Aaron Vega was having breakfast with Susan Jenson, the executive director of Downtown Aurora Visual Arts, when she told him about a building that the City of Aurora had recently purchased.
The building, at 9995 East Colfax Avenue, had formerly housed a ski shop and, more recently, a People’s Rent-to-Own. When city officials decided the district needed an arts and events space in the Aurora Cultural Arts District, they purchased the property and spent $2.5 million revamping it into two separate spaces: The Gallery, which hosts meetings, small receptions and art installations, and The Flex, a multi-purpose room with 191 retractable cushioned seats.
The People’s Building opened around a year ago, and thanks in part to that breakfast conversation, Vega, who recently moved to Colorado after spending ten years in New York City, was hired as a curator to head up programming — a perfect fit for the actor, director, producer and puppeteer who had also been an event manager for one of the largest catering firms in New York City.
“I was really tasked with providing diversity of programming in that space,” Vega says of the People’s Building. “It’s been sort of a dream come true to be able to work in a venue that isn’t profit-driven, because the city does have a lot of altruism in its heart, which is a rarity, and it’s really lovely what it’s trying to do.”
The Aurora Cultural Arts District is situated in a neighborhood with a large refugee population, but the community is teetering on the brink of gentrification, which threatens neighborhood residents and artists alike.
Will the People’s Building ultimately combat the displacement of neighbors or speed it up?
“I think they’re doing it the right way, because change is coming — I mean, that’s inevitable,” says Vega. “But we can help control the change in the areas that still provide dignity for artists and dignity for the community.
“We’re trying to give folks from the Denver metro area a place to come and experience new kinds of art, but also make sure it’s at a low price point,” he adds. “The tickets are low enough that folks from the neighborhood can have access.”
Vega notes that because the People’s Building is owned and operated by the City of Aurora, “we can be sort of revenue-neutral in our business model, and that will work out well. We can keep our rates fairly low.”
In the year since the space has opened, Kim Robards Dance has used it as a temporary home, the City of Aurora has used it for town hall meetings, the city’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs has used it, and last August, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma held an event there with the city called “Conversations With Refugees” the day after he performed at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
While the People’s Building was hosting one or two events a month during the past year, Vega has ramped it up to about six to eight per month and figures that once the spot is granted a liquor license, the number of events will increase.
Beginning in January, the People’s Building will start hosting live music, including e-scapes, Zealot and the Far Stairs on January 12, and Space Jail, Snaggletoothe and Claudzilla on January 26. A jazz concert with the Jack Dunlevie Trio and Alex Heffron Group is set for January 27, and Vega says there are some bluegrass concerts in the works.
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Although the Aurora Fox Arts Center and Vintage Theatre are nearby and part of the Aurora Cultural Arts District, Vega says there’s really nothing like the People’s Building in the area. The Flex room, with its 191 retractable seats, can be used as one large, open room, but curtains can also be moved to create black walls that can be used as wings for dance groups.
“We have dance groups in there that do their thing, and they want entrances and exits for their dancers,” Vega says. “We can accommodate them. It’s a really beautiful, flexible space. We’re not made to house a show like the Fox is. But we will have groups that come in for two or three shows, almost like a New York-style fringe show. That’s the hope, that we’ll really be a place for independent art and independent artists — performing artists, specifically.”
While living in New York, some of Vega’s favorite places were little theaters on the Lower East Side where there might be a clown show followed by a rock concert followed by a musical reading.
“That’s what I’m hoping to create and what the City of Aurora is hoping to create with the People’s Building,” Vega says. “Maybe the indie-rock night isn’t your cup of tea, but we’ve got jazz and we’ve got bluegrass coming up right around the bend.”