In November, CU Denver appointed Michael Semen director of Creative Industries Research and Policy. Seman works with Denver Arts & Venues and Colorado Creative Industries, the state’s art council, and the community at large to connect and foster the local creative economy. A veteran of the national DIY music and art scene, Seman has spent decades playing house shows and warehouse venues with acts like his long-running band, Shiny Around the Edges.
With a doctorate in urban planning and public policy and experience as a touring musician, Seman sees the value that local music and art scenes add to a city's economy. In the wake of last week's deadly fire at the DIY live/work space Ghost Ship in Oakland, Westword connected with Seman to discuss what cities can do to support safe alternative spaces in which artists can live and create.
After our conversation, on Thursday, December 8, the Denver Fire Department evicted five people living at Denver DIY hub Rhinoceropolis after the space was deemed unsafe.
Westword: According to a recent study, the Denver art scene accounted for $1.8 billion in economic activity and had a $512.8 million economic impact, so there is clearly an interest in arts on a local level. But these dollars don't necessarily directly impact local artists. Artists here are struggling with many of the same issues artists in Oakland are — like a dearth of affordable housing and studio space, which can lead to large groups of creative people living in potentially unsafe conditions.
If you were to speak directly with city officials and policy makers, what would you want to say to them about the rapid rise in rent and its effect on Denver and the DIY arts community, in particular?
Michael Seman: The first thing to recognize is, this will always exist in your city. People will always be creating, whether they have outlets within formal structures or informal structures. What needs to be examined and closely looked at — especially post the Ghost Ship incident — is that we're in a time where city real-estate values are escalating, and this is pushing some artistic production into areas that are less formal. Granted, there's a long history there. Look at a place like SoHo in New York City in the 1970s. You had the loft jazz scene, and major artists came out of that. These weren't just musicians, either; in a lot of these scenes, you're talking about graphic designers, photographers, commercial artists, teachers, lawyers, commercial real-estate agents — all sorts of people coming out of these scenes who happen to really enjoy being around or being a part of this cultural production.
As a city, what I would suggest is to pay attention. Especially now, do not try to regulate these spaces out of existence. That's not the answer. Find ways to work with these spaces, because they are valuable to the city — they are growing organisms that are going to change. If they don't change, they die. Once space in a city becomes too valuable, it's just space, but it's the people that matter. It is important to work with these communities to find a new space for them. Other cities have done just that — the Vera Project in Seattle [a nonprofit, all-ages music venue] is a great example of a city's attention in a positive way. Flint Local 432 [one of the longest-running all-ages venues in the country] in Flint, Michigan, is another great space. It's actually been several difference spaces since the late '80s, but the community is still there. Having these spaces on your radar as a city and being able to step in is important — these aren't a nuisance. They are the building blocks of your entire creative economy.
Though the River North Art District was created more than a decade ago, it has in the last five years become a real-estate hot spot. I hear people talk about "the RiNo district" as if it had some kind of new creative cachet, which is frustrating to me, because art has been there all along — it just hasn't been visible to the average consumer. What can a city do to make newly attractive "arts districts" actually accessible to artists?
The first step is for a city to understand the value of these spaces. This isn't just the production of events in DIY spaces; it's also the development of a community made up of multi-faceted people who are more than just artists. These scenes produce and attract the kind of highly skilled people cities would want to drive their economies. These spaces are hubs for that.
The second step is to look at asset mapping — looking at what you have and where you have it in a city. Are there underutilized spaces that could possibly be worked with in a way that would facilitate an all-ages DIY venue? These spaces exist in other cities, and many of them have become very sophisticated 501c3s [nonprofits]. The thing is, a city already has qualified people working in the creative community who can run these places, and the programming already exists. It's just a matter of facilitating it with some kind of deal worked out with the city or nonprofit or a mix of the two. Other cities have done it, and it isn't rocket science but, man, it's just about acknowledging the value and understanding the value. I have to say that Denver, compared to a lot of other cities, already has a pretty progressive mindset. I don't think it is beyond the realm of possibility for Denver to support these spaces.
Denver and Oakland are not that different when it comes down to housing economics; we're both looking at hyper-unaffordable, rapidly rising rents. So what can we do? How do we dedicate spaces to artists who want to live and work in their space and not require them to work forty-plus hours a week and dedicate three-fourths of that income just to put a roof over their heads?
Denver Arts & Venues has the ArtSpace program that is going to come online in probably 2019, that's definitely a big part of the picture. That signals to me that it is going in the right direction — it's not easy, but it's also not the hardest thing in the world to do. I think that shows that already, the city is thinking about this — but it's going to take more from people in the DIY community as well. I'm happy to help push that along and help artists interact with the city and say, "Hey, look. We [artists] are part of the creative economy." It's getting there.
One great thing about Denver is that I think it is at the front of the curve. We don't yet have the insane real-estate crunch that other cities considered traditional cultural producers have. We have progressive people in planning, progressive people in well-endowed philanthropic institutions here. Now is the time to get in front of all of this.
Many people in the DIY community work really hard to operate all-ages spaces and personally don't make money. It's not about money as much as it is about surviving and creating a space for others in the community to come together. It would be incredible if we, as a city, had the DIY community's back and was able to alleviate some of that financial stress by finding ways to subsidize real estate for DIY spaces while providing the promise of not uprooting them when the market gets hot.
That's what's great about venues like the Vera Project: They are locked in, and they have a space. Flint Local 432 is blossoming with education and different programs for entrepreneurship for young adults. Because they have a space, they don't have to worry about that part of it. The city gets it. Entrepreneurs are becoming younger and younger, and all-ages DIY spaces can be great places to foster that. It's not uncommon for someone in high school to be an app developer, but also play in a band.
Economic systems are most successful when they are diverse — all-ages, DIY spaces are great safe spaces for people of all gender identifications, ethnicities, sexualities and ages to come together and create a community that can spawn entrepreneurship and innovation. It's a no-brainer for a city; you want this in your city.
When looking at a space like the Bell Foundry in Baltimore — I mean, the artists locked out of that building, they aren't leaving the city. They will just find another space. This is the time, right now, as a city, to understand that these communities are living organisms. They will just pop up somewhere else, so instead of the reaction being to kick people out, why not work to prevent another horrible tragedy from happening? You can continue to benefit your city by working with the group and trying to find them another space. Especially when you look at Baltimore: For the love of God, that city has a lot of undervalued real estate. It shouldn't be that difficult.
What if a city like Baltimore tapped into the art and the artists already existing there and offered them the basics, like housing, as a way to boost its economy?
Cities and policymakers need to raise up the DIY urbanism and make it more sustainable, because if you have all of these people coming from L.A. and New York, the city will inevitably be reaping the benefits. Why not support the artists there and in turn boost your economy and make your city more interesting and culturally vibrant? I mean, why wouldn't you want to help them? That always boggles my mind with cities.
At my age, as I've been seeing artists do this forever, I've started to see these people ascend to leadership roles and policy-making positions in cities. They are coming from these communities, so they are more familiar with the value of the arts, and that's a good thing.
When we talk about cities benefitting from their DIY scenes, one thing I want to point out is that these communities are often naturally diverse. Again, looking at the lives we lost in Oakland — that scene was and is made up of queer folks, trans folks, people of color and people from varying economic backgrounds. This "diversity" I see institutions and organizations constantly looking for already exists in DIY communities.
So, going forward after Oakland, what is something you would like people to know who may just be learning about the existence of DIY venues and communities in their own cities?
For me, one of the big things is to just make sure to differentiate between the Ghost Ship as a live/work space that also hosted shows and the all-ages DIY spaces that are venues but aren't live/work spaces. I hope this can be understood and help stem any city from just shutting down everything that is considered DIY.
Yes! Looking at a place like 242 Main Street in Vermont - what an unbelievably cool example of the government supporting a venue that can be run and operated by members of the community, regardless of their age. DIY spaces can offer the venue experience that can act as a training ground for future jobs in "legit" concert venues, whether that's booking artists, running sound and lights, etc.
One of the greatest examples of that was the Metropolis in Seattle. It was around for — depending who you talk to — six months to a year and a half. Susan Silver worked the juice bar, and she went on to own Susan Silver management [represented Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees]. Many musicians who later made it in grunge-era bands had played there. Bruce Pavitt, co-founder of Sub Pop Records, was a DJ between sets. Art Chantry did design work there, and I believe Charles Peterson [photographer] started out there. And this was one DIY space. That alone eventually impacted Seattle with millions of millions of dollars. All of these people went on to take on great positions in the industry.
These spaces foster communities. Young people under 21 are driven and smart, and if you give them a chance in some structured way like a DIY space, you have no idea what could happen to your city.
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