Mountain Art Collective founders Charles Townsend Bessent and Rob Prechtl

Rob Prechtl and Charles Townsend Bessent still laugh somewhat incredulously when you ask them about their current project. Just over a year ago, the two thirtysomethings—both full-time working photographers and videographers who moved to the valley in 2008—were scouting commercial real estate when they stumbled upon a labyrinth of classrooms, offices, and studios (including a ballet barre with floor-to-ceiling mirrors) in the basement annex of a West Vail hotel complex, now the Grand Hyatt Vail.

“Rob and I came down here just looking for a space for a photo studio that would be closer to the mountain,” recalls Bessent of the space, which Colorado Mountain College had vacated in 2004. “We found the old art studio for the college, and there’s a storage closet that we were going to use to operate our businesses out of, and then we saw the dance studio and said, ‘What are you doing with this?’”

While an upstairs lecture hall was repurposed as a cineplex screening second-run movies (first as the Cascade Village Theater and more recently as Blue Starlite Cinema Social during the hotel’s brief reincarnation as Hotel Talisa), the mothballed CMC classrooms and studios were used for storage, largely forgotten. Until Bessent and Prechtl rediscovered them and decided to lease it all, more than 3,000 square feet.

“We ended up taking over the whole downstairs,” says Bessent. “There’s no space in Vail. The fact that this space exists and it’s a big white box is amazing … we love when people come in and go, ‘Oh my gosh, look how much space is in here! I want to do X.’”

The Mountain Art Collective, or the MAC, as it’s locally known, has cultivated a niche in the valley as a refuge for creatives—musicians, dancers, choreographers, photographers, videographers, and artists of all disciplines. Gus Gruner, a local painter and semiprofessional skier, leases a corner crowded with canvases, and Vail Village crooner Dave Tucker rents a rehearsal room. Graphic designer Carly Finke set up shop in one of the windowed booths next to the dance studio where 80 kids a week now practice their pliés and pirouettes as students of the Gold Dust Dance Studio. There’s a carpentry atelier, a quiet room for guided meditation, a commercial photo studio, and pop-up craft classes too. Come summer, the dormant cineplex will host live music and other performances.

The Runaway Grooms rehearse in the MAC dance studio.

“Rent in this town is a lot of money per square foot, and most people feel like they don’t have the ability to have an office or studio space,” says Prechtl. “The idea is to bring down the cost for each other by having different people working out of the studio and sharing classroom spaces.”

Adds Bessent: “That’s the hardest thing about this valley is how do you find time to do your art when you’re working three jobs just to be able to stay here? A big part of our original mission was that we wanted to start proliferating local arts and local artists by helping them and their businesses.”

In addition to providing affordable studio space for professional artists, they also envision the MAC as West Vail’s community gathering space, an alternative to high-end venues like the Vilar and the Ford Amphitheater where visitors and locals converge to dance and listen to live music. Among some of the more popular MAC-hosted community events added just this winter: a Sunday night swing dancing class in January (before the MAC, you’d have to go to the Mercury Café in Denver if you wanted to jive) and a New Year’s Eve bash that cost just $35 at the door. The duo says the whole point is for people to learn a skill, build community, and make a friend—outside the more traditional après-ski setting. It’s a concept they hope will grow with the space as word of their communal art co-op continues to spread. 

“We’re doing this by our bootstraps,” says Prechtl. “We’ve invested a lot of our own resources in this because we believe in the idea and our community, and it’s what we need out of our community as well.”

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