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The way to San Jose 

San Jose, Calif., recently wrapped its 01SJ Biennial, a festival of arts and technology complete with a midnight concert series, symbiotic robot-and-human musical performances, and a "green prix." In three years, it has grown to become one of the largest arts and visual culture fairs in the nation, attracting 25,000 guests, half of whom come in from elsewhere.

The Biennial, with all its excitement, was borne of something decidedly less exciting: a trio of cultural plans, formed over a period of nearly 20 years.

It's with similar visions that the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region released the first Cultural Plan for the Pikes Peak Region two weeks ago. The 21-page file, posted at coppercolo.org/culturalplan, outlines five main goals and the recommended action steps needed to achieve them, along with statistics and surveys taken from the community. Each goal is divided into short-, mid- and long-term objectives, the last of which tend to be big and tangible: a new outdoor performance venue, a revamped black-box theater facility at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, renovation of the Norris-Penrose Event Center to accommodate concerts.

"This is not a list of demands," says COPPeR executive director Bettina Swigger. "This is the community saying how they think the arts community can serve them better."

Other cities, other plans

According to COPPeR, more than 200 nonprofit arts organizations work in El Paso and Teller counties and produce an annual economic impact of nearly $100 million. Numbers like these help explain why most mid- to large-scale cities in the country create cultural plans. In fact, most of the time, a city will directly run or fund the plan. Often, it'll hire consultants to shepherd parts of the process.

COPPeR receives some city funding, but it's a separate agency. And unsurprisingly, Swigger says it took a very grassroots approach: Drawing from other cities' plans and members' experiences, Swigger and the steering committee put it together in-house. She says the cost of making the plan, which took about two years, was less than $20,000.

By comparison, The Daily Page in Madison, Wis., reported that the city — whose metro area is similar in size to ours — spent just under $64,000 to form a cultural plan last year. Kerry Adams Hapner, director at the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs, says her city spent $70,000, and she's heard of cities spending up to $250,000, more than COPPeR's entire annual budget.

Though San Jose is almost twice the size of the Springs, its example is particularly relevant because Nancy Johnson, a member of the steering committee and one of the Springs' assistant city managers, worked on one of the cultural plans for San Jose in the late '90s. So she's seen the transition from creating the plan to executing it.

Johnson says the key to keeping a large and, by nature, fairly nebulous cultural plan on track is to get the public engaged: "You basically hand the plan over to them and say, 'What role can you take to help actualize this plan?'"

COPPeR, though, will be forced to entrust more of the plan to volunteers than leaders in many other cities. The nonprofit, after all, is comprised only of Swigger and program manager Brett Garman, backed by a large board.

Swigger says five "task forces," made up of volunteers, interns and college fellows, will work toward each of the five goals; leaders are supposed to be chosen by Nov. 30. Swigger says she hopes to have a minimum of five volunteers for each task force, and as of press time, 34 people had already signed up. But she stresses that it's the quality of volunteers she's seeking, not so much the quantity.

Adams Hapner says that once they get going, another challenge is likely to arise: managing expectations.

More than dreams

Most residents will probably perceive the 10-year endeavor as starting slowly. Swigger says COPPeR will begin by benchmarking the current financial and social health of the arts. It will gather data on how much money is spent on the arts (by participating in the national Arts & Economic Prosperity IV survey) and how many jobs exist in creative fields (via the Western States Arts Federation's Creative Vitality Index) next year.

"One of the big things that we discovered in the planning process is that it's difficult to measure how the arts really do affect our lives," says Swigger. "But in order to really measure outcomes and see our success, we've got to get better at tracking our performance."

Work will also go into forming a volunteer database and expanding networking opportunities for arts organizations. Meanwhile, Swigger hopes that behind the scenes, nonprofits and entrepreneurs will tap into the survey information and statistics to help with strategic planning. For one thing, they can help convince donors that the community has well-defined wants and interests.

Needless to say, we're a ways away from our own Biennial, or, as outlined in this plan, an enhanced K-12 arts curriculum. And some of the goals will almost certainly evolve; Johnson calls cultural plans "living documents," since they can be reshaped to accommodate the changing community.

But we do have our own starting point. Says Adams Hapner, "It really can be a road map for success for a community."

edie@csindy.com

Five stars

The goals of the COPPeR plan

  • COPPeR has released its cultural blueprint for the region; here's what happens next.

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