When The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW) broke ground on its $7 million performance venue in June 2020 in Basalt, during the grim early stage of the pandemic, the nonprofit arts organization was unclear when—if ever—concert crowds might again pack dance floors.
In fall 2021, Gov. Jared Polis declared the venue’s September 24 grand opening as TACAW Day to honor the odds-defying venture (and the fact that it’s the first all-electric, net-zero performing arts center in the US.)
And when it celebrated its first anniversary in September 2022, there was indeed a sold-out crowd of around 450 people packed on the dance floor to see the Denver-based funk, soul, and jazz group, The Motet.
“We felt it was important to move ahead because we knew the pandemic wasn’t going to last forever, and this is a forever project,” TACAW Executive Director Ryan Honey said during the anniversary celebration.
The anniversary day included a free magic show for kids and a family-friendly concert on the lawn in the afternoon, followed by the raucous two-set Motet performance after dark.
“All generations are here today, which is a great vibe,” Honey said during a break from helping the band load equipment. “It feels like us.”
While the venue has only been open for about one year, defining that “us” feeling has been in the works for far longer.
The parcel for the arts campus was set aside more than two decades ago when the development of the Willits Town Center project launched. In 2017, with Willits growing into a commercial and residential boomtown, TACAW opened a performance venue called The Temporary in a vacant space a few blocks from the campus site.
For two years, they tested the tastes of local audiences at the venue and offered a successful proof of concept. Audiences supported live music, comedy, and theater, despite The Temporary being 25 miles downvalley from Aspen and its vaunted arts scene. The venue soon began attracting not only local, but regional, and national talent. And by partnering with dozens of local nonprofits and artists, TACAW could become a community hub where the midvalley could shape its identity.
Although the arts campus draws in crowds from neighboring cities, Honey said the most loyal patrons come from within walking distance in Willits and surrounding neighborhoods.
“Our core audience is right here, and it just keeps growing,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of hand-wringing about growth in the valley, but we’re here to serve the community and as it grows, we’ll grow with it.”
Among TACAW’s early champions was the Denver-based comedian Adam Cayton-Holland. He tours nationally and has played the Aspen Laugh Festival and the late-night TV circuit, but said he was excited to see a new comedy destination emerge in TACAW.
“It’s anything goes—it feels like a very creative space,” Cayton-Holland said of the center’s 240-seat theater where he and others have performed to sold-out crowds. “It is so artist-friendly, I love what they’re doing.”
Comedy has worked well in the venue, outshining the scant year-round offerings of the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, and drawing A-list national talent like Myq Kaplan and Tig Notaro.
The rest of the theater’s balanced event lineup—curated by programming director Kendall Smith—includes lectures and panels, a genre-agnostic approach to music acts, film, kids’ events, and regular Spanish-language programs in all categories (including a popular revival of the summertime community dance party Basalsa).
TACAW plans to build a larger second theater that seats 500, as well as a facility for creators modeled after Aspen’s Red Brick Center for the Arts that would house rehearsal, studio and classroom spaces, and offices for midvalley arts nonprofits. Those improvements would realize the nonprofit’s goal of creating true arts “campus,” but TACAW’s leadership is not rushing. “Both of those visions are still very clear in our minds and at some point we’ll get them done,” Honey said.
In the meantime, the venue is dependably and quickly selling out for crunchy Colorado pop acts like The Motet and Yonder Mountain String Band. And, Honey added, the organization learns more about its core audience with every event. They didn’t know drag shows would be a hit until they hosted one, for instance, or just how much families love children’s theater programming. Some events have already become annual staples, like fall’s Pumpkin Jazz Festival and Immigrant Voices storytelling series.
“We have a responsibility to keep encouraging the audience and the community to make discoveries,” Honey said, “and have curiosity about new artists, trusting that if TACAW puts it on the stage, they’ll want to come and check it out.”
The Arts Campus at Willits, 400 Robinson St, Basalt, 970-510-5365; tacaw.org
Shows to See
Marquee events for ski season 2022-23 at TACAW include a mix of concerts, comedy, and theater, including New Year’s Eve with Chicago’s Lowdown Brass Band. Singer-songwriter Martin Sexton brings new songs from his “2020 Vision” to the venue February 24 and the 22-year-old Clarksdale, Mississippi-bred blues phenom Christone “Kingfish” Ingram plays March 3. TACAW also hosts the New York Philharmonic String Quartet on January 26, aiming to fill the void of local wintertime classical offerings, and “The Complete History of Comedy” with the Reduced Shakespeare Company on April 21.
Full calendar at tacaw.org