Powerhouse curator Cortney Stell, head of Black Cube and a member of the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, spent a few November nights in tears on her couch. She was reading applications for the City of Denver's Coronavirus Relief Fund, helping to figure out how Denver Arts & Venues should hand out $1 million in grants. So many creative people are out of work and, in some cases, out of homes because of this pandemic; learning about their individual stories was overwhelming.
"It’s economically a volatile segment of the community," she says. "It’s inconsistent income, a lot of cash-based income. A lot of that has disappeared."
There were pop singers, muralists, authors and avant-garde artists, owners of tiny venues, theaters and cultural centers all desperate for help, many unsure how they would make it into the new year and beyond.
While Stell was busy reviewing piles of applications, some artists and venue owners who had applied for the money funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act were getting antsy, afraid they couldn't make rent, buy food, get by. Some were so concerned that they hadn't heard back from the city agency that they wondered if there was some grand conspiracy at Denver Arts & Venues to divert the federal money elsewhere.
But no, there was not a grand conspiracy. Arts & Venues was simply backlogged with work, having furloughed almost all of its staff. Many employees had been redeployed to do temporary work with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment addressing the COVID-19 crisis — notifying people of their test results, working at the shelter at the Denver Coliseum — so they wouldn't miss paychecks. Others were scrambling to keep the agency — funded almost entirely through live events — functioning and relevant, despite massive cuts.
Finally, in early December, Arts & Venues announced how it would be divvying up the million dollars. It gave emergency funding to 31 venues: tiny DIY outfits such as Rhinoceropolis and Seventh Circle Music Collective; clubs like X Bar/Glow Lounge and the Black Box; bars that usually book entertainment, including Streets Denver and Lincoln's Roadhouse; and larger venues ranging from Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center to the Oriental Theater, Levitt Pavilion and Sie FilmCenter.
The funding will help organizations that are facing cuts and closure make it through the coming months, until a vaccine is widely available and live events can return.
"Levitt is beyond grateful to the City of Denver for allocating CARES Act funding to our arts and culture scene," says the venue's director, Chris Zacher. "Since COVID-19 began sweeping across Colorado in March, our revenue streams have been close to zero. The funding we received from this grant pathway is much needed to ensure the long-term viability of Levitt."
"I'm so grateful," says Gwen Campbell, who had to close her venues when Denver went to Level Red restrictions. "It means we can pay our rent while we can't be open at Lost Lake and Globe Hall."
Other organizations, while grateful, are somewhat confused about how they can — and, just as important, can't — spend the money.
Aaron Saye, who heads up Seventh Circle Music Collective, is thrilled that his space is included in the funding, but he and his fellow collective members are unsure how they can actually use the grant, because the federal guidelines seem unclear.
"Currently, the information is so vague that we don't even know whether or not we can safely use the funding to pay rent for our venue property — our largest expense by far, especially throughout this pandemic — or to buy sound system components we need to replace, as it's not clear whether or not those things would count as 'COVID-related expenses,'" Saye explains.
"We're hesitant to use any of the funding for what we truly need to spend it on right now, for fear that those uses of the money would kick back as ineligible, and we'd then have to pay back money in January that we no longer have," he says. "We've reached out to people at Arts & Venues asking for clarification and guidance regarding what's eligible versus what isn't, and we're hoping to hear back before it's too late to truly utilize the funds to their full potential, since it all has to be spent by December 30 of this year."
Paula Vrakas, the owner of Roxy Broadway, a restaurant and venue that opened just over a year ago and has been on the brink of closure for much of that time, plans to use the money to settle debts that her business has racked up in the past few months.
"The money from the grant will be going mostly to our landlord, as we haven’t been able to pay rent since July," she says. "We’re also planning to use it to pay for utilities and insurance, both also past due."
In addition to the venues, 236 artists received grants, including musicians Rob Drabkin, Esme Patterson, Kayla Marque and DeVotchKa's Tom Hagerman, as well as author Kali Fajardo-Anstine, comedian Adam Cayton-Holland, and painters Lindee Zimmer and Arturo Garcia.
"I think for a lot of folks, it's the difference between having to choose between eating or paying the rent and just scraping by another month with a shred of dignity intact," says Hagerman. "For me...I've got a bunch of kids to feed, so grants like these help spare a month or two of not chipping away too much at a savings account to get to the next month. They definitely help relieve some financial anxiety for a bit, to say the least."
The grantees are a who's who of the people and places that make this city great, and have lost gigs and opportunities over the past nine months. The panel prioritized artists and venues that had been hit hardest by the pandemic, as well as organizations run by or supporting people of color, LGBTQ people and those with disabilities. The aid pays for either lost income or unexpected expenses related to the pandemic.
Along with the million dollars that will go to venues and artists, Arts & Venues has allocated $200,000 for the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts' Arts Through It All holiday campaign, which is encouraging shoppers to remember to support artists and cultural groups in their holiday giving plans.
“I hope what it signals to the community — both the actual dollars and also the campaign that was launched — is that organizations like Arts & Venues, CBDCA and SCFD and, in this case, the City of Denver, of which I’m a part, are paying attention and listening and advocating on their behalf and in the room where some of these decisions are being made," says Ginger White, director of Arts & Venues.
"We’re fortunate to have the Department of Finance in Denver and the Office of Economic Development that understand and see the value of arts and culture, and that it's part of what makes Denver unique and special," she adds. "That’s not just a slogan on a billboard. We make impactful investments and support when we can. That includes being able to do the CARES dollars."
For more about supporting artists this holiday season, go to the Arts Through It All website.