How does what you see going on in Denver relate to what’s happening in other cities?

... What’s somewhat unique about Denver is that its arts districts have all occurred organically. These are organizations and businesses that are either like-minded or have similar kinds of space needs. They banded together in terms of location, but then started creating their own brands and their own organizations—with minimal City intervention. It took a while for the City to acknowledge that these organizations, while not registered neighborhood organizations or other kids of formal structures, were actually neighborhood champions, and that the work that they were doing really supported other City efforts.

So it’s unlike other places in that way. Sometimes a City’s approach is like, “Oh, this is a blighted area. What can we to make this is a vibrant place again? I know, let’s create some gallery spaces and let’s turn this into an incubator.” Denver’s government did give loans to some of the creative small businesses that were in these districts, but it didn’t create specific overlay districts, artist housing, or other economic development tools targeted to arts and culture that we’ve seen in other cities. 

Is there one neighborhood where this kind of activity is concentrated?

There are actually two, and a third one’s now getting organized. One is called the River North Arts District, or RiNo, and the other is the Art District on Santa Fe.

The third is the Golden Triangle Museum District, where we have our Denver Art Museum, our history of Colorado museum, a new Vance Kirkland museum, a Clyfford Still museum. It’s really the cultural hub in Denver, at least from an institutional standpoint, but they haven’t quite flexed that muscle as a collective yet. They’re working on it.

I read a profile of you that touched on your interest in art involving social issues. Can you describe what you see going on in Denver on that front?

Arts & Venues isn’t a significant funder or granting agency, which is different than how other cities’ local arts agencies operate. But we do have a few grants that try to get to that issue. We have our IMAGINE 2020 Fund, which is tied to our cultural plan called IMAGINE 2020. Organizations and individuals can apply based on the goals of the cultural plan, such as accessibility and lifelong learning.

Another fund is called PS You Are Here. That helps business districts and neighborhood associations partner with artists to do placemaking activities in parks and right-of-ways in their neighborhoods.

And then the third is our mural arts program, the Urban Arts Fund. UAF typically has funded projects in underserved communities and graffiti hotspots, so it’s not too different from the Philadelphia mural program, but it’s relatively new to Denver. We’ve seen great success with artists working with Denver youth and providing them with a different kind of outlet and opportunity.

Broadly speaking, I think these funding programs get to what we’re grappling with as a country—we’re seeing more and more funders asking deep questions around how arts organizations are engaging their communities equitably.