Grand Junction, Colorado is one of those western towns that can’t really decide if it wants to be progressive or good ol’ boy. Maybe the longtime residents just ignore us newbies (anyone who has been here less than 30 years is pretty much a newbie) and go on just doing what they do. Ranching, mining, farming, hunting, fishing, going to church and loving the occasional air show.
But downtown Grand Junction tells a story of people who have kept culture and art alive for over 100 years, over 200 miles from any city of any size, and from those cities, another several hundred miles to the NEXT city of any size. Distances are in days out here.
I grew up in a town the size of Grand Junction, but in California, where cities aren’t separated by long stretches of desert and towns are blips along a very lonely highway. In California, it’s easy to find a place where art and music are never even questioned as to whether they should be within reach of any average person.
This town, like most towns in the West, was a wagon-stop, a train watering stop, a gathering place around rivers and between mountains. Our downtown shows its history in old brick and stone buildings, in the railroad yard and silos.
The difference is that in 1962, when small cities all over the country were looking at all kinds of ways to stave off the death of their older downtown, Grand Junction made exactly the right choice in funding a walking business park on Main Street. Public art, along with shade trees and benches were central to the plan. Business people and residents saw that keeping a cultural identity and supporting local art was fundamental to maintaining pride and character in the community. That community pride and identity is one reason we landed here.
We take anyone who comes to visit us downtown to see the wonderful buildings, unique restaurants and stores, and the public art on every street, every 15 or 20 feet. Nobody we’ve taken downtown has ever said “You have WAY too much art here!” It’s a point of pride.
Make no mistake, this is still a western town, with ranches and pasture weaving into the fabric of close-in neighborhoods, and petroleum extraction and coal mining very much a part of everyday life.
In 1980 Exxon came to town.
Up in the mountains east of here, was oil shale, and Exxon wanted it. The scale of their plans were truly mind-boggling. A new airport, a whole shopping mall and five brand-new schools, and that was just the beginning. Thousands of jobs, millions of dollars, a boom that would end Middle East oil dependency! People poured into Grand Junction, built homes and excitedly planned for shiny new schools for their children.
But almost as soon as it began, it was over. Exxon pulled out, said “oops, we made a little mistake here…hehehe…we can’t afford to extract the oil from the shale. Our bad!” And just like that, the town emptied. Tax revenue tanked, and the schools scrambled to stay open. Little wonder they trimmed back to skeletal funding, and art education was one of the first programs to disappear.
NOW we get to what I do every week.
It didn’t take long for several members of this community who knew that art education is fundamental to a child’s growth to find a way to put it back into the elementary schools. Classroom teachers taught art as a part of their curriculum, but there were artists and college teachers and community members who wanted children to learn about important artists, who they were and how they shaped the world. Art Heritage was born.
It started in one school, with a poster or two and a written biography of each artist. Slides were added, and a hands-on project. Music on tape