New legacy project brings history of the Summervail Art Workshop to light
The Summervail Art Workshop for Art and Critical Studies ran from 1971-1984 and built the foundation for the thriving arts and culture scene in Vail Valley today. A new legacy project aims to preserve and celebrate this pivotal time in Vail’s history.
Summers in Vail are synonymous with arts and culture. On any given week, you can be sure to find a concert, art fair, dance exposition, music festival or play being performed somewhere in the valley, often bringing in performers and visitors from all corners of globe.
The abundance of art offerings in Vail Valley have become so ingrained in our town’s atmosphere that many do not realize that summers did not always look the way that they do now. When the Town of Vail was first incorporated in 1966, it was known almost exclusively as a ski resort, and the summers were generally empty of both visitors and activities.
That all changed in 1971, when local artists Randy Milhoan, Jim Cotter and Dan Telleen created the first Summervail Art Workshop. The three men, all of whom are still residents and active artisans in the Vail Valley, were recent college art graduates at the time, and Milhoan came up with the idea to start a summer arts program as a way of attracting artists to the area, as well as boosting the local economy.
So began the Summervail Workshop for Art and Critical Studies, a two-week series of educational workshops that would go on to run for 14 summers, bringing in 9,000 students, 500 visiting artists to teach, and hosting 850 workshops in a broad variety of art forms between 1971 and 1984.
50th Anniversary and the Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Summervail Workshop. In celebration of the date, the Town of Vail released a proclamation on July 20 that officially designates July 19-25 as “Summervail Art Workshop for Art and Critical Studies Week” in Vail. It also recognizes Randy Milhoan, who served as executive director of the festival for all 14 years, as a founder of the current arts and culture scene in the valley.
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“Randy Milhoan and his peers created the inspiration for many generations to come to see, witness, and participate in the broad spectrum of national and international arts and culture in the Vail Valley; the Summervail Art Workshop for Art and Critical Studies programs inspired many of today’s art and cultural non-profit organizations,” the proclamation reads. “The Town of Vail greatly appreciates all of Randy Milhoan’s contributions to this programming and we thank him for his creativity, diligence, and leadership which helped create a legacy of artistic and cultural programs in Vail.”
In 2020, a group of Summervail alumni founded the Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project (SAWLP), a non-profit organization with the mission to “preserve, document, archive, inspire and demonstrate the impact of the Summervail Art Workshop program”.
With help from Milhoan’s daughter-in-law, Gaby Milhoan, and Cotter’s daughter, Ramsey Cotter, the first project that the SAWLP undertook was to put on a two-week event during this year’s inaugural Summervail week, hosting a series of panels about its history and offering art workshops reminiscent of those that took place all those summers ago.
“We are blown away by the community support and enthusiasm that we’ve received for Summervail,” Ramsey Cotter said. “It’s an honor to partner with so many organizations to bring this programming to life and a testament to the historical significance that Summervail had in Vail. As a second generation Summervail kid, the best part of this experience for me so far has been seeing my generation take a real interest – a light comes on when you start talking about the project.”
With the successful conclusion of the anniversary event on July 30, the SAWLP is now turning its attention to future legacy projects, which will take the full support of the community to see through.
“Everything was a dream”
Randy Milhoan and Jim Cotter both came to Vail in 1969 with no money, a carefully honed set of skills, and boundless dreams and ideas for the life that they could create in the undeveloped valley.
“I think I had $87 when I opened the gallery [in 1970],” Cotter said. “The early days were great. There was no TV, very little radio, you got the newspaper on Sunday if there hadn’t been too much snow, and everybody passed the same dollar around.”
I recently got to sit down with the two of them at Milhoan’s long-standing studio in Minturn, where they took me back in time to Vail as they had discovered it.
Though Milhoan and Cotter both graduated from art programs in Nebraska and had often shown work in the same galleries, the two met for the first time over a beer in Vail.
“There were guys riding horses into these bars,” Milhoan said. “Cotter had a tab at a couple of those places, and I had no money, so… I don’t think I’ve ever gotten him all paid back,” Milhoan said.
“Never,” Cotter cut in with a laugh.
After coming up with the idea for the Summervail Workshop on a road trip to California, the two immediately set to work making their vision a reality. Milhoan had recently secured a job at the newly-founded Colorado Mountain College (CMC), and convinced the school to offer the workshops as a continuing education program.
With the go-ahead from the school, they called on friends and artists that they knew to come and teach classes, bought some old army tents to use as housing, built a few rudimentary studio spaces and launched the workshop in the summer of 1971 with 17 faculty teaching 14 classes to an enrollment of 248 students.
“That’s really how it worked,” Cotter said. “Back then everything was so raw, and there weren’t any rules and regulations to inhibit you like there are now. Everything was a dream, and there was nobody to stop the dream. If you had an idea, they’d just say go for it.”
Over the years, the workshop brought the first dance instructors to the valley, put on some of the first theater productions in the area and provided a training ground for artists of all mediums, many of whom have gone on to very successful careers in the arts. Back before there were any dance studios, the very first ballet class was taught in a carpeted room in the town clinic, which would prove to be the humble beginnings of a dance legacy that now stages one of the premiere festivals in the world in state-of-the-art facilities.
“That program grew like wildfire,” Milhoan said. “That led into the rest of the dance programming here. It made some footprints that were fairly easy to follow.”
The Summervail community is also to thank for the existence of Ford Park and the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. Both are located on a plot of land that used to be a private residence called Antholz Ranch. The Summervail workshops took place on the Antholz Ranch property for a number of years, and when they heard that a real estate company was planning to buy out the property to build condominiums, they drew up a petition for the town to purchase the land.
“Everybody that I took it around to, not one person did not sign it,” Cotter said. “I took that and gave it to the town, and we were able to actually buy what is now Ford Park. We were very fortunate that we had the energy and the guts to do that.”
The final Summervail Art Workshop took place in the summer of 1984, but the community of artists that formed out of the workshop maintains a strong presence in the valley today. Cotter still owns and runs the J. Cotter Gallery in Vail Village, the preeminent gold and silversmithing store in town, Telleen is the owner of Karats jewelry store in Vail, and Milhoan’s art can be found all around town, such as his paintings in the Lionshead parking structure and the children’s mural under the westbound bus stop in Vail Village. He remains an active artist and is president of Milhoan Studios in Minturn.
“People are starting to realize that this all had to come from somewhere, it didn’t just happen overnight,” Cotter said. “We planted some seeds and they grew, and now people come from all over.”
The future of the legacy project
The history of Summervail and its impact on the modern arts and culture scene in Vail is not a well-known story, and that is exactly what the Summervail Art Workshop Legacy Project (SAWLP) is aiming to change.
Milhoan’s studio currently has an entire room dedicated to housing archival documents and footage that have been carefully preserved from all 14 summers of the workshop. The archives include over 31,000 photo negatives, hours of film and a full wall of binders containing registration and administrative information recording every student and teacher who attended the workshops, and what classes they participated in.
SAWLP is considering a number of projects to share the legacy of Summervail with the world, including publishing a photo book and a possible documentary film out of these archives. The idea for a potential monument has also been raised, and they are even looking into the possibility of reviving an active workshop series to serve the next generation of artists in the summers to come.
Ramsey Cotter will be taking the lead on future iterations of the Summervail Art Workshop celebration, and wants to involve the community in the decision-making process, just as her father did when creating the original workshops.
“Let’s get all of the people in the community together who want to see this move forward, and let’s have a think tank about what this can look like next year and in years to come,” Ramsey said. “There are going to be all kinds of voices involved, which is exciting, and you just never know how it’s going to take shape.”
One thing is for sure: in order to get this project off the ground, it will require the support of the community, both financially and intellectually, which Jim Cotter feels is only right given the impact that Summervail has had on the valley.
“All these people are making money in real estate right now because they bring their clients here and they show them what’s going on culturally, and we wouldn’t have that without Summervail,” Jim Cotter said. “In reality, they’re making a lot of money off of a dream that we had, so I’d like to see them step up and support the project with some funding. And then they can share it with their clients and help them learn the history of Vail.”
Ramsey is encouraging anyone who is interested in getting involved with the project to reach out via the Summervail website or their social media pages. To learn more about the Summervail Art Workshop and how you can support the legacy project, visit sawlp.org or follow them on Instagram and Facebook @summervailworkshop.