identifying new possibilities for mutual benefit. These relationships can grow and mature by working on projects together and having regular times to check in. o o When the network comes together, be transparent about budget matters and capacity . Needs and assets are different across institutions, and partners can reveal possibilities for efficiencies or funding opportunities that may not be visible to others. Clear, authentic communication about what everyone can offer in terms of time and money help ensure that everyone can contribute according to what they have without jeopardizing their other priorities.

The evaluation and research components of this project continue to emerge as we gather data about the last year of the project, including the development of this guide. For more technical reporting and findings emerging from feedback on this guide, we invite you to be in touch with our research and our evaluation team:

Dolly Hayde ( + Justin Reeves Meyer Justin Reeves Meyer (



Creamery Arts Center

“We have found that events and classes must be fairly low in cost or free in order to attract the locals. We do not charge admission and welcome anyone to come in and see our art displays. It has been a challenge to attract people from the rural area. We post notices of shows, concerts, and events at local businesses in order to get the attention of farm people coming into town but we aren’t always sure they are seen by the most rural of our community. The experiences that the two Creamery members have had participating in Rural Arts Connect is to learn from other art organizations their successes, challenges, and how they are relating to their community. Pairing has benefited us through the funding we would not otherwise have received. We now know that having a paid Executive Director who can obtain funding from donors and grants is very important. We think of the Grand Mesa Arts Center, who has Deborah Shaffer, a very capable person who has amazing organizational skills. We now realize that marketing and fundraising are two things the Creamery is lacking. Volunteers try to accomplish these ends but we really need to have a person dedicated to marketing.”


“Surprises: I didn’t realize the desire for this type of programming prior to planning this workshop with Annie. Annie really helped make this workshop possible. While I was at the museum working on logistics for the workshop, she came through in every way possible. Successes: As mentioned above, the workshop also provided a space for reflection and connection with nature, the community, and the NMHFM and Matchless Mine. Benefits of Pairing: Though as a museum we are strong advocates of this type of programming, we typically can’t afford it. By pairing with RAC and IMLS, we were able to put on a great workshop that pleased all those involved. Challenges: The only challenge I can think of, is that people didn’t start to RSVP until just a couple days prior to the workshop. Luckily, Annie was great about getting us additional paint kits last minute! It may have been a publicizing issue or uncertainty about the project—I am not really sure.”

Grand Mesa Arts & Events Center

“We are not alone; our challenges are shared and universal to the rural art community. We can do more together and are not competitors.”


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