Denver Arts & Venues, which has been offering emergency funding for artists and using some of its facilities for emergency shelter during the COVID-19 crisis, is trying to ward off a catastrophic emergency of its own. The city agency that runs Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Denver Performing Arts Complex and many other city venues, is furloughing all staff either full- or part-time and closing all venues from September 27 through January 2, 2021, as part of a "mitigation plan."
The news came within 24 hours of the Colorado Symphony announcing that it had canceled its entire 2020 season and the Colorado Ballet revealing that it had furloughed its dancers through the end of the year.
"This decision has not come lightly, as we know it impacts not just the A&V team but our partners, clients, and patrons as well," wrote the agency's executive director, Ginger White, in a letter she sent to friends of Arts & Venues on Tuesday, September 2.
The letter acknowledges that arts and culture have been among the industries hardest hit by the pandemic. According to an August report from Arts & Venues, Denver's creative industries lost nearly 30,000 jobs and $1.4 billion in sales revenue between April 1 and July 31. The losses continue to mount with no end in sight, unless there is a COVID-19 vaccine, a cure or herd immunity.
"It's so bad," Arts & Venues Director of Cultural Affairs Tariana Navas-Nieves told Westword early September 2, before the agency announced its latest round of cuts and closures. "There is no way around it but to say it's so bad. When you have that feeling of 'What can I do? I'm doing the best I can' and you hit that brick wall, and you feel like your hands are tied, and of course you're thinking, we need federal support. It's heartbreaking."
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Unlike most City of Denver agencies, Arts & Venues is not funded by the city's general fund. Instead, it used revenue generated by Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Denver Performing Arts Complex and other city-owned venues — that have now been shut down by COVID-19. In normal years, when AEG, Live Nation, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and other groups are renting out the venues, that setup gives the agency flexibility and plenty of cash.
Before the pandemic, Arts & Venues' coffer was overflowing and Denver's cultural scene was thriving. Since 2016, the Arts & Venues budget for community engagement has grown by 190 percent, and the agency had been working to ensure that it spread the resources from big venues throughout the city's neighborhoods and marginalized communities.
"We were on a high," Navas-Nieves says.
But amid a pandemic and without money coming in, Arts & Venues' trajectory has been abysmal. The latest cuts are not the first the agency has seen since COVID-19 came to Colorado six months ago.
"Early in the pandemic, A&V took measures to alleviate losses and preserve resources, including cutting expenses by 46% and moving capital improvement dollars into the operating budget," White wrote in the letter. "However, these prudent measures will not sustain the agency if the fallout from the pandemic continues through 2021. Rather than try to predict when we hit bottom, we must act now when we know our venues are underutilized because of public health orders, alternate uses, and seasonality."
Even as it contemplated those cuts, Arts & Venues did what it could to support struggling artists and arts organizations. The agency shifted tens of thousands in funding for individual arts projects toward emergency relief for creatives, collaborating with Colorado Creative Industries, RedLine Contemporary Art and the Andy Warhol Foundation to create the Colorado Artist Relief Fund.
Arts & Venues also worked with the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and the Denver Foundation on funding Denver's COVID-19 Arts & Culture Relief Fund, which has raised more than $1.2 million for arts groups, in collaboration with other heavyweight funders.
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The future of those sorts of efforts is now as uncertain as the future of this virus.
"Our hope is we'll be able to have a Red Rocks season and activate our venues once more in a way we're meant to do," says Navas-Nieves. And when the pandemic ends and the city reopens, "my hope is that arts and culture will continue to be at the center of healing and rebuilding. I don't know how a city should rebuild, should come back, without arts and culture at the heart of it."
Here is the full letter from White, who did not respond to calls for comment: