A view of art and culture in the Mile High City

A view of art and culture in the Mile High City

Trained as an urban planner, Ginger White Brunetti is now the deputy director of Denver Arts & Venues, a municipal agency whose remit ranges from managing the Red Rocks Amphitheatre to planning neighborhood-based arts programs. I asked for her perspective on Denver’s cultural landscape.

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

Nationally there’s has been a conversation around placemaking which is somewhat new and evolving; it’s certainly a big movement at this intersection of arts, culture, and urbanism. Part of placemaking is about reflecting the authenticity of a place, but part is thinking about hyper-local economies and how arts and culture support them.

Denver Cinco de Mayo festival. Image: Pravesvuth Uoaranukraw by CC NC SA 2.0

Denver Cinco de Mayo festival. Image: Pravesvuth Uoaranukraw by CC NC SA 2.0

Along those same lines, there’s also widespread interest in arts or cultural districts, which is a broader overlay of this idea of placemaking.

Denver has certainly been part of that national and international movement looking into what the colocation of creative business means spatially and what it means for those communities, both from a displacement point of view and a placemaking point of view.

Denver, like a lot of cities, is thinking about those two things in a very tangible way. There are certainly equity issues that come up in this conversation around placemaking and arts and culture because of the issue of displacement. And then some people say, well, these places were always special before; what is it that a city agency is doing to make them now sanctioned as special? So that’s been an interesting dialogue.

Denver murals. Image: Chris Goldberg by CC by NC 2.0

Denver murals. Image: Chris Goldberg by CC by NC 2.0

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. 

When did that start to change?

Certainly it was happening before 2008. Denver’s real estate market was incredibly hot and pretty speculative leading up to 2008, so arts districts had been emerging. I arrived on the scene in 2004, so I can’t really comment before that, at least from personal experience. But certainly those organizations were really beginning to emerge as players within particular neighborhoods, and also making inroads with the City.

And then 2008 happened and everyone, for obvious reasons, went back into their corners. I think that retrenchment provided an opportunity for these organizations to become more proactive. They used that time to get organized.

In terms of things like protecting their spaces for the long term? Protecting themselves against displacement?

Yes, and formalizing their organizations, and getting those organizations better positioned to be at the table with the City when it comes to things like streetscape improvements that support neighborhood businesses.

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.

Art studios in Denver's River North Arts District. Image: Matt Mordfin CC by SA 2.0

Art studios in Denver's River North Arts District. Image: Matt Mordfin CC by SA 2.0

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.

 

Top image: Robert Kash CC by 2.0

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