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COVER STORY: STATE OF THE ARTS | It could take government action to revive performing arts

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Fraught. Fragile. Dire. Endangered. Grim. Those are some of the words local leaders are using to characterize the present state of the arts in Colorado.

Signs of the arts apocalypse are everywhere: Foot-high weeds growing out of the abandoned stone rows of the Mary Rippon Amphitheatre, home to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder.

The brick façade of the Boettcher Concert Hall, for the first time in decades not draped with oversize banners trumpeting current offerings at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

The 48 empty tables recently spread out over Sculpture Park to represent the 12 million unemployed professionals in the national live-events industry.

To Shakespeare, silence was “the most perfect herald of joy.” To the tens of thousands who have been thrown out of work by the statewide shutdown on large gatherings, the silence on Colorado stages is a cacophony of despair.

The bad news has been relentless. Most recently, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra canceled the remainder of its 2020 indoor season, the Colorado Ballet furloughed all dancers through the end of the year, and the city’s Department of Arts and Venues, which has remained open during the pandemic largely to distribute $1.2 million in emergency funding for artists and make its venues available as emergency shelters, has furloughed all staff and closed all its facilities through Jan. 2.

“This pandemic has had a devastating impact on our creative economy and our creative-sector workers, especially all those associated with the music and performing-arts industry,” said Margaret Hunt, Director of Colorado Creative Industries, the state’s arts office. “And when we factor together the pandemic with social unrest due to social injustice, wildfires, drought and climate change, there's been an upheaval of comfortable ‘normalcy’ we haven't experienced in our lifetimes.”

And the worst part: No one knows where bottom is.

What’s been lost

The arts contribute $877.8 billion to the national economy, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2017, more than 5 million arts and culture workers earned $405 billion in income. But the sector took a $9.1 billion hit in the first four months of the COVID shutdown, with creative workers losing $50 billion in wages.

Closer to home, the arts sector generates $15.6 billion a year, representing about 4.5 percent of the Colorado economy. That’s larger than the transportation, tourism, agriculture and construction industries. But 59,179 of Colorado’s 103,401 arts jobs – 57% – were vaporized by COVID-19 by the end of July, along with $1.4 billion in lost sales revenue, according to a study by Denver Arts and Venues and Colorado State University.

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which was entering what was forecast to be the most successful year in its history, has said it will lose $46 million in revenue by the end of the year. At Red Rocks, $50 million.

“Those numbers are staggering,” said Christin Crampton Day, Executive Director of the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts. Especially for a state that, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, has ranked No. 1 in per-capita trips to attend art events since 2014.

“Our sector was just thriving,” Day said. “Who could have ever imagined that we'd be in such a fragile place?

The ripple effect has tentacled in every direction. The Market at Larimer Square, Rialto Café and Meadowlark Kitchen are among dozens of restaurants that have permanently closed – which in turn impacts local food suppliers, craft brewers and more. The Esquire is up for sale and is not expected to re-open as a movie theatre. Along the boarded up windows of South Broadway, 3Kings Tavern has permanently shuttered as a live-music venue – a harbinger, some say, of what is to come if Congress does not pass the proposed Save Our Stages Act.

The National Independent Venues Association says 90 percent of its 2,000-member venues could be forced to close without substantial government assistance. Save Our Stages would authorize up to $10 billion to keep concert halls such as The Bluebird Theatre and the Hi-Dive open.

“Arts and culture are essential to Colorado's economic and social vitality, but it's undeniable that this sector needs our support now more than ever,” said Day. “If we want the arts to still be here when we get through this, we have to step up and find ways to support it now. With such a huge loss of revenue, you can only go on for so long.”

What has been lost since 2020 crashed like a singer dropping from soprano to bass goes far beyond commerce. Gone too are the epiphanies. The crescendos. The social justice. The roar of the crowds. The moments that can change a person’s life while simply standing in front of a painting. The art itself.

“The arts give us inspiration and hope,” Hunt said. “Artists bring uncomfortable issues and social wrongs into the light. They speak to our collective consciousness through music, through performance, through literature and poetry, through visual arts. We need their voices now more than ever to help us face these unparalleled challenges and to help us heal.”

Small signs of recovery

And yet, through the concrete cracks, late summer has brought with it spring-like signs of renewed artistic life: Denver Film has turned the Red Rocks parking lot into a nightly drive-in movie theatre. The Catamounts are presenting live theater on a Westminster golf course, moving the audience in carts through nine holes of storytelling. Comedy Works has resumed live, indoor shows at its Greenwood Village club.

On Sept. 1, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats kicked off three consecutive nights of live concerts streamed worldwide from an otherwise empty Red Rocks stage. The Black Actors Guild became the first metro troupe to reopen for indoor theatre when it staged Idris Goodwin’s play “Hype Man” at the People’s Building in Aurora. Most museums and galleries have reopened to reduced capacities. And there has been a surge in mural creation bringing focus to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Most encouraging: The long-presumed institutional carnage from COVID-19 has yet to fully materialize. The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, a voter-approved taxing district that last year made $60 million available to more than 300 arts, culture and science organizations in the seven-county Denver metro area, conducted a survey back in April that found 57% of member organizations had only four months or less of operating reserve. But now five months later, not one SCFD member organization has yet permanently closed, Executive Director Deborah Jordy said.

That’s attributable to many factors: Federal assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program and the CARES Act; dozens of community-wide relief efforts, an unexpectedly intact SCFD and robust donations.

A variety of community partners have raised millions for individual artists and artist organizations. The Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and The Denver Foundation distributed $1.5 million through the COVID-19 Arts & Culture Relief Fund. Colorado Creative Industries has supported 156 Colorado arts organizations with nearly $900,000. The Colorado Artist Relief Fund, run by Denver Arts and Venues in partnership with RedLine Contemporary Art, has issued 225 grants of up to $1,000 to individual artists. A virtual concert called “Banding Together,” with performances from The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, Dave Matthews and many more raised $625,000 for The Colorado Music Relief Fund.

The Community First Foundation, which has raised $256 million for thousands of Colorado nonprofits since 2010, staged an emergency Colorado Gives Day in May, raising $1.4 million, of which $164,000 went to arts and culture groups. Donations to arts and humanities organizations through Community First have grown from $295,164 for the first seven months of 2019 to $781,492 this year, said Dana Rinderknecht, Director of Online Giving.

Elsewhere, the Arvada Center launched a “Reignite the Arts” Capital Campaign at the start of the pandemic that has raised $700,000 so far. Central City Opera raised $350,000 to pay a portion of its 150 company members’ lost incomes.

But you can only rely on the funding community and donors for so long, Day said.

Donors are giving what they can, but the consensus on giving is that the worst is yet to come,” Jordy added. “That is going to be a source of decreasing return the longer this goes on. And if the stock market follows the rest of the economy, that would be catastrophic.”  

To put it bluntly: Every arts organization has a death date in mind, whether they will admit it or not. “Meaning a date after which it becomes fiscally impossible to continue operations,” said Stephen Weitz, co-founder of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. “Everyone is walking a pretty thin line right now.”

Rinderknecht believes most area nonprofits are just trying to hold on through the end of the year. But then, she said, “I think we are going to see mass closings and mergers of nonprofits at the beginning of 2021.”

Without knowing whether more government assistance is coming, Weitz said, “the clock is definitely ticking for a lot of organizations.”

Ironically, it is the smallest and largest organizations that are most likely to survive, Jordy said. The largest tend to have endowment and foundation support, while the smallest can essentially go dormant until the worst passes. It is the mid-size companies that have rents and mortgages to pay that are the most vulnerable, Jordy said.

Take, for example, the Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden. “Although we had the most successful year in our history in 2019 and we have cut expenses to the bare minimum, we still have a monthly overhead of roughly $20,000 that we have to keep paying,” said Executive Artistic Director Len Matheo.

The cutting-edge dance company Wonderbound, on the other hand, has no rent to pay because longtime company supporters Brooke and Tom Gordon put them into a massive new space on East 40th Avenue and York Street in 2018.

“We are incredibly fortunate to be stable for the moment,” Artistic Director Garrett Ammon said. “But if we're not able to start bringing in revenue down the road, our reserve will run out really fast.”

One major source of hope is the SCFD, which, Jordy said, “has proven to be much more resilient than we had feared” so far in 2020. Payouts to organizations are determined by metro sales tax, which fell only 9% from March through June – much less than expected. Year-to-date, SCFD revenue is down just 4.6% over 2019.

That is especially good news for the smallest SCFD arts organizations, which receive their one-time annual payouts on Oct. 1. Managing Director Mica Garcia de Benavidez said Su Teatro had expected to receive $130,000 from the SCFD before COVID-19, and it now expects to get $109,000 – a drop of “only” 16.2%.

“It's a lifeline,” Garcia said. “The cut isn't as significant as we expected. And that money matters more now than in years past, because nothing else is guaranteed right now.”

How companies are pivoting

Individual artists are not the only ones who have had to pivot like Pavlova in 2020. When the shutdown began, arts organizations quickly adopted one of two strategies: The Denver Center, which typically serves 1 million a year and generates a $193 million economic impact, has essentially shut down live performances until the need for social distancing is over, and for one simple reason: Ticket sales make up only about 36% of what it costs to present theater in full houses, much less for those where audiences must be kept 6 feet apart.

“It makes zero economic sense” to produce theater right now with social distancing measures in place, DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman told The New York Times in May. Last week, the DCPA told employees that furloughs that are already scheduled to extend into 2021 might go longer, and that its own DCPA Theatre Company’s return might have to be further delayed beyond the start of the 2021-22 season next fall. Denver Center Director of Communications Suzanne Yoe says it is impossible to know now when touring productions might resume when Broadway itself faces its own gradual return to normal throughout 2021. So it will remain largely quiet at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

“Everything is in a holding pattern,” Yoe said. “But we have not made any cancellations beyond the end of the year, and we are in constant conversations with our Broadway partners about next steps.”

But since the shutdown began in March, most area arts organizations have scrambled to present original programming both online and outdoors in increasingly clever and creatively realized ways. The Colorado Symphony garnered worldwide attention when it quickly came out with a sheltered performance of “Ode to Joy” that now has more than half a million views. Denver Film has created a new virtual platform that will turn the 2021 Denver Film Festival into an on-demand service with no waiting in line and no sold-out screenings.

The Arvada Center is replacing its planned fall indoor theater season with three old-fashioned radio plays. The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is launching a 12-part audio anthology series telling original stories converging around Pikes Peak. The “Art Finds Us” mobile-art program brought performers to Saint Joseph Hospital, Youth on Record, Union Station, grocery stores, coffee shops and more this summer.

Some companies are now saying that pivoting to digital has had some upside, including the ability to make online classes and conversations available to worldwide audiences. When the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and Off-Center moved their popular “Mixed Taste” summer lecture series to the web, it drew audiences from as far away as India and Vietnam.

“Before, it would have been extremely difficult for us to organize a talk between the Harlem-based artist Nari Ward and the architect Sir David Adjaye OBE, who is currently based in Ghana,” MCA Director Nora Burnett Abrams said. “But because they met virtually, people from all over the world tuned in. Since the beginning of the pandemic, MCA Denver has tried to use this unique time to tap into our risk-taking roots and try new things, and we’re eager to keep exploring the possibilities and continuing to be adaptive to this unprecedented time."

Similarly, Wonderbound has used the break from live performances to more fully explore the creative potential of video by producing an animated music video for the local Americana band Gasoline Lollipops, as well as a 10-minute, form-bending cinematic short film scored by Denver’s Chimney Choir. It features Wonderbound dancers performing on area rooftops to “projection mapping” – which is essentially film beamed onto any irregularly shaped surface.

“We're proud of what we’ve done, and we see huge opportunities to lean into more of that in the future now that we have that  in our bag of tricks,” Ammon said. “At the same time, these projects are not in any way sustainable. Of all the companies putting beautiful work online, no one is sharing their numbers, because no one is making any money off of it. We haven't made an effort to monetize our videos as of yet because we’re just want to continue to serve the community in a moment when there is so little available in terms of live entertainment.”

The murky way forward

Most industry officials say the state of the arts going forward will largely be determined in the next few days, when Congress is expected to act – or not – on the Save Our Stages Act and two competing versions of the next COVID stimulus package.

“In order to save this vital part of Colorado's historic identity, we need an infusion of a significant amount of financial support from state and federal levels,” Hunt said. “We need a movement.” And if nothing happens, Day added, “that will be catastrophic.”

With so many unknowns, including unemployment benefits, the impact of winter and the progress of a vaccine, only one thing seems certain right now: “No one, from the largest organization to the smallest, is going to come out of this looking anything like they did when this started,” Jordy said. 

Those arts organizations that do survive will be coming back historically cash-poor, so audiences can most likely expect a period of safe and presumably high-revenue programming. But after nearly every local arts organization pledged its support to the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the George Floyd murder, social-justice advocates also will be watching to see whether those same organizations follow through with appreciable changes to programming and staffing.

Day will be watching to see that those who are charged with planning the state’s overall comeback strategy do so with a place for arts and culture at the table. Not as a subsidy, she said, but as a driver.

“This sector is vital to our state's economic recovery,” she said.

Note: This article has been updated to clarify the Denver Center's timeline on furloughs and the return of touring productions.

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