We had the good fortune of connecting with Natalie Johnson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Natalie, what role has risk played in your life or career?
Risk taking is such a funny term. By Colorado standards, I am not a risk taker. I am afraid of heights, don’t like rock climbing, and am terrible on a bike–so mountain biking is a disaster. My definition of danger and risk taking involves being decisive, comfort with public failure, and a laissez-faire attitude around financial security. Risky business.
I am not sure when I became comfortable with risk taking. Maybe it was during my time playing organized sports? Maybe it was during my time moving to and living in five states in six years? It became obvious when I opened a bookstore in Manitou Springs, Colorado at the age of 29. I was stubborn and became comfortable making decisions. Soon after, I started joining boards, running for things, and chairing events. I joined Toastmasters and did a TEDx talk. I obtained a liquor license for my bookstore–a huge feat. Toward the end of the Great Recession and after eight years in business, I closed my bookstore. At that time, I had already begun my transition to the Director of the Manitou Art Center (MAC).
Prior to working for the MAC, I met a series of highly qualified mentors and community leaders and they all told me to run away from the Art Center. It was big, had a ton of deferred maintenance, no funding, and a series of “volunteer” directors. I found a donor who was willing to pay my salary for the first six months and I never looked back. It has been 8.5 years and counting.
Six or seven years ago, I applied with the State of Colorado (Office of Economic Development and International Trade) through the Colorado Creative Industries for Manitou Springs to become a Certified Creative District. Fast-forward several years and you can find a photo of me on the cover of the Colorado Springs Gazette with the caption “Manitou rejected as state “creative district”….it was rough. The happy ending is that we were accepted the following year, but were in a much better place. The City was upset with the announcement and found funding and support to transform it into a full-time paid position. The Manitou Springs Creative District is alive and well today.
Last year, I helped, with a team of people, to put an Art tax on the ballot. It was a rough ride, but the arts in Manitou Springs now have ongoing funding for the next 15 years. We thought that we had lost that night and found out several days later that we “won” by only a few votes. It was a rollercoaster ride of failure and success.
Manitou Springs is a small community of 6,500 residents. I have very publicly succeeded and failed a number of times. They keep letting me and I keep trying. Looking back, all of my risk-taking has been worth it. All of my failures have led to successes. It looks like risk taking is a part of who I am. However, you won’t see me buying a lottery ticket. That’s too risky….
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I always joke that I am not creative as an artist; I am creative with money. Even as a bookstore owner, I was the person that paid the bills so that our artists and writers could do what they do best. An art history major (and English major), I have always been comfortable around books, art, museums, and galleries, but my skills are better suited for fundraising, grantwriting, and leadership. I use all of these components to build community in Manitou Springs. I think that community is my true passion and everything else operates as a vehicle to bring us all together.
When I think about how I got to where I am today, a big part of that equation is that I had to create my own opportunities. Whether I was running my own business, applying for creative district status, or finding donors to pay my salary, I have never had a job that I had to apply for. Whenever I have a job description, it is one that I have written for myself.
That being said, I am confident in my adventures because I know that I am never alone. My brand and story is my “Pink Bike Story”. Ten years ago, someone stole my pink bike from the front of my bookstore. I reported it to the police, but I secretly refused to believe that it was gone. Three days later, my phone rang. “Your pink bike is for sale under the Safeway sign.” Another call. “Your pink bike is for sale under the Safeway sign.” Someone ran into my store from the street. “Natalie, your pink bike is for sale in front of the Safeway sign!” By the time I got to the Safeway, there were multiple people “guarding” my bike. Within twenty minutes of them putting a for sale sign on my pink bike, I was loading it in my car. When I think about my community and my pink bike, I am reminded that when we have a connection to where we live, we are all free to ride again. I live, work, and play in Manitou Springs, Colorado.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Adam’s Mountain Cafe: Vegetarian Cuisine
Crystal Park Cantina: Mexican–great margaritas
The Keg Lounge: Well-made bar food
Lulu’s Downstairs (And Upstairs): Great drinks and atmosphere–amazing live music
Manitou Brewing Company: Manitou’s brewery–good food too…
Swirl Wine Bar: Fantastic wine selection and atmosphere
Manitou Art Center (MAC): my home away from home
Manitou Springs Heritage Center: The MAC’s neighbor and full of local history
Mineral Springs Tour: It is fun to take the time to walk around Manitou and sample the spring water
SunWater Spa: It is even better to soak in the spring water and enjoy the view from their deck
Manitou Springs Penny Arcade: As an adult, I recommend a margarita and then time at the Penny Arcade–fun!
Millibo Art Theater: Original, local theater–amazing owners and actors
Poor Richard’s: Books, wine, great food…
Kimball’s Peak Three Theater: An old school downtown theater
American Numismatic Association (The Money Museum): I don’t know anything about the history of money–great fun!
I enjoy quirky places. Every place that I listed is full of odd people, art, and history.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I always work as a team. A disaster at so many things, I am surrounded by talented people with great ideas. I would like to dedicate my shoutout to Farley McDonough. She has worked behind (and in front of) the scenes on so many occasions to help me with my crazy projects and plans. I just hope that I am able to repay the favor. I would also be remiss to leave out my family and tremendous support system. You don’t get to be a risk taker if you don’t come from a place where you know that there is always someone or something to fallback on. I have a lot of fallback options in my life and I am truly grateful for that.
Other: TEDx Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYeuSqRf_ok
“Art Walk” Rhonda Van Pelt Giant Desk Image: Ken Cowdery Natalie Photo: Brian Tryon Welding Image: Mike Pach MACH Image: Gretchen Wieshuber Still Manitou: Jana Manitou Made: Manitou Springs Creative District Black Cat Books logo: Joel Steinpreis Gallery with Kid: No idea