Most funders do the dirty work of deciding which nonprofits secure funding and which don't behind closed doors. Not the Denver Foundation's Arts Affinity Group, which hosted Art Tank — based on the cut-throat reality-TV show Shark Tank — in which six community-minded art groups attempted to wow a panel of formidable arts administrators, on Tuesday, February 7.
Margaret Hunt from Colorado Creative Industries; Christine Márquez-Hudson, who heads up the Denver Foundation; Gary Steuer, who runs the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation; Dina Bleecker, who sits on the sponsoring funder the Arts Affinity Group; and Tariana Navas-Nieves, who runs Denver's public arts and cultural programs, weren't as nasty as the reality-TV decision-makers who cast people off the island, but they had the same basic goal: Pick the winners and pick the losers.
The Colorado Black Arts Movement opened the night with a presentation in which six people cooked foods with tomatoes: barbecue sauce, pico and salad. Theater artist Khadija Haynes and Ken Grimes of the Montbello Organizing Committee talked about cultural divisions between people of color in Denver's Montbello neighborhood, and how the groups' project, My Dinner in Montbello: A Culinary Drama, would use cooking to bridge the gaps and ultimately produce a community cookbook. While the proposal was solidly rooted in the neighborhood's needs, its connection to art — at least conventional art — seemed thin.
That was followed by a group of parents from Jefferson County who had formed the Spark City Children's Museum, an emerging institution that brings educational opportunities to underserved communities. The parents wanted funding for Bart the Art Bus, which would bring music, art and theater to local children who could not make it to the Children's Museum of Denver. This bus would be one in a fleet that would travel the county, carting cultural fare for kids. When the panel grilled the presenters, they stumbled over questions about whether their project would serve Jefferson County's growing Spanish-speaking population. Panelists' eyebrows raised when the group's members could cite neither artists nor arts organizations they planned to work with.
Warm Cookies of the Revolution's Evan Weissman and Project VOYCE's Candi CdeBaca delivered a slick presentation about This Machine Has a Soul, the Rube Goldberg machine they want to create to help illustrate how participatory city budgeting works. Participatory budgeting is the process by which community members, not government officials, decide how taxpayer dollars would be spent. "Our project is to create a life-sized version of the budget."
The group has already received a sizable $325,000 grant from Art Place America, and Steuer wondered how much impact the Arts Affinity Group's money would have on the project. Weissman said the money would go to pay artists. "We think artists should be paid, and paid very, very well," he added, which drew cheers from the crowd.
After an intermission, RedLine Contemporary Art Center proposed Moveable Feast, a five-month celebration of all things Five Points. Tashmesia Mitchell, from the nonprofit Earth Force, opened the presentation by discussing institutions in the neighborhood like the Rossonian and the Welton Street Cafe, still tied to Five Points' history as the Harlem of the West, and newer spaces like Rosenbergs Bagels and RedLine itself, which are connected to the wave of newcomers in the neighborhood.
RedLine's Louise Martorano pitched the project as five months of community-wide dinners. Artists would design tables, and members of the various cultures living side by side in Five Points would be "curated" to dine together and learn about each other. Geoffrey Shamos of RedLine described the event as "a neighborhood association meeting that people actually look forward to attending."
That project was followed by scrappy grassroots group the bARTer Collective, which presented The Mending Machine, a mobile sewing studio and repair shop that would travel the city, fixing people's broken objects. Instead of accepting money for repairs, the group would barter for stories. For example, collective members might be given a torn scarf, and in exchange for repairing it, they would learn about its history. In the process of mending it, they might also sew on a patch with a poem about the story.
Their project was squarely anti-capitalist. "We are the little guys," said founder Nikki Pike.
The final presentation began with spoken word and interpretive dance from two youth artists, Yokabed Ogbai and Mikuh Isaiah Martinez. That was followed by a furtive speech by poet JC Futrell of Arts Street, about the group's work to prevent gang recruitment by connecting young people with their heritage through ancestry.com and producing art about their cultural legacies, all while building professional skills in the creative industries. The project, We're Still Here, is a collaboration between Arts Street, Denver artist Thomas Evans and the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver, which would identify the young people most at risk for gang recruitment. The panel was wowed.
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The audience voted on its favorite artist; the panel exited to make its own final decision. After a fifteen-minute intermission, everybody returned.
The Colorado Black Arts Movement and Warm Cookies of the Revolution took third prize, receiving $10,000 each. RedLine Contemporary Art Center took second place, receiving $20,000. First prize and $30,000 went to Arts Street, which also won the audience-choice award, garnering the group an additional $2,000.
Futrell was holding back tears, celebrating his group's win. When asked how he was feeling after Art Street's victory, Futrell said, "Euphoric. Elated. Joyous. Scared: Now we've got to do it."