Changing Denver seeks to keep arts relevant
By DONNA BRYSON
DENVER – Grammy-winning jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who was bused to her Denver middle school years ago, says sharing songs and poetry across the racial divide helped ease tension during the difficult days of desegregation.
Actor and graphic artist Archie Villeda spent high school immersed in theater after seeing people who looked and laughed like him onstage for the first time, in a vaudeville-style satire, “I Don’t Speak English Only,” by Denver’s Su Teatro drama company.
Denver-area directors, conductors and curators want to keep inspiring people like Reeves, who is African-American, and Villeda, whose parents were born in Mexico. But a city survey suggests that African-American and Hispanic residents not only aren’t as likely as others to attend arts events, they are also more likely to describe the diversity in the arts offered as poor or fair.
Denver’s concerns about the diversity of both the audiences and of the community that manages and presents the arts can be heard across the country as ballet and opera companies, museums and orchestras face declining attendance, contributions and endowments.
Denver institutions are trying to reverse declines by making art relevant and accessible to new audiences. That means taking the arts to where people are, and finding out what works to get people to come in – whether new offerings, cheaper seats, even better transportation and parking.
The discussion in the Denver area comes 25 years after the debut of a special tax that funds arts as well as history, science and other cultural institutions. Communities across the country took note of voters’ willingness – 75 percent to 25 percent – to raise their own taxes for art.
Randy Cohen, a Washington-based arts policy expert, said Denver can and must build on the reputation for innovation it earned 25 years ago with the creation of the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District, known as SCFD.
“You just can’t take for granted you’re always going to have the support, you’re always going to have the money,” said Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock released a report that includes the survey and stresses that increasing access is crucial because of the economic importance of the arts and changing demographics: about a third of the city’s population is Hispanic, and more than half its population growth over the last 20 years has been among Hispanics.
Museums, theaters and galleries employ 10,000 people in metropolitan Denver, according to the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts. Neither the committee nor the city could provide the number of blacks and Hispanics with such jobs.
Jerome H. Kern, CEO and co-chair of the board of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, jokes that his is “an organization that has an aging white audience, that plays dead, white man’s music and is supported by a lot of rich white people.” He acknowledges the symphony, which is supported by tax dollars as well as donors, long talked about diversity while taking little action.
That’s changing, with mash-ups that bring performers like Reeves to the symphony hall. Classically trained musicians are also getting out of the hall to visit neighborhoods where black and other Denverites complain cultural offerings are scant. One pilot project has Colorado Symphony Orchestra musicians working with the University of Denver’s Playground Ensemble to make composers out of students at an inner city elementary school.
For one of those students, 8-year-old Zepphion Johnson, it meant a chance to work closely with CSO assistant principal violist Catherine Beeson. And he was impressed:
“She’s really good at music,” Zepphion said.
It can take a shock to get an old-guard institution to change, says JJ Rutherford, education director at Colorado History, which hosts a museum and state archives. For hers, it was the move to a new building in 2011. The excitement of having a new home fostered new thinking. Curators reached out to churches and community and business groups to tell a more inclusive story about Colorado’s cultures. The museum even hosted a naturalization ceremony this year.
“That’s the community we need to be relevant to,” Rutherford recalled thinking as she watched new U.S. citizens from Bhutan, Pakistan, Vietnam and elsewhere take the oath.
Andrea Kalivas Fulton, deputy director of the Denver Art Museum, notes that it has partnered with the school district in Aurora, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the state, to teach students about arts careers.
The outreach is crucial to convincing voters to renew the SCFD, which has distributed more than $750 million since it was created, said Peg Long, the organization’s executive director.
In preparing for the next vote in 2016, Long said the SCFD is doing something it did not do the two previous times it was re-authorized: canvassing the organizations it funds for ideas on how it might operate, rather than leaving all the discussion to its board.
The SCFD is supported by a penny sales tax on every $10 spent in seven counties in the Denver metropolitan region. By law, two-thirds of the funds go to five Denver institutions seen as serving a regional audience – its art and natural history museums, performing arts complex, zoo and botanical gardens. About 20 percent of the art museum’s revenue, for example, comes from SCFD.
Another 21 percent of tax funds are shared by two dozen smaller organizations, like the symphony. The rest goes to more than 200 organizations, many of which, like Su Teatro, are small, with audiences rooted in ethnic communities.
“We are the new mainstream,” said Tony Garcia, artistic director at Su Teatro, which has roots in Denver’s Chicano community.
Garcia says organizations like his should get a bigger share of SCFD funds because they appeal to a growing audience. That is being discussed as SCFD’s staff and board prepare to ask voters to extend the program, Long said. But experience has shown it will be hard to change the allocations.
“The time is now for our major arts institutions to start implementing input from the community and the audiences they are trying to recruit, and not just talk about it,” said Antonio Mercado, an actor, director, theater professor and former member of the city’s cultural affairs commission.