Denver Arts & Venues isn't dead, and this is no eulogy. But the city agency, its 67 employees and the hundreds of thousands of people their work touches are grieving. Last week, executive director Ginger White announced massive cuts at Arts & Venues through early 2021. Starting in late September, the department is furloughing everybody. Some staffers will go part-time; others will be temporarily out of work for months. The city has also offered incentivized retirements. Those venues that aren't already dark will be closing for now.
"It's been a rough go of it," White told Westword. "It's pretty heartbreaking to be in the position like so many other organizations are or have been."
But the role of Arts & Venues in the city is larger than any one arts or entertainment group — even the biggest, like Live Nation or the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, both of which have experienced mass layoffs and cuts.
The city's cultural agency spins a web between nearly every concert promoter, public art project, DIY space, barroom venue and mural on the city's wall. No organization, other than perhaps the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District — which manages the area's penny-on-the-$10 sales tax, funding 300-plus nonprofit arts, culture and science groups — shapes the city's cultural life as Arts & Venues does. And SCFD doesn't have the direct scope of Arts & Venues, touching everything from the scrappiest individual artists to global entertainment juggernauts like AEG.
In recent months, Arts & Venues employees worked with nonprofits, foundations and Colorado Creative Industries on the Colorado Artist Relief Fund and the COVID-19 Arts and Culture Relief Fund. The agency created virtual programming and promoted other groups' projects around the city. The staff led anti-racism workshops, celebrated Pride with art exhibitions at the McNichols Building, and helped turned some of its venues into emergency facilities that offered shelter and medical aid during the pandemic.
Arts & Venues staffers also interviewed venue owners and arts organizations for two important reports: "The 2020 City of Denver Creative Economy Report" and "Initial Impacts of the COVID-19 Crisis on the Music Industry in Colorado and the Denver Metropolitan Region."
"Both reports reveal the initial effects of the COVID-19 crisis are substantial, estimating Denver's creative industries have lost an estimated 29,840 jobs and $1.4 billion in sales revenue between April 1 and July 31, while Colorado's music industry alone lost an estimated 8,327 jobs between April 1 and July 31, representing a 51 percent loss," the agency wrote in early August.
Arts & Venues staffers are trusted allies to many in Denver's culture scene. Knowing they won't be just a text away is a blow.
"It's what they do that's so critical and impactful, and the spirit of how they do it," says White. "They're the best group of people I've ever had the privilege of working with. They deserve all kinds of credit and kudos."
People like Arts & Venues Program Administrator Lisa Gedgaudas, a steadfast champion of this city's musicians and small venues, who brought Denver's live-music scene to an international audience through the Music Cities initiative. After the DIY scene faced a series of evictions starting in 2016, she brought artists to the table with city officials. That led to the creation of the Safe Creative Spaces Fund, which helped some Denver spaces get up to code. During the COVID-19 closures, she has worked with groups like the National Independent Venue Association to try to save local venues.
There's Director of Cultural Affairs Tariana Navas-Nieves, who preached the merits of equity long before the word was trendy and sucked dry of its meaning by agencies and corporations scrambling not to look racist as the country deals with its history of racial violence. Her work has helped turn Arts & Venues into an explicitly anti-racist organization, a move embraced by others in the city as a model. She has championed artists from marginalized communities who too often have been ignored by people in power. Through her work, the agency has connected with often-forgotten communities and brought an important depth and freshness to the art that Arts & Venues funds.
There's Mary Valdez, one of four Arts & Venue staffers with in-depth institutional knowledge that the agency lost in the past week to the City of Denver's retirement incentive. She is responsible for commissioning hundreds of murals that grace the Mile High City's walls. She, too, has been a champion of artists often neglected by people with the money and power. Through her work with the Urban Arts Fund, she has helped transform this urban landscape and make it into a world-class tourist destination for arts lovers.
And among many, many more, there's White herself, who has led the agency since predecessor Kent Rice departed in 2018. At the helm of the organization, she has enabled her talented staff to fight for the underdogs. While other city agency leaders take credit for their employees' tireless work, she puts them in the spotlight. But whenever tensions have risen between artists and the city, she's in the hot seat. She has taken blows over how Denver brass handled the mass displacement of longtime residents and artists, safety-code issues, the corporate takeover of the music industry, and so much more. No set of decisions has been as painful or crucial to the long-term survival of Arts & Venues as those she is making during the pandemic. No matter how turbulent things have become, she has stayed the course.
Arts & Venues has a team willing to learn from its failures and imperfections, quick to remedy what it can and struggle with what isn't so easy to fix. These people understand the power of art to heal and its importance as Denver attempts to recover from the harm caused by this pandemic.
The agency is still working out many of the dates and details of the cuts. What's clear for now is that crucial limbs are on the chopping block until the live-entertainment economy recovers.
"It's not like we're putting chains around the doors. We don't have any events," says White. "At the Ellie, we don't have events booked between now and December. There is nothing on the books. There is hardly anything to cancel, and nothing is coming in the door at the same time. It's a natural atrophy. We're just incredibly dark."
While things are dark, Arts & Venues will strategize. "How can we take advantage of what we know to be a period of dormancy, almost, and try to preserve what we could while still conducting our essential work?" White wonders. "Hopefully, in 2021, we have enough gas in the tank so we can come back and support those organizations that want to come back or audiences and fans that want to come back."
The depressing truth is that live, large-scale events are likely not coming back safely any time soon. Without a widely distributed vaccine, the stages will stay dark, the sector will suffer, and Arts & Venues will lose its main revenue stream.
Unlike Denver Public Library or the Denver Police Department, which are funded mainly through the city's taxpayer-supported general fund, the bulk of Arts & Venues revenue comes from renting out spaces like Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Denver Coliseum and the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Those venues have either been shut down, restricted by the city and state for use as emergency facilities, or vacated by cultural groups that have canceled or postponed shows.
White says Arts & Venues isn't at risk of being dissolved for good — somebody has to run the city's legally mandated public art program and take care of the venues. But the closures may require the agency to make gut-wrenching calls that other city departments supported by the general fund won't have to make.
While most events — from Colorado Ballet's The Nutcracker to the DCPA's Broadway season and the Colorado Symphony's holiday shows — are canceled, a few things may still happen. Denver Film will likely extend its Film on the Rocks Drive-In in the Red Rocks Amphitheatre parking lot a few weeks more; this year's film festival will be virtual. After the art shows at the McNichols Building close, it will become a polling center for the election. The Music Advancement Fund, which will grant $75,000 to music projects, is still on, and Arts & Venues received CARES Act funding that the agency plans to distribute to artists and organizations.
The Public Art Program — which has been around since 1988 and mandates the city spend 1 percent of its budget for capital improvement projects that cost more than a million on incorporating art — will continue to be in effect.
The agency is still figuring out what to do with the Trading Post and Visitor Center at Red Rocks Amphitheatre; the venue itself will be shut down temporarily because of construction. "We're upgrading and getting a new roof that goes over the stage to match the historical character of Red Rocks," says White. "That roof is ending its useful life. We're seeing more and more concert productions coming in with fancy lighting. We need a roof that can handle the weight of different tech equipment."
In short, the organization is not giving up on live events returning. White points to the new banners outside Boettcher Concert Hall as a sign of hope.
"It's a really lovely message," she says. "I think it says it well: "Until we gather again, be safe, feel joy, give thanks. Our show will go on."