I moved to Denver in January 2020, lured by a job and drawn by its creative and innovative ethos. How could I not be? Denver is known for its unique art scene, ranging from swaths of murals to the psychedelic behemoth Meow Wolf, which makes an international Yayoi Kusama tour look like a snoozefest.
In my first few weeks, I went to an exhibit on John Denver, explored the Denver Art Museum and enjoyed a tour of RiNo’s murals led by my friend Jessica McMillan, a local visionary artist. But then it ended, as the pandemic shut down the state.
COVID disrupted the city’s cultural scene, as it has every other aspect of our lives. The Colorado Business Committee for the Arts just put numbers to the pandemic’s hit on the nonprofit arts, cultural and scientific centers in the metro area, and the devastation is hard to miss: The CBCA reports that a decade of growth was lost. After peak interest in culture in 2019, 2020 saw a 34 percent decline in economic activity in cultural nonprofit centers, a 28 percent decrease in jobs and a 49 percent decrease in attendance.
But the report also found a beacon of hope. Last year the metro area registered a 5.5 percent increase in philanthropic and public donations to the nearly 300 groups that volunteered data for the report. There is a key observation in that particular shift: Even as the pandemic robbed us of peaceful walks through museums, Denver residents put their money (an even more precious commodity than normal during these strange times) toward ensuring that museums survived.
“One bright spot of the 2020 data reported was that philanthropy and giving to arts and culture in the metro region is up, which provides hope and critical funding needed for the ongoing economic recovery of the nonprofit arts sector,” says CBCA Executive Director Christin Crampton Day. “This report will be a vital advocacy tool to ensure arts and culture endure so we can build back stronger.”
The pandemic also hit the music scene, of course, with venues shutting their doors and livestreams taking the place of in-person events. But this fall, Denver has been coming back full force, offering a variety of shows that hold their own compared with the lineups in San Francisco, New Orleans or even New York City. Red Rocks is likened to a temple by music lovers across the country, and after attending performances by progressive rock band Umphrey's McGee and the String Cheese Incident there, I can see why. Pair the sheer enthusiasm for the venue from fans and bands alike with the umber rocks, splashed with lights and rising like steeples, and it’s clear that Colorado holds the world’s premier venue. Now, as cold weather descends on the city, indoor venues from the Mission Ballroom to Cervantes' to Your Mom’s House are welcoming an eclectic mix of local musicians and nationally known bands.
Interest in the arts is at once deeply personal and communal, and sometimes generational. My grandpa, whom we lovingly called “Grumps,” taught me how to hold a paintbrush, and each holiday, he gave me a new book on art history or how to draw cartoons or use oil pastels. My mom and pop, meanwhile, would spend too much time chasing me around the grand halls of the National Gallery of Art as I searched for my favorite Sisley. When my career turned toward editing and writing, I ventured up and down the East Coast from Washington, D.C., to soak up the genius hanging on hallowed walls at various exhibitions.
The Denver art scene, however, is decidedly sui generis. Far less stuffy and happy to give emerging talent a spotlight, this city has a diverse cast of visual artists and musicians, while nationally renowned names regularly swing through. As Westword's new Culture Editor, I plan to show you the best our city has to offer as it emerges from an unprecedented economic blow, ready to vigorously meet new challenges.