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Forty years on, Commonwheel is still going strong 

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When Commonwheel Artists Co-op first formed in 1974, it counted about 50 people, many friends of one another, who dabbled in counterculture, made art and performed street theater. And though it's hard to imagine today in a town that touts its peculiarity, all those "hippies" weren't immediately welcomed.

"I think we may have seemed like something of a threat to the business community," says Roger Tolzman, one of the founding members. "But then in time we all bought houses and were upstanding citizens, and now we're quite accepted."

He's right, of course. When once there was little support for Commonwheel's annual art festivals — in the early days there were fests on Memorial Day and Fourth of July, in addition to the Labor Day festival — businesspeople last year mourned when summer floods forced the Labor Day event away from the town center and east to Fields Park.

It was in the Aug. 9 flood that the gallery suffered its greatest blow. Waters rushed into the basement, destroying computers and paperwork and leaving gallery scrapbooks in terrible shape. Commonwheel closed for almost three weeks, and the festival suffered a 25 percent drop in sales and attendance. On the heels of the closure of the Dulcimer Shop, another Manitou institution, there was talk the co-op was finished just as it approached its 40th year.

Not so.

"At this moment, we're not going anywhere," says festival coordinator Julia Wright. The building landlord has shored up the walls, the co-op offices have relocated into member homes, and now Commonwheel is celebrating its anniversary with an art show devoted to the work of its members — former and current, numbering over 40 — that Wright is curating with Tolzman. Called Old Spokes, the name references the group's title and mission, that each member (as an artist and a shareholder) be a spoke in a common wheel.

Torrential rains aside, the challenges Commonwheel faces going forward are about the same as they've always been. The co-op's 35 members have equal say in all affairs, and rarely will it be easy to get everyone united on issues big and small. But Wright still embraces the model, saying that "the co-op has thrived."

"I don't think we had any sense that it would be as ongoing as it has been," Tolzman adds. "But there's been so much dedicated work over the years ... that has kept the machinery running."

This is, after all, the same institution whose members started Clayfest, Carnivale and a scholarship program for Manitou Springs High School students. It even helped a start-up arts incubator 25 years ago that is now the Manitou Art Center. As with anything it does, Old Spokes, Wright says, is really not about Commonwheel, but Manitou at large: "It's a celebration of how the arts keep the community together."

edie@csindy.com

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