Creating a life through the business of art |

Creating a life through the business of art

Carla Jean Whitley
Noemi and Kristof Kosmowski both make their livings as artists. Noemi's work is focused in Glenwood Springs, while Kris sells in other mountain communities.
Carla Jean Whitley / Post Independent |

Colorado creative industries

Governor’s Creative Leadership Awards: A recognition award that does not include funding, this program honors people who have made a significant difference in the state’s creative landscape.

Change Leader Institute: A three-day leadership program designed to equip cultural and civic leaders with mentorship and support.

Colorado Creates: Nonprofit arts organizations may apply for this grant, which funds general operating support.

Career Advancement: This grant provides up to $2,500 matching funds for entrepreneurs and artists as support for their commercial businesses.

Creative Districts: Communities may apply for this five-year certification, and those selected are eligible to apply for another CCI grant. Carbondale is one of the state’s 21 certified creative districts. Districts receive $10,000 when they receive the designation, and must match the grant.

Arts in Society: You don’t need to be an arts organization or artist to apply for this grant, which provides up to $50,000. The aim is to use art to engage social issues.

CCI also offers a number of programs, including an effort to purchase public art, the state’s poet laureate designation and more.

Learn more about all of these efforts at

Learn more

Carbondale Arts,

Carbondale Creative District, carbondalecreativedistrict

Colorado Artists,

Cooper Corner Gallery,

Brian Colley,

Noemi Kosmowski,

Michelle McCurdy,

Midland Arts Company,

Sarah Uhl,

Her day may begin by teaching an art class to adults or children. She may spend the afternoon working a shift at Cooper Corner Gallery, where she often paints in between helping customers. If there’s an event scheduled that evening, she may paint faces or perform in her family band.

That’s all part of the mix that enables Noemi Kosmowski to make a living as an artist.

“It’s a busy life. My dogs don’t agree with me,” said Kosmowski, a fourth-generation artist.

Kosmowski and her husband, Kris, moved from Florida to Glenwood Springs 10 years ago. Art is the family business; when Kris sells a painting in Vail or Breckenridge, Noemi said they’re able to pay rent for two or three months. Her children may join the couple on stage for musical performances.

But the path to making a life as an artist isn’t clear.

Colorado provides the state’s artists resources through its Creative Industries initiatives. It’s a division of the state’s Office of Economic Development & International Trade, and operates under the belief that art doesn’t serve only as inspiration and a tool of social change: It also has an economic impact.

According to a report by Americans for the Arts, in 2015 nonprofit arts and cultural organizations accounted for just less than 1 percent of the U.S. workforce, or 1.15 million jobs. Elementary schoolteachers clocked in at 1 percent, and police officers and lawyers accounted for just less than a half a percent each.

Cultural tourism also affects communities, with many arts attendees coming from outside the county in which an event takes place and spending double what locals spend.

CCI, which was Colorado Council for the Arts until 2010, shifted its focus from a more traditional arts council structure to support artists as entrepreneurs. Locally, that influence is most directly visible in Carbondale, which in 2016 received CCI’s creative district designation. The district’s web directory lists more than 200 creative member businesses, which aids in marketing. Signs throughout the area point visitors toward these businesses and artists, whose work takes on a variety of forms.

Creative connection

Carbondale artist Sarah Uhl has been able to combine her art, love of the outdoors and commercial enterprises. Uhl came to town to work for 5 Point Film Festival, where she spent three years. Art, advocacy and adventure are her passions, and she’s been able to combine them in a more direct sense since becoming a full-time artist.

“Environment and endless inspiration are Carbondale’s biggest offerings,” she said.

Uhl works with brands including REI, PrAna, Aspen Skiing Co. and more, in addition to her fine art. The Carbondale Creative District has also proven a supporting factor; Carbondale Arts Executive Director Amy Kimberly and 5 Point Founder Julie Kennedy have been allies and mentors. Uhl is also the artist in residence at the Old Jailhouse, which Mount Sopris Historical Society manages. Executive Director Beth White sees it as part of the society’s involvement in the town’s creative district.

CCI’s creative district program unifies community and economic development programs with the arts, explained Program Manager Christine Costello. And the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce took inspiration from the district’s one-year anniversary for its annual business conference. The 2017 event’s theme was the art of business.

“It was a great way to break down some stereotypical barriers. Carbondale is very creative. I think it offered that inclusivity — and also offered the opportunity to partner,” said chamber Executive Director Andrea Stewart.

For example, banks and law offices were able to connect with creative professionals they may incorporate in special events or office décor. The chamber itself has seized opportunity for such collaboration; Uhl’s art adorns some of the organization’s trucker hats.

“I feel supported in the way of family,” Uhl said. “My orbit is broader than here, but this is the place that allows me to create.”

Creating opportunity

Despite the area’s high cost of living, Dallas native Brian Colley said creative opportunities are rampant and have pushed him as an artist. Before he moved to Carbondale, Colley created work at home, and it didn’t leave that space. But after moving to the area, he met more and more artists who showed their work. It helped him believe it was a possibility for him, too.

“The path is a lot clearer for you here than it was there. Those opportunities are everywhere to connect,” Kimberly said.

Brian Colley has also benefited from CCD’s presence. He’s gallery manager for the nonprofit Carbondale Arts.

“I wouldn’t say I’m building up my savings right now,” Colley said. “If I wanted to do that, I’d move away.”

But the Roaring Fork Valley does provide such opportunities for artists like Colley, who previously worked at Art Base (then Wyly Art Center) in Basalt. His boss, Kimberly, said Carbondale’s creative district status has pulled artists into community planning conversations — which, in turn, create more arts opportunities. That’s evident along the Rio Grande Trail, for example, where CCD is creating a mile-long “artway” through Carbondale. She said the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, which manages the Rio Grande, seeks opportunities to use local artists for benches and other necessities. Increased opportunity is in keeping with CCI’s expectations.

“If there’s a creative district even in your region, it has benefits throughout the whole area. It gives artists opportunities to participate in things,” Costello said. “Carbondale is doing a lot of creative place making, so there are a lot of opportunities for artists to get paid for infrastructure projects.”

Creative coaching

Teaching has always been part of ceramic artist Michelle McCurdy’s plan. And though working as an adjunct college instructor isn’t a high-paying gig, it supplements an art career.

McCurdy moved from California to Colorado in 1982 for an opportunity at Anderson Ranch. She spent three years there, and over time moved downvalley. She has shared her love of pottery through classes at Colorado Mountain College in Aspen and Rifle.

But teaching isn’t the only way McCurdy, who lives on Morrisania Mesa near Parachute, is able to make her artist life work.

“I’ll be honest with you, if I wasn’t married, I’d be having a hard time right now,” she said.

The couple’s move to the Parachute area was partly motivated by cheaper cost of living, she said. That allowed her to have a studio on site.

McCurdy recognizes that some artists are able to work purely as creators. That’s not her — and not only because of her love of teaching.

“The fact of the matter is, I’m really not a hustler and I never have been,” she said. “I’m really bad at marketing my work.”

But in recent years, she’s become more comfortable with marketing through the internet. Facebook groups for mules and corgis are a natural place to promote her work, which often incorporates those animals.

More marketing education opportunities are in the works, with the nonprofit Colorado Artists, founded in Carbondale, now offering coaching, mentoring and training in other parts of the state. Summer workshops took place in Rifle, Eagle and Denver. Carbondale Arts is also examining a slate of spring classes to benefit area artists.

And while McCurdy has found success in targeting niche interests with her work, functional art remains her heart. Selling locally in the two artist co-ops she’s part of — Cooper Corner Gallery in Glenwood and Midland Arts Company in Rifle — allows customers to see and touch that work.

“You’ve got to figure out the middle ground of making money and yet still being yourself,” McCurdy said. “Maybe you do both. Maybe you do what you really, really want to do and you do something in the middle ground so you can make some money, too. The ideal thing, of course, would be to be yourself and make money.”

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