Two months ago, the 31-year-old was hired by the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs as senior economic development specialist, a new position assigned the task of creating growth in the commercial-arts sector. Her mission is similar to that of other city boosters who romance technology or manufacturing industries in hopes of getting a corporate golden goose to lay an egg within Denver city limits. Except that White spends her time with some of the most neglected businesspeople in town: gallery owners, independent music producers, local theater proprietors, small-time fashion designers and emerging filmmakers.
"A lot of people in the commercial-art business don't really think of themselves as small-business owners," she says. "They work for themselves and maybe one other person. And they don't have the mentality that ŒOkay, I'm a small business, I'm eligible for small-business grants just like that pizza shop down the street.'"
That's because most creative types are more adept at making art than making money. "The truth is that most artists don't have much business sense," says Cynthia Davies, who in January opened the 64-seat Playwright Theater as a showcase for small productions authored by herself and other local playwrights. The space, at 2117 East 17th Avenue, has been home to several theater ventures of varying success over the years, but Davies hopes her previous career as a stockbroker has given her more financial savvy than your average aesthete possesses. "Of course, if I had a great amount of business sense, I wouldn't open a theater," she points out, laughing.
While Davies's project may not register as a blip on the business pages, White contends that ventures such as the Playwright are a mainstay for a healthy metropolitan economy and a key component of urban redevelopment -- not to mention a thriving, ground-level arts scene. Until now, the Office of Cultural Affairs has focused on major non-profit arts organizations and educational efforts like the One Book, One Denver reading program, and director Denise Montgomery says it was time to emphasize the role of smaller, commercial ventures in the "arts eco-system." In the metro area, 85 percent of all businesses are small businesses, Montgomery points out, "so galleries and design studios and music companies certainly fall into that category. While any single one of these entities might not be on the scale of a First Data/Western Union, collectively they're still significant in terms of what they bring to the fabric and texture of the community."
So Montgomery created an eco-devo post for the arts agency -- the first such position in the country, to her knowledge -- that was approved as a 2005 budget expansion, along with Doors Open Denver, an architectural showcase that took place this past April. "The idea is to have someone who can effectively work with the economic-development office and with the planning department," she says, someone who can also translate the needs of the arts community. Someone like White.
Born and raised in Atlanta, White was involved in theater in high school; in 1991 she went to Xavier University in Cincinnati on a scholarship and earned a degree in political science. That major required a public-administration course, which sparked an interest in urban planning. "It was the first time I ever thought about what makes a city work," White remembers. "You have to think about everything from money for sidewalks to creating a diverse economy. Why is this city doing well and this city not?" She returned to Atlanta after graduation and worked for the High Museum of Art on a special exhibition that ran concurrently with the 1996 Olympic Games. The next year, she moved to Denver and scored a job with the Cherry Creek Arts Festival.
The festival's civic aspect appealed to her, she says, because free, open-air events increase public interaction with the artists. But the planning bug soon bit again, and she moved on to earn a master's degree in urban planning with an emphasis in economic development from the University of Illinois. White returned to Denver last year -- after John Hickenlooper had been elected mayor and appointed Montgomery to a post once held by former first lady Wilma Webb -- for a contracted stint as the project manager for Doors Open Denver.
While that event provided a quick education in the city's built environment, White's new position -- which comes with a $58,000 paycheck -- requires a more in-depth appraisal of Denver's cultural real estate. The first step will be collecting some hard numbers on the size and scope of the city's creative industries. "I want to see where we are," she explains, "so that in three years' time, instead of just assuming that we've grown, we can say definitively how much and where that growth is occurring.
"The challenge is going to be, first of all, making sure that all groups are represented, and then second, when it comes to individual artists, they may classify themselves as artists, or they may classify themselves as a waitress who does art at night," she continues. "So that's where the numbers might get a little fuzzy." However the math works out, White plans to construct a creative-industries map of the city, pinpointing neighborhoods where arts activity has traditionally occurred and where it might be endangered.
"Galleries are concerned not only about if there is a viable market, but also issues of gentrification," White says. "I think that's some of the frustration for artists. They've known for a long time that they are urban pioneers. They can go into an area and rehab a couple buildings and create some kind of energy. Then a coffee shop opens up. Now there's a loft project. Then the artists can't afford to live there anymore."
What starving artists might call gentrification, city planners consider urban renewal. Still, White thinks there are ways to ease the pressure on some of these small artistic spaces, whether through a loan program geared toward artists who inhabit and revitalize dilapidated buildings, or more flexible zoning that opens up other parts of the city to arts entrepreneurs. "When we know that there's a commercial vacancy rate in the city, are there ways that some of those spaces can be rented on the margin to artists as temporary studio space and at the same time fill up some of those empty storefronts?" White asks. "That's an example of a program that's a little bit more creative without having to go into the code ordinance."
She paints a pretty picture, but taking stock of the needs of artists requires a whole new language from what's spoken in the halls of the city zoning and planning departments. Hyland Mather, owner of Andenken Gallery, heard White speak at a recent meeting of the Denver Art Dealers Association and says that while he's excited about the possibilities for new city partnerships, he felt her presentation lacked concrete prospects. "She talked about these abstract ideas, maybe husks of real plans," he explains. Mather does give White credit for attending the meeting and getting a feel for the up-and-coming art scene, which is more than other city officials have done. "I think there's a common mistake about who is really selling artwork in town," he says. "I just really feel that they need to beat the street instead of sitting behind a desk, making a bunch of fancy plans with other fancy-pants people."
White's collected street-level input from other groups, too, including the Santa Fe Arts District. Jan Barlow, who owns Neo gallery and is vice-president of that organization, would like to see the city help promote the district's wildly popular First Friday openings by providing transportation for art seekers. Up until now, she says, the city may not have put the brakes on the events, but it didn't help push them forward, either.
White recognizes that there's only so much the city can do. "Some of these things, it's like no amount of policy is going to change it," she says. "I don't know if there's one vision guiding everything, one singular direction -- and I don't know if we want that. What I think is cool is the opportunity within all these different elements, and that's where I'm like, 'Okay, how do we elevate the awareness of what's happening so that the public sees it along with the city?'"