Boise’s little-known arts scene is undergoing a cultural renaissance
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Boise’s little-known arts scene is undergoing a cultural renaissance

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    A painting by Andorra-born, Los Angeles-based artist Olympia Altimir in Freak Alley, a large outdoor gallery of murals in downtown Boise.

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    Downtown Boise still looks modest, but its population and cultural scene are booming. “I moved here 15 years ago, to a sleepy little outpost, and in a couple of years it just took off,” said Ryan Peck.

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    At Boise’s Treefort Music Fest this year, the Treasure Valley Roller Girls, founded in 2006 and a member of the international Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, compete in a parking lot.

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    Freak Alley started in 2002 when artist Colby Akers painted the alley door of a cafe in downtown Boise. Now Akers manages what he calls “the Northwest’s largest open-air, multiartist mural gallery.”

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    Among its other surprises, Boise has landlocked surfing at Whitewater Park, with a perpetual, human-made, standing wave. Victor Myers, proprietor of the Corridor Surf Shop, describes it as “surfing a treadmill, going nowhere fast.”

BOISE, Idaho >> ‘Boise is a badass,” declared Jake Logue Salutregui, who, when he’s onstage at the downtown Balcony Club, goes by the drag name Denimm Cain. “We have an underground culture that is underappreciated. We have great food, healthy and athletic people, educated people, people who are dreamers. It’s a shame the nation doesn’t know what Boise has to share with the rest of the world.”

That sounds about right — especially the “underappreciated” part. Boise, Idaho, is in the midst of a boom, which also means its cultural scene is having a kind of renaissance, even if some of us don’t know it yet. When I told people I wanted to spend a few days in Boise, their reactions were succinctly encapsulated by a worldly, well-traveled friend who currently lives in Dakar, Senegal: “Boise? What the hell is in Boise?”

So cosmopolitan, my friend, yet so provincial.

Today, there’s plenty in Boise. But it wasn’t always that way. Dayo Ayodele, for example, moved to Boise in 2004 — reluctantly.

Originally from Nigeria, he’d moved to Southern California to study and make film. Along the way, he fell in love, got married and found himself about to become a father. “My ex, the mother of my child, decided California would not be the best place for a family, so she came to Idaho,” Ayodele said. He stayed behind. “My friends from Seattle and Portland advised against coming here,” he said. “That it was not really conducive for an African person, a black person.”

Ayodele stalled for two years, until his father issued a commandment. “He said: ‘Pack your stuff and go be with your family!’ ” Ayodele recalled, chuckling. “And in Africa, when your parents tell you to do something, you don’t talk back!”

Parts of Boise seemed as racist as he’d feared. At the local park, when his biracial daughter would run toward the other kids, their parents kept shepherding them away. This happened several times. “I felt more angry than my daughter — little kids, they don’t know these things,” Ayodele said. “It was a really hard time for me. But when I went to church, I met people who were not black and who were amazing! I thought: ‘There’s a disconnect here, a problem that needs to be fixed. Maybe these are not bad people — they just don’t get it.’ ”

After simmering for a while, Ayodele decided to try an experiment: drumming. He had been a drummer in Nigeria, so he took his instrument to the same park and just started playing. “It was like honey to a bee!” he said. “When I drummed, people became curious — what I was doing, who I was, where I was from. Music tends to soothe the beast, as they say.”

Ayodele took it a step further, approaching cafes about cultural programming by immigrants: music, presentations, question-and-­answer sessions. That took off and grew into a nonprofit called Global Lounge, which Ayodele runs with longtime local Donna Kovaleski, and has become a kind of cultural liaison between Boise and its significant refugee population — though Ayodele thinks the term “refugee” carries pejorative, disempowered connotations and prefers the term “new Americans.” The U.S. State Department reports nearly 9,990 refugees, or new Americans, have been placed in Idaho since 2008, the vast majority in Boise.

Global Lounge does school outreach (organizing people from eastern Nigeria, for example, to talk to students reading Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”), works with the local YMCA to bring young new Americans and local kids together for activities (Chinese calligraphy, American beatboxing, African drumming, basketball, swimming), and started the World Village Festival, an annual days-long summer event with global music, storytelling, arts and cuisine. This year’s headliners included Jamaican superstars Sly and Robbie, plus Mykal Rose and Black Uhuru.

Would Ayodele repeat the advice of his friends 15 years ago, cautioning people of color against Boise?

“As a black person, if they come here, I think their minds will be blown,” Ayodele said. “We Africans talk about it: Boise is the best-kept secret in America. I would not be saying this if I hadn’t gone through a lot. But Boise has grown. It’s changed. It’s changing.”

A new energy

Nobody disputes that Boise is changing, and recent headlines have announced its semiregular placement on “most livable” and “fastest growing” lists of U.S. cities.

Boise’s population, estimated at 236,310, is climbing steeply with newcomers, from tech types who’ve cashed in their condos in the San Francisco Bay Area to retirees to the new Americans. (Boise ranked No. 1 on the 2018 Forbes list of fastest-­growing cities; by 2016, it had already placed more Syrian refugees than New York and Los Angeles combined. During my short stay there, I also met folks from Iraq and South Sudan.)

Most Boiseans I spoke with (artists, musicians, real estate developers, nonprofit leaders, people in Freak Alley — a downtown outdoor “gallery” covered in street art, folks drinking coffee at old-school diners) regard the influx with cautious optimism. The new surge has added energy, diversity and fresh money to the city’s mix, as well as the familiar specter of boomtown growth: gentrification.

But, like Ayodele, most seem committed to working with that new energy, amplifying and adding to what Boise already had — which is a gift to visitors. If the rest of us thought about traveling to Idaho, it was probably for the outdoorsy stuff: hiking, mountain biking, river sports, snow sports.

Meanwhile, Boise has been quietly establishing itself as something else: an arts and culture scene in its own right, blossoming in all sorts of directions, from music to modern dance to drag, with spirited new collaborations among them.

And it’s full of people and stories that will buck your preconceived notions.

Becoming a cultural hub

“This is what we’ve wanted all along, and now it’s starting to ­happen,” said dancer and choreographer Lauren Edson, who co-founded the hybrid dance/music/film company LED with her husband, drummer Andrew Stensaas, in 2015. “It feels like we’re on the cusp, developing momentum with so many artists and different projects — it’s becoming a cultural hub.” LED, for example, just opened its own downtown performance space, where they also hope to host artists from around the country working in performance, film, art or whatever makes sense at the time.

“There’s a cultural scene starting to be aware of itself, and a growing community around it,” said Eric Gilbert, co-founder of Treefort, an 8-year-old music and arts festival, which some people compare to Austin’s South by Southwest — back in its more homegrown, less industry-­driven days. “The scene used to be very self-referential because it was isolated. Now we’re benchmarking ourselves against the outside world, but still doing things differently enough that people are saying: ‘Oh, I want to know what’s going on in Boise.’ ”

The city’s well-established cultural organizations are also pushing their boundaries: Ballet Idaho (where new artistic director Garrett Anderson, who started his career at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle and moved on to Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago, is leading the company in more contemporary directions); Boise Contemporary Theater; and, of course, Treefort (which brought 432 music acts in 2019, including Vince Staples, Liz Phair, Y La Bamba, Dan Deacon, Low, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan and Toro y Moi).

But if you really want to find the newest, most exhilarating thing, you have to dig a little.

“We don’t have a ton of brick-and-mortar spaces, partly because of our history of funding, collectors, the economic ecosystem — it’s a long story,” said artist and metalsmith Rachel Reichert, who is also the cultural sites manager for the Boise City Department of Arts & History. “So a lot of what you experience is more pop-up and event-based.”

For example: Last summer, she heard Canadian band Broken Social Scene would be playing — in a farmhouse, with goats grazing outside. “It was total word-of-mouth,” she said. “You never get to have one of your favorite bands playing in somebody’s living room for 75 people. Those are the kinds of things that happen here. That’s what’s special about Boise.” (Gilbert, the Treefort co-founder, had his own story — Childish Gambino apparently came to Boise a few years back on a day off during tour, and sat in for an impromptu piano set at a local restaurant.)

It’s not hard to discover events like that, Reichert said: You just have to talk to people at the record store, at the bar, at the gallery. All it takes is gentle, polite persistence. Folks in Boise tend to be friendly.

“There’s definitely still an element of you have to look under rocks,” said Jason Morales, founder of Boise’s MING Studios, which hosts residencies and exhibitions by international-caliber artists — just a two-minute walk from the downtown Trader Joe’s.

How the scene developed

Gilbert, Reichert, Morales and others date the first stirrings of this Boise renaissance to sometime around 2011.

The city was starting to find its footing after the worst of the 2008 recession but things were still affordable. Radio Boise, the listener- supported station, went live. Treefort was getting off the ground. Boise’s Department of Arts & History was 3 years old and establishing itself as a center of gravity for grants, public art commissions and residencies; designating historic and cultural sites; and promoting a sense of cultural consciousness. It had also been three years since choreographer/dancer Trey McIntyre decided to base his new company in Boise, which had the twofold effect of bringing national arts-scene eyes to the city, and giving Boise an unexpected source of hometown pride — modern dance.

On top of all that, a generation of young people who’d grown up in Idaho and left to forge new lives for themselves — such as Reichert and Gilbert — returned with a full collective bank of experience. They saw Boise with fresh eyes, as a relatively open, relatively affordable platform for their ideas, large and small.

The new culture constituency is not taking its current surge for granted. Ryan Peck, who co-runs the youth music program Boise Rock School, is another returnee, but is working hard alongside his peers to secure footing for the next generation.

They’ve been lobbying the city for more designated nonprofit cultural spaces before commercial interests swallow it all and are nurturing the nascent Boise All-ages Movement Project (BAAMP, pronounced “be-amp”), an attempt to create a center of gravity for the all-ages music scene.

“It’s tricky,” Peck said. “There’s a lot of people in the city who look to towns like Portland or ­Seattle and say: ‘We wanna be like that.’ And I say: ‘There are lessons to be learned and we can choose a different way.’ Boise is moving really fast. I moved here 15 years ago, to a sleepy little outpost, and in a couple of years it just took off.”

When asked what he’s learned from watching the booms in Seattle and Portland, Peck rattles off a line that sounds like it’s had several auditions in front of mayors and city council members: “We need to have permanent, nonprofit-owned buildings that are part of the creative place-making of the city and will be there in perpetuity.”

In other words, if Boise wants to keep and grow its cultural infrastructure, it needs to act now, before the window of opportunity closes.

Two years ago, for example, he and BAAMP tried to find a property for an all-ages music venue and cultural hub, but prices doubled while they looked. They found one building for $550,000, which Peck thought needed around $750,000 of work, but it was perfect — and near a skatepark. BAAMP put in a confident offer. They didn’t get it. Five days later, Peck said, the building had been sold and razed.

But he hasn’t given up hope. “The city totally has blinders on about the economic engine that’s right under our nose,” he said. “And to get kids to stay here, you need to have that culture, provide creative places, and we’re not just talking about music festivals and ­after-school programming. We need to have egalitarian spaces where kids can gather and exchange rad ideas, to empower the next generation to be creative entrepreneurs who grow the economy and make the city way cooler.”

How can visitors support ­Boise’s cultural growth, which is real but precariously poised in this moment of the city’s history? Show up. Dive in. Have fun exploring the scene. And that is its own reward.

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