Determining how arts and culture can shape the future of Denver is no small task. The role of arts in gentrification, the proliferation of street art, the future (or lack thereof) of DIY spaces, equity in funding, access to the arts, and the state of the city's arts plan, Imagine 2020, all top the list of issues on the table.
And while all of this provides ample fodder for armchair cranks to spout their gripes on social media, the City and County of Denver is giving residents the chance to weigh in on the present and future of arts and culture through the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, a mayoral commission with up to 24 appointees.
The commissioners "oversee the 1% for public art program, serve as trustees of Denver’s cultural plan, IMAGINE 2020, advise on arts and cultural issues, and act as ambassadors to the community," according to the commission's website.
As for the current group of members, "These are people who care about the city and care about arts and culture and have a fun time doing it," says Ginger White-Brunetti, the deputy director of Denver Arts & Venues. The roster includes a mix of artists, curators, developers, nonprofit leaders and people working in public relations; poet Bobby LeFebre and Rachel Basye of the Art Students League of Denver currently chair the commission.
But there are about to be some vacancies: Some members have fulfilled their six-year terms and others are leaving for personal reasons, opening up four to five vacant seats. And while there is no mandate that the group have 24 members, White says that Arts & Venues wants to top it off.
“Our Cultural Affairs Commissioners are the trustees and advocates of Denver’s cultural plan and the Denver Public Art program, ensuring that our city’s cultural ecosystem is healthy and thriving,” says Mayor Michael Hancock in a statement regarding the commission openings. “Arts and culture belongs to all of us, and we’re looking for individuals who will help us keep these phenomenal programs strong and beneficial to our community.”
At the top of the commission's agenda is making art a socially useful tool to support communities, not just something that's "good for you," explains White-Brunetti. That includes supporting public art projects that benefit neighborhoods and arts education.
Art is also a significant economic generator in Denver. According to the Colorado Business Committee for he Arts, creative industries raked in $13.7 billion dollars in Colorado in 2015.
"Denver continues to be an important regional cultural center — regionally and nationally," says White-Brunetti. "This is a really exciting time to be engaged on the ground in the arts and in city building. At this point, we’ve got a lot of exciting things that are happening from a public art perspective. The city passed all the GO Bond dollars that are going to fund a lot of public art. The commission is going to have a lot to do with that effort."
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But will the art subsidized by those public funds benefit the powerful and fuel gentrification? Or will it raise critical questions about the power structure and this city's direction? Will the commission advocate for art and artists who are simply entertaining and making pretty things, or for those who are wrangling with the biggest issues of the day? What kind of arts education will be funded: the sort that placates students or engages them in civic life?
Want to help answer those questions? The commissioners help determine the function of culture in the city – making these four seats all the more pressing to fill.
The commission, which has been around since 1991, meets on the first Tuesday of the month from 4 to 6 p.m. Members serve one or three year terms and can serve a max of six years.