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BAC director Johnson building on the art of books and business

Thu, Jul 5, 2012

One on One

Meet Natalie Johnson. She opened her popular Manitou bookstore, Black Cat Books, in 2005 and was recently selected to be the new executive director of Manitou’s Business of Art Center, 513 Manitou Ave.

The BAC’s mission is to facilitate the creation of art as a business medium. It does this by offering artists space to work and the resources to market and sell their work.

Johnson, 36, is no stranger around Manitou and Colorado Springs arts circles. She’s volunteered with a number of arts and community organizations. In the days ahead, she’ll split her time between the bookstore and the BAC, so on any given day, one will find her keeping shop at either of the locations.

She talked to the Business Journal this week about her plans for the BAC, how the city will cope post-Waldo Canyon fire and why she likes to be involved in the community.

What brought you to Manitou Springs, and when did you open Black Cat Books?

Everyone has a story to tell about how they landed in Manitou Springs. For me, this was my fifth state in six years. I was managing a lodge in northern Illinois and instead of signing a two-year contract with them, I left. They made me an offer that I had to refuse. As an unexpectedly homeless and jobless gal, I decided to move to Manitou and join a couple of friends from college. My intention was to stay here for a year. Instead, I bought a home and a few years later, started a business. I opened Black Cat Books in the summer of 2005. I knew that if I wanted to live and work in Manitou Springs, I would have to create a job for myself. A year after opening, I bought the building and now I live upstairs. Last year, my neighbor, Safron of Manitou, moved her business into Black Cat. This has freed me up for new adventures. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. All of this has been a dream come true.

As executive director of Manitou’s Business of Art Center, how will you further the organization’s mission to make connections between the artists and the community? How will you involve Colorado Springs?

My favorite thing to do is to connect people with other people and organizations. I am a huge fan of collaborative efforts; this has been my reality for years. I am already working with the Manitou Springs Public Library, Concrete Couch and Partners for Healthy Choices. I recently resigned as president of Concrete Couch, the public art nonprofit. While president, I was able to attend leadership council meetings and other art events throughout the Pikes Peak region. I intend to strengthen my relationships with the Colorado Springs art community and attend a lot of meetings and drink a lot of coffee and a lot of beer with a lot of people. After all, art is a part of all of us and “art makes us human.”

How much do you think Manitou Springs and the Westside businesses will be affected by the Waldo Canyon fire? Will the BAC play a role in the recovery?

In the immediate future, things are going to be pretty bad. In the long run, it will force Manitou to prove that it is not just a tourist destination and attract year-round business in order to survive. It could push us to be bigger and better. The BAC can help make this happen through its event space in Venue 515. By bringing in conferences and featuring fabulous artists and musicians, we can keep things going all year long. Manitou Springs went into this with 100 percent occupancy in its downtown district. Our community is going to fight like hell to keep it that way and simultaneously recognize that due to our location, we must safeguard our natural resources, assets and beauty along the way.

The BAC is working on several initiatives to support the firefighters and victims in the area. For starters, we are a drop-off for Care & Share. Then, on July 21, we will host a community event to honor all the hardworking firefighters, police, city administrators and anyone else we can find who stepped up to the plate during this ordeal. As for fundraising, we will do some of this on July 21, but on Aug. 11, we will host an all-day music event to raise funding for the victims as well. Also, we plan to solicit donations of original art for each family who lost their home. We believe that art can be as integral to a home as food and clothing (which often is covered by insurance or other organizations). We will work with the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region and other local art organizations to support their ideas as well. The art community is really working hard to support the victims and emergency staff in all of the creative ways that we can.

You’ve played a high-profile role in a number of community initiatives. Where does your personal drive for community involvement come from?

To be honest, my motives are entirely selfish. The late Minnesota senator, Paul Wellstone, once said that “everyone does better when everyone does better,” and I believe that. When my community is strong and our kids are healthy in body and mind, my life is better. At the end of the day, it’s all about me.

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