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Coronavirus killed 59,179 arts jobs in Colorado and crippled key economic and cultural engines. Can they be revived?

Local philanthropists are working on grants to support artists, venues and groups. But one study suggests reviving a massive, national New Deal-like program.

DENVER, CO - AUGUST 13: Julia Hays, an instructor at Swallow Hill Music, cues up a microphone and arranges a computer so she can lead one of her students remotely through their fiddle lessons on Aug. 13, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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While it may not feel as urgent as an eviction notice or the fear of food scarcity, the devastation of the arts and culture scene due to the coronavirus pandemic portends long-term ripple effects.

The arts in Colorado are a powerful economic driver as well as a defining aspect of our community and fuel for our humanity. The industry, from the tiniest experimental theater to the grandest outdoor music venue, is experiencing cancellations, postponements, layoffs and unsustainable revenue losses.

Locally, philanthropy is boosting some arts and culture groups. Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and The Denver Foundation in March established a COVID-19 emergency fund for metro Denver’s small and mid-sized arts and culture organizations.

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And last week, a program called Arts in Society, funded by Bonfils-Stanton and other organizations and managed by RedLine Contemporary Art Center, granted $495,000 to 32 Colorado artists and organizations in an accelerated second round of funding.

Nationally, a Brookings Institute study tracked the job and financial losses and called for a New Deal-era sort of Federal Arts Project to save the arts.

“The current pandemic has generated a crushing blow to most arts organizations, and those without wealthy boards or large endowments often have relatively modest cash reserves to weather a storm of this magnitude,” Bonfils-Stanton Foundation CEO Gary Steuer said in an email exchange. “Their very existence can be threatened, and their loss would deeply diminish our community, and be difficult if not impossible to recover from.”

Supporters of the arts contend that, while health care, housing and food banks take precedence during a pandemic, cultural assets from nightspots to fringe theater groups deserve attention, too.

MORE: Colorado theater companies are clinging to life and worry coronavirus will mean shows cannot go on

“I think it is both/and, not either/or. The Governor’s Fund and other philanthropic efforts are absolutely focusing on health care, housing, food insecurity and these are vitally important,” Steuer wrote, referring to a statewide relief fund that has raised $16 million. “There are also efforts focused on providing emergency relief to individual artists, many of which have lost all sources of income (because their ‘day job’ might be as a waiter or other position that has also been lost). 

“But this fund,” Steuer wrote of the Bonfils-Stanton grants, “was created to address a challenge not being addressed by any of these other relief funds — how do we preserve the cultural organizations that employ these artists, that make life worth living, provide programs for our children, help illuminate social justice issues?”

Lost art: national devastation

Nationwide, the pandemic has caused losses of 2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in sales of goods and services for creative industries, according to a study released Aug. 11 by the Brookings Institute. That’s nearly a third of all jobs in those industries and 9% of annual sales. The fine and performing arts industries will be hit hardest, the authors predict, suffering estimated losses of almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales.

The grim report by author Richard Florida in partnership with Michael Seman, of Colorado State University’s LEAP Institute for the Arts, said while all areas of the U.S. will be affected by the COVID-19 crisis, “The West and the Northeast will be hit hardest in terms of estimated losses of sales revenues for the creative industries.”

Members of the Colorado Ballet are cast in silhouette against a window during rehearsal for their upcoming performances of The Wizard of Oz on Friday, Dec. 11, 2019, at Armstrong Center for Dance in Denver. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado is estimated to have lost 59,179 arts jobs from April to July. Denver lost an estimated 32,464 in that period, per the Brookings study. And the cancellations keep piling up. Colorado Ballet has announced there will be no 60th anniversary performances of “The Nutcracker,” a show that is a major source of revenue or the company and of holiday cheer for Colorado families. The company has launched its own relief and recovery fund with a $3 million goal.

“The creative economy is one of the sectors most at risk from the COVID-19 crisis. Arts, culture and creativity are one of three key sectors (along with science and technology as well as business and management) that drive regional economies,” the Brookings report concluded. “Any lasting damage to the creative sector will drastically undercut our culture, well-being, and quality of life.”

The authors call for a New Deal-type Federal Art Project to support the arts, similar to the Works Progress Administration projects to support the visual arts during the Depression. “The initial round of federal COVID-19 relief funding did include money for artists and creatives who are paid wages, but not for those who earn income through royalties. It is time to consider direct stipends for artists, something that the National Endowment for the Arts is not permitted to do.”

Grants, fundraisers to the rescue

Virtually all performing arts organizations and facilities remain closed with few projected opening dates. They’re dabbling in online programming and investing what they can to keep going without earned income.

The Arts in Society program aims to boost artists and nonprofits working at the intersection of arts, education and social justice. Recipients include a youth project from 5Point Film in Carbondale; International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management; La Alma Community Mural Project; Motus Theater for “JustUs: Stories from the Frontlines of the Criminal Justice System”; Colorado Black Arts Movement; and Warm Cookies of the Revolution.

The Bonfils-Stanton Foundation has awarded an initial round of grants to sustain arts organizations — many of them minority-focused and based outside of Denver. This month 42 groups were named to share emergency funding, totaling $1.2 million. A second round is anticipated this fall.

First-round recipients include Phamaly Theatre, RedLine, Chicano Humanities and Arts Council, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Denver March Powwow, Swallow Hill Music and Vintage Theatre.

Swallow Hill, which received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan of $350,000 to $1 million, offers a hopeful take on a dire situation.

“The $30,000 Bonfils grant is part of the lifeline for us during this closure,” Swallow Hill CEO Paul Lhevine said. But his is among the nimble groups that have made the most of the tough times. The “silver lining of COVID,” he said, is that it forced improvisation: Lhevine shifted gears to launch an online music school.

“In March, when we first closed down, we took drastic measures,” including cutting full-time staff to 13 from 23. It took two months but the online music school now has 250 students, putting 38 teachers back to work.

“We see growth,” Lhevine said. “We’re not where we would be (500-600 students) but with the first online music school, this is a great position to be in.”

Virginia Anderson, an instructor of voice, guitar, recorder and piano, prepares to lead one of her students through an online piano lesson at Swallow Hill Music. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In May, the group rolled out a series of live performances on Facebook Live, asking for contributions to be split with the artist, though it’s more about audience development than money.

“We’re now 80 shows in and have raised more than $25,000 from 41 different states. We’re no longer a Front Range folk music organization. We are a national folk music organization producing amazing shows,” he said. “A third of our artists are from out of state.”

The emergency arts grant, he said, “allows us the breathing room to continue to build these online programs.”

When Swallow Hill reopens in person, he hopes to have 300 audience members plus thousands nationally, live-streamed. “These programs that we’re creating don’t go away.”

Overall, he said, “those organizations that are going to drive change and adapt to it, they’re the ones that are going to thrive.”

In the local theater world, “our extended intermission is about to be over,” Craig Bond, executive director of Vintage Theatre, said. Vintage received a $20,000 grant from Bonfils-Stanton.

“Our goal is trying to open Oct. 2 or a few weeks after that,” Bond said, adding that since going dark in March, “we’ve used this time to our advantage as much as possible.” 

Bond’s staff has worked with volunteers and interns, sorting props, replacing air filters and “doing deep cleanses all through the theater.”

While artists and audiences agree there’s no substitute for live performances, there have been a few attempts: The Colorado Music Relief Fund’s televised and streaming event, “Banding Together,” raised $625,000 and The Lumineers-hosted livestream event, “Colorado Gives Back,” raised over $600,000.

For now, drive-in movies have replaced the revered live concerts at Red Rocks. An Adams County billboard flashes: “The Styx concert, originally scheduled for Sept. 12, 2020, at Riverdale Regional Park, has been postponed to Sept. 11, 2021, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”

Some visual arts organizations have started admitting visitors on a limited, timed ticket basis, including Denver Art Museum, Museum of Nature & Science, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and Museo de las Americas. Performing arts venues remain shuttered.

Online events and classes are placeholders for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. But cascading effects are everywhere: Rialto Café, located down the street from the Denver Center and a reliable pre- and post-theater watering hole for 23 years, closed on Sunday.

Losses throughout the creative community reach well beyond the headliners, from sound engineers to lighting designers — to waiters and bartenders. 

Consider every freelance artist or actor working other gigs to support their creative side. “There are also thousands working full-time in creative occupations in industries like outdoor recreation, hospitality, travel and retail, which are currently experiencing their own challenging COVID-19 crisis scenarios,” CSU’s Seman wrote in a report for Colorado Creative Industries.

‘Super scary’

Some smaller stages in town are working hard to stay optimistic.

Alex Weimer, executive artistic director of The Bug Theatre, said, “we’re taking this time to fix up the joint, awaiting guidelines from the city.”

With 160 seats, The Bug is a nonprofit not looking to do anything more than survive. It’s not about breaking even — at least not at first. “People are hungry to go out and see something,” he said.  “Could we go under? Yes. We are struggling just like everybody. We can stick it out for a while….It’s super scary.”

Bond, of Aurora’s Vintage Theatre said, his venue is having a great year with grants, “but we are desperate to be open.”

Surveying the local theater scene, Bond predicts “there will be some casualties over this, a few companies that won’t be able to recover.”

With small casts, limited seating, affordable rent and productions selected to minimize expense, small theaters may get by.

A large venue like the Arvada Center with nearly 600 seats and a requirement to maintain Actors Equity status, faces a different challenge.

Both the DCPA and Arvada Center are required to hire a certain number of union members before hiring non-union members. They are awaiting guidance from the professional actors union and local government on how stage productions can proceed.

This year’s Arvada Center Teen Intensive sent students age 14 to 18 outdoors to rehearse “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in the complex’s large outdoor amphitheater. The student actors also were challenged by singing Stephen Sondheim’s complex lyrics through a mask. (Leslie Simon, Arvada Center)

DCPA canceled its 2020-21 season; Arvada Center hopes to offer a half season, February through June. Currently the Arvada Center is down 22% from its pre-pandemic budget. 

“Nobody knows when we’ll be allowed to move forward with the union, with an economic model that makes sense,” Arvada Center President and CEO Philip Sneed said.

In the meantime, “We will sell 130 tickets to the 1,600-seat amphitheater,” Sneed  added, to allow for social distancing. “That’s the nature of these things today.”

The Arvada Center’s art galleries are open for masked, timed visits. The teen intensive summer musical camp performed “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” outdoors and masked, other outdoor events continue, and the center is selling subscriptions for spring.

“I’m sure everybody realizes conditions may or may not permit us to perform,” Sneed said. For the indoor main stage: “We can’t afford to do it if we can only sell 100 seats.”

The Arvada Center is ineligible for some COVID grants because it is too big and didn’t get a Bonfils emergency grant — understandably, Sneed said, because those went primarily to groups that stress diversity.

“I know that hope is not a strategy but we have to move ahead,” Sneed said. “If we have to cancel, we’ll cancel.”

Meanwhile in Aurora, Vintage Theatre’s Bond said, “I feel for the DCPA and Arvada Center. We can play to 50 people and make money. The spry little guy is poised to come through this.”


CORRECTION: This story was updated Aug. 17, 2020, at 9:30 a.m. to properly identify the organization managing the Arts in Society program. It is run through RedLine Contemporary Art Center.


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