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Posted: March 01, 2012

Painting the town black

Colorado’s arts community regains footing with help from business

Cathie Beck

The thing to know about Colorado’s business and arts communities is that playing well together helps both thrive. Though media headlines scream daily of economic strife and record unemployment, mom-and-pop shops and corporations alike want their local arts communities to flourish, so much so, they put skin in the game.

Robert Roehl owns and runs Tenn Street Coffee and Books and pours time, money, energy and most every available resource of his long-recognized Tennyson Street Cultural District shop toward supporting and showcasing artists across several disciplines.

"We participate in the citywide First Friday Art Walks, but our in-house gallery, Tenn Street ART, hosts monthly art shows featuring both emerging and seasoned artists," Roehl says. Sharon Meriash, a Denver photographer and artist, curates Tenn Street ART’s shows, along with invited jurors.  

"But we also back the local music scene," he adds. "We book musicians every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We do a lot of promoting of our musicians and artists, who sell their work here."

The J.W. Marriott Denver Cherry Creek also threw monetary muscle into the local arts scene. "In May 2011, The J.W. Marriott undertook a $5 million renovation that involved redoing all guest rooms," says Julie Dunn, spokeswoman for Sage Hospitality, which manages the hotel.

"The hotel purchased over 600 pieces featuring all Colorado artists," she says. "We wanted to make a mark and be locally focused."

That sort of economic infusion directly into artists and their work helps keep arts communities, including those outside Denver and the I-70 corridor, alive. Sheri Rochford Figgs, executive director of the Durango Arts Center, has never been more optimistic about the mountain town’s arts economy. "We feel confident," she says. "We have a vibrant community engaged in supporting the arts. In 2007 we had 400 benefactors; now we have 868."

At the opposite end of the arts venue size-scale is the Denver Art Museum, the facility bringing the globally recognized "Yves St. Laurent-Retrospective" exhibit in late March. "We’re doing well and meeting all our economic benchmarks," says Kristy Bassuener, the museum’s director of communications.

"We’re always looking to be creative with fundraising and programming," she says "It must feel fresh and relevant. We’re more focused now on drop-in programming versus registering for camps. It’s a new and fun approach. It’s about evolving with our audience."

Many credit the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) as the Colorado arts community’s godsend. Cities around the country often envy and sometimes emulate the SCFD’s model of fiscal support and endurance. Since 1989, the SCFD has distributed funds from a one-tenth of 1 percent sales-and-use tax to cultural facilities throughout the seven-county Denver area. To date, more than 300 organizations have received more than $40 million in donations.

P.J. D’Amico, executive director of Redline, hopes SCFD funding is in the art gallery’s future, but in the meantime he relies upon many streams of revenue, including corporate support. "Redline is a space where arts, arts education and the community converge," he says. "We’re funded through foundations, individual donors, and exhibits aligned with corporate marketing."

Redline is partnering with the RBC Wealth Management Private Collection to exhibit its private collection, "Human Touch," beginning March 17.

"These are lean times, but we’re making it through," D’Amico says. "The challenge for arts is that when you’re in a recession, art becomes, in a sense, a stepchild for business owners who are more focused on immediate emergency business needs."

Long established artistic entities like the Colorado Symphony (90 years running) and the Colorado Ballet (founded in 1951), have managed to rise up and re-engineer, bringing their organizations back from the near-economic dead.

Gene Sobczak, Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s CEO, implemented what he calls "The 100 Days" to help turn the orchestra’s financial picture from bleak to blossoming. "I use the phrase with my colleagues because it encapsulates the last three months’ unique model of collaboration — from trustees to musicians to board members and others — who have, together, accomplished all the work we’ve done," he says.

"The good news is that since the story (of the CSO’s economic troubles) broke last summer, we’ve had corporate and private support not just commit to their standing levels of support, but who’ve increased their giving," he says. "And we’ve got people donating whom we’ve never heard from. A 14-year-old girl raised $150 for the orchestra, and a 9-year-old boy sent in $40.

"We’re not going out of business," Sobczak says. "We have plans for the immediate, as well as for the long-term."

The Colorado Ballet also enjoyed a remarkable 2011 fiscal rebirth. Two-and-a-half years ago, the ballet faced a financial crisis that ultimately ushered in a new CEO, Marie Belew Wheatley. "It looks different now than it did a year ago," Wheatley says. "We are doing well, but we’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve had a pretty tough couple of years and a lot of operating debt on the books. We were at where the symphony was at a few months ago.

"But our board rolled up their sleeves and restructured," she says. "We started with $565,000 in operating debt for the fiscal year, July 1, 2010. By the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2011, that debt was down to $150,000. We continue to manage to budget, and it’s now down to less than $50,000. We owe the city some back rent, but we’ve made good on our commitments."

Part of the boost in rebalancing the ballet’s budget comes from high ticket sales over the past two years. "We set records with ‘The Nutcracker’ in 2010," Wheatley says. "That was followed by ‘Romeo & Juliet’ in spring 2011. We exceeded our ticket sales goal by 30 percent with ‘Romeo & Juliet.’"

"The same is true with ‘Swan Lake’ in fall 2011," she adds. "We blew it out of the water. We’re having a very strong season, and we’ve got ‘Peter Pan,’ a new ballet coming up, which is very exciting. It’s only the second time it’s been produced, and it sold out before it opened.

"When things were financially unstable, the benefactors waited in the wings," she says, "but with reorganizing and new leadership, we spent last year rebuilding stability and confidence in the ballet. Benefactors and funders came back. We saw them increase their giving. They like sound financial management."

Deborah Jordy, executive director for the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, also feels that not only are Colorado arts communities strong, they will likely stay that way, even when the overall economy takes a hit. "Colorado is simply a great state," she says. "And Denver is a great place in that people want to live and work here and attend the arts.

"The SCFD certainly puts us in a strong position," she adds, "but the corporate and the foundation communities are still interested in supporting the arts. Even though people are aware that times are tight, corporate funding isn’t going to go away."

However, Jordy notes that business as well as arts communities are rethinking how to be relevant and how to partner. "The recession has given the arts and business communities the opportunity to see how they can better partner."

And partnership is firmly the name of the business-and-arts playing together game. Community collaboration breeds economic development and enhanced quality of life for everyone. "We’re confident, even though we rely on a lean budget to keep the Durango arts scene thriving," Figgs says. "But we’re confident. We know that we have to have a community engaged in supporting both arts and business."

And Roehl couldn’t imagine his business without its deep commitment to arts. "Many artists and musicians have put in time to organize, promote, show and play at Tenn Street," he says. "Because of their presence here, and their continuing efforts, word-of-mouth has spread. More musicians want to play here than we can schedule.

"The same goes for the artists," he adds. "Since Sharon Meriash started Tenn Street ART a few years back, the quality of artists who show here and the quality of the art work has dramatically improved. More and more people learn of our phenomenon via word-of-mouth and all that continues and together contributes to an atmosphere that is our best product. 

"There are moments when it all comes together," he says. "And it’s very cool when it does." 

 

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