After an Unimaginable 2020, Denver Arts & Venues Looks to the Future

"Four Chromatic Gates," by Herbert Bayer.
"Four Chromatic Gates," by Herbert Bayer.
Kyle Cooper
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In May 2021, Denver Arts & Venues was still sending out releases calling the city's cultural plan "Imagine 2020." Looking back over the past year, who'd want to do that?

In 2014, then-Arts & Venues head Kent Rice and his team, which included current agency director Ginger White, did. At the time, imagining far-off 2020 seemed a little sci-fi, but in a hopeful way. Only a prophet of doom would predict the dystopian hellscape of fascists attempting to do away with democracy, police killings and riots, and mass death from a pandemic that marked the actual 2020.

Last year, we saw mass layoffs in the cultural sector and venues dark as catacombs, some boarding up for good. We couldn't physically escape into entertainment, liberating ourselves — if only for a night — at concerts, either: Even outdoor amphitheater Red Rocks, which generates a massive amount of the cultural agency's revenue, sat mostly empty.

So money quit coming in. Arts & Venues started depleting its flush coffers just to run with a skeleton crew. And while six of the agency's workers were incentivized to retire early (including Mary Valdez, former head of the Urban Arts Fund and one of the people responsible for turning Denver into a hub for street art and murals), most were shipped out of the department to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and help with managing emergency shelters and contract-tracing initiatives.

Around the office, White confesses, the remaining workers asked themselves: "Who could have ever imagined 2020?"

Ginger White, executive director of Denver Arts & Venues.
Ginger White, executive director of Denver Arts & Venues.
Kyle Harris

Despite the near-cultural apocalypse, White and her team are now again looking toward the future. So, really, is that cultural plan still called Imagine 2020?

"No, no," says White, with a glint of horror — or is that humor? "We've got a new one we're working on. And I would say it's more of...we're calling it...and this is still, I would say, a working title, so I wouldn't necessarily put this in ink yet...but we're calling it 'Denver's Cultural Commitment.' Because so much of what was articulated in Imagine 2020 — things like, you know, access to the arts and lifelong learning — those are all values that don't change over time.

"I mean, we're never not going to care, as an agency or as a city, about access," White continues. "So we're changing it to be more of a document that is a commitment to the city around how we speak about the role of arts, culture and creativity in our community. I would say what we've added are some foundational values around things like diversity, equity, inclusion, which are values that we as an agency have had for a while but were not articulated as clearly in the past cultural plan. A value around partnership and collaboration [is] another example of how we do our work."

The future plan is "calling out some of those attributes that weren't articulated or pulled out as such in Imagine 2020," she explains. "Our goal is to get that out — probably in the fall, at this point, just because everything is going a little bit slower. Our focus has been elsewhere. The team has been working hard on it, but we've been down-staffed for so long that people are having to...we've got a lot of priorities."

Such as reopening. Bringing back staff after the Fourth of July. Revitalizing downtown with the All-Star Summer, in which Denver's arts and entertainment sector will be orbiting around Major League Baseball's big event. And managing emergency COVID grants.

With that plan in mind, the City of Denver has invited people who want to have a stake in the future of the arts to join the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, which was founded in 1991 and generally comprises 24 mayoral appointees. Commissioners have four major functions, according to Denver Arts & Venues: overseeing the program that ensures that 1 percent of the budget for any new municipal capital improvement is devoted to public art; advising on arts and cultural issues; serving as an ambassador to the community; and being a trustee for Denver's cultural plan.

If you want to apply, act fast. You need to fill out an online application form, attach a résumé and answer some additional questions by the end of today, June 9. (For more information, go to the Denver Arts & Venues website or email Nicole.Medina2@denvergov.org.)

In the meantime, the current cultural commissioners are reaching out to people in the arts and entertainment sector to find out more about their own vision of the future, what collaboration with the community should look like, and what the agency should focus on moving forward.

With Imagine 2020 soon in the rearview, there's a lot for the city to be proud of, says White, not the least of which is that the cultural plan has been celebrated as a model beyond Colorado: "It's got resonance, not just in Denver, but in other communities, as well. So that's, I think, something to be very proud of."

That plan — no matter what it's called — is rooted in what White calls "seven vision elements" and says is like "the Ten Commandments of Denver Arts & Venues." They are: "Integration: Arts, culture and creativity are fully integrated into daily life, work and play in Denver. Amplification: Arts, culture and creativity are amplified in Denver — and amplify the city to the world. Accessibility: Arts, culture and creativity are truly inclusive and accessible for all. Lifelong Learning: Exposure, appreciation and participation in arts, culture and creativity span our lifetimes. Local Talent: Denver's diverse artistic and creative professionals are locally cultivated and flourishing. Economic Vitality: Denver's economic vitality is accelerated by arts, culture and creativity. Collective Leadership: Collective leadership is committed to high-impact results across Denver."

Concludes White: "I don't see those changing. I think we nailed it. I think we got that right." 

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