The Artist’s Way: Making Denver a Better Place for Creatives

At 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, the Mercury Cafe is filled with the sounds of Denver in decompression mode. The steam of the espresso maker, orders called to the kitchen, clinks of champagne flutes lifted and toasted around tables packed with tired friends. In the corner of the red-hued Rose Room, where murals cover every inch of the brick walls, a young man in a vest and a bow tie plays pop tunes on a beat-up baby grand.

Denver tends to have an energetic hangover on Sunday. These days, weekends are a blur of activity: Almost too much to do, to choose from. On this particular weekend, there were more than 100 shows at local music venues. Festivals. Markets. Downtown at the Denver Performing Arts Center, all three major companies were in swing: Dvorák’s New World Symphony at Boettcher Concert Hall, The Scarlet Letter at Opera Colorado and DeVotchKa closing out a celebrated run as the house band for Sweeney Todd, a concept born, bred and staged in Denver.

Two miles east, Illegal Pete’s — a restaurant chain that also runs an artist-friendly record label and supports dozens of nonprofits — celebrated the opening of a new location on Colfax with beer, music and burritos. At Buntport Theater in the Art District on Santa Fe, the company presented Greetings from Camp Katabasis, its third original play in three months. Around the corner at Colorado Ballet‘s new Armstrong Center for Dance, local company Spoke N Motion paired dancers with disabilities, some of them in wheelchairs, with able-bodied company members for a two-show run of UnVeil. And three days after they trekked to Red Rocks Amphitheatre for a sold-out tribute to Prince, 10,000 fans continued to nurse sore muscles and savor memories of local artists tearing it up on that world-famous stage.

This is just a partial list, but a good sample of the current flavor of Denver arts and culture — collaborative, community-oriented, creative — brought to you by people who work really hard: actors, dancers, sound engineers, stagehands, writers, roadies, accompanists, dressers, violists, grips, caterers, ushers, executive directors. Your neighbors, fellow grocery store shoppers, people behind you in line at the DMV. People serving grilled tofu and organic coffee at the Mercury Cafe.

The impact of the arts

In the swelling city, things to do and be part of have grown exponentially over the past few years, along with the population. (There were about 100,000 newcomers in 2015, a statistic that’s both a lament and a mantra, depending on whom you talk to.) So has the role of the arts in the evolving discussion about the character of a changing Denver. Over the past eight months, Confluence Denver has explored the cultural moment in metro Denver through a series of stories that looked at cultural and racial access (or lack thereof) to and in the arts and ways in which local artists and activists use creative work to tackle social issues, including homelessness and civic engagement. We explored Denver’s next art hotspots and transit-oriented art along the city’s rail lines. We reported on large-scale public art projects that utilize technology and public space to bring people together and create cohesion and a sense of place. And we wrote about an initiative empowering young artists of color to step out of the studio and the rehearsal space and into positions of influence, as poet Molina Speaks did last fall when he visited members of Congress in Washington, D.C.

For this final installment, we narrowed the focus to artists themselves — the ground troops behind an economic engine worth about $2 billion statewide, according to the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts. What do they need to do their best work? What worries them? What practical tools would help their creative lives? We asked.

Admittedly, our survey is much less formal and statistically sound than recent outreach efforts, including Denver Arts & Venues’ Imagine 2020 public input campaign, which influenced new professional development programs and grants like P.S. You Are Here, which funds projects by artists working in the public sphere. Our is not a complex needs assessment, like the one that led Colorado Creative Industries to create a career advancement fund for individual artists, or implement the statewide Space to Create initiative.

But the themes were common enough to suggest Denver artists are deeply engaged in figuring out how to make it without losing their sense of self, or their shirts. Based on what we heard, the number one thing on artists’ minds? The same thing on the minds of many Denverites faced with the triple threats of gentrification — which displaces creative types from neighborhoods they help to make appealing to more mainstream, moneyed homebuyers — increased rent and real estate prices, and a shortage of places to dwell and work.

The artists’ voices

Here’s some of what we heard, straight from the mouths of real live creative folks who love, work, create and struggle among us:

“Affordable space and housing. I think the idea of shared space is great, but it isn’t a panacea. Public transportation and parking for events and venues is also an issue. People hesitate to attend an event if they think parking is going to be difficult and public transportation isn’t treated as an essential accessible asset to the general growth of the city.” — Wendy Littlepage, executive director, Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys

Theo Wilson, a.k.a. Lucifury

“I really miss the Rocky Mountain News, and just coverage of arts, books, theater, and music in general. I’m writing book reviews for newspapers in other states. I wish there was a publication in Colorado that would still feature them.”Jenny Shank, author and instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop

“When we started out, in our twenties, you were almost looked down on if you got paid for your art. Now it’s like the chic thing. Even if you’re doing some corporate gig, you have to get paid. The rents are just too damn high. We all got tired of being broke and riding buses. I get paid for my spoken word, my acting and now my singing, but it’s not enough. The feast-and-famine cycle had me in famine more often than not, so I had to get a day job.” — Theo Wilson, a.k.a. Lucifury, poet/activist/actor/journalist, Denver Urban Spectrum

“We need business and tax counseling tailored to freelancers and collective bargaining on health insurance.” — Ron Doyle, writer/developer, Me, Myself & I and co-host, The Narrators

“Better support is needed in the public schools for arts of all kinds. They aren’t taken seriously at all.” — Jason Schafer, principal clarinet, Colorado Symphony, and adjunct faculty, University of Northern Colorado

“Affordable performance and rehearsal space that is available forever (or far far into the future)! So many small theatres are doomed to being converted into law firms and grow houses and other more lucrative spaces. I think this is the single most important need for Denver theatre. And I so so wish I had the resources to pay actors/directors/designers (and maybe myself?) properly. If the space problem were solved, there would likely be more money to pay artists.” — Ellen K. Graham, writer/playwright/founder, Feral Assembly

Kheya Lenay Yeager seeks solidarity.

“Specific to Denver, I love the writing community at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and wish there was something like it for visual artists. I often feel totally isolated as a painter and unsure where to go/what to do next. I’m also lacking a venue/gallery that is a good match for me to show and sell my art and I don’t like the idea of selling online. But I think the art in Denver is progressive and exciting. I’ve asked myself why I do it many times and I guess the answer is that I love the challenge and reward of the artistic process itself, which is extremely engaging. It’s sad that there are literally no other rewards and I’m sure all artists would change that if they could.” Brenda Muller Ellis, painter/writer/app developer

“I want a place to cook and meet with dope musicians to do projects. We have big ideas but we only meet up for wack food and drinks. A place to be loud and weird. Safe and easy to get to. Public transportation is horrible here. Lots of great musical people live in Aurora and have no way of getting home. Remember this town is small. We can take over. We are powerful and we will do what we love.” Kheya Lenay Yeager, rapper/producer

“Being valued would be a start. More than a pat on the head mentality from both the city and state levels. Maybe purchasing local artists for massive pieces would help. Housing is the most obvious issue. Aurora is becoming a far better artistic hub than Denver-but even there it is so expensive. Also, companies asking for ‘unpaid internships’ that are really ‘entry-level jobs’ would be helpful.” — Samantha Emerson, photographer, Sammy Emerson Photography

“A much higher minimum wage, income-based bus passes (RTD receives 80 percent of their funds from government grants, can’t they afford this courtesy? Though I think the bus should be free to be honest), free or very affordable space for artists, and an accessible, safe and all ages friendly show space that fits 300 people would be awesome, not just for Titwrench fest but for all the other folks out there tired of shows at loud, chatty venues where you have to pay $7 for a beer and pay for a dang bottle of water to boot.” — Sarah Slater, writer/co-founder Titwrench women’s music festival

Buntport Theater’s Erin Rollman performs in the one-woman “Rembrandt Room.”

“I wish that more arts funding was simply about meeting and supporting the artists where they reside artistically instead of asking their art to tick specific boxes. Affordable performance/rehearsal/studio space that had staying power would be amazing. I miss the amount of arts coverage that used to exist.” — Erin Rollman, founding member, Buntport Theater and co-creator/star, The Rembrandt Room

“If you’re in the arts and you are going to manage to live, you have to be entrepreneurial, more than ever. You have do a lot of different things, have lots of sources of income and keep costs as low as possible. But that is getting harder and harder. Rents are so high, you’re working 60 hours a week just to pay your mortgage or rent. I think there needs to be some protection for musicians and just poor people in general. On the devil’s advocate side, you’ve got more companies, more gigs, more need for music, more people from out of state who love going out. We’re getting them to love these local bands. There are more festivals, more corporate gigs. Back in the day, it was hard to get 100 people to show up if you weren’t a cover band. Now, there’s 100,00 more people who will buy tickets to shows, go see local bands. 100,000 more people who might have a wedding. It’s a double-edged sword.” Andy Rok Guerrero, producer, musician, Andy Rok and the Real Deal, and adjunct faculty, University of Colorado at Denver

Artist Lauri Lynnxe Murphy is on the horn.

“We don’t actually have grants for artists in Colorado, the way other states do. I have been harping on this forever. It actually cripples artists in competing nationally for grants to not have smaller local grants to go after first. Along with that, Denver, put your money where your mouth is! Buy art, and stop expecting deep discounts and one-hundred-dollar paintings. Understand that we need your support to continue enriching your community and beautifying your world. SUPPORT US. Not just by showing up and drinking our wine, but actually buy things — every artist I know is happy to set up payment plans, you know!”Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, artist

“My artistic life is the most important part of my life — besides my family — but 90 percent of my energy goes toward making a living, and I’m fortunate to have bought a house 15-plus years ago. I miss Denver’s old smallness so much. I’m usually not energized to go out to art events because it feels like a competitive sport — fight for tickets, fight traffic, fight for parking, try to find a place to grab a drink/dinner before — and then when I get there, not have fun and have people be unfriendly. I’d rather be home in the couch with the dog (call me ‘Fogey’). I think we need more accessible bars and restaurants to hang out in, and better communication for like-minded people. Sometimes I hear about the events I want to go to only after the fact. Or I think, ‘I wish I knew X type of people,’ but I don’t know where to find them. Maybe I need a new kind of networking that’s fun and interesting without too much pressure.” Susanna Donato, writer

Andy Ard

Small business development aimed at artist careers. We’re tasked with doing all our own accounting, booking, management, promotion, social media and the art itself — all for a market that often doesn’t value it as a valuable product. However, artists contribute greatly to the revenues and tax base of local economies and we’d like some credit for that. We would do well to help artists build their businesses. That Colorado is an island [from other metropolitan areas] presents both an obstacle and an opportunity. Why do I do it? I cannot stop doing it.” Andy Ard, songwriter/musician

“Opportunities for publishing and venues where art can be shared that are not cliquish but truly inclusive of all. A focus on art as identity for the city. A place where all are initiated into the writing scene, not just favorites, where things are lateral not hierarchical. Where you don’t have to be chosen but are warmly supported and brought into the fold immediately because you want to be there and so you’re included. Also more options that include those who don’t drink alcohol (more and more of us), less drinking culture, more alternatives. And I write because I’m compelled. I also paint. Life and art are the same thing to me. Art saves lives, and cities, too.” Kelly Thompson, writer

“As Denver has grown more expensive, I spend way more time than I used to hustling for cash, working jobs, taking on freelance projects that I would have turned my nose up at before. My life used to be about making art; now it’s about making money. It becomes harder and harder to gain the level of focus that long days in the studio used to afford, and by the time I get one of those days, I’m usually too exhausted to make good use of it.” — Lauri Lynnxe Murphy

“Affordable housing would make a world of difference.” Suzi Q. Smith, writer/poet/educator, Youth on Record

Andy Rok Guerrero performs.

“It’s getting as expensive to live here as it is in New York, Chicago, LA or Nashville, but Colorado doesn’t yet have the industry to support the music. I’ve known people who’ve moved out to Nashville, and they’re not living high on the hog, but they’re figuring it out, getting a writing deal or a publishing deal here or there, because it’s a music town. I love Colorado, I love my home and it’s hard to leave my home. I stay because I want it to be great. But I know that if I hustled anywhere else like I hustle here, I’d be doing a little bit better.” — Andy Rok Guerrero

“More discerning venues showcasing arts and paying artists accordingly. There are too many pay-to-play galleries and co-ops and not enough galleries and venues that are trying to bring in well known artists/shows. Galleries on Santa Fe and in other ‘arty’ areas are not even open most weekdays, so are they even selling art? I see Denver in a growing phase in terms of visual arts. We have quite a few museums, but they default to what they think people want to see. The few established galleries have good reputations, but I think there is a First Friday culture that wants free wine and cheese and is not purchasing. The obstacles are in badly curated and juried shows — I have seen some shockingly bad art exhibits and it makes me lose respect the venue. I see opportunities in the other outlets for selling work, such as the punk rock flea market, the various cons and even artists branching out to art trucks and pop-up shows.” — Krista Hanley, writer/photographer/museum professional

“I wish I got paid a living wage to do what I do, because covering arts/music/life in Denver is my passion. I understand that a lot of the trade-off to my work is that I get to see amazing shows, art openings, performances, etc. But a little more money to be a writer/reporter who covers Denver extensively, documents the city and gives needed exposure to the local arts community would make a world of difference to my everyday life.”Bree Davies, writer

“I feel like I am watching my community both grow and disappear simultaneously. Cherished institutions and friends slip away and move, new venues open and people come in . . . but everyone I know is stressed, and heartbroken, and constantly talking about all the changes. So many people are struggling. Some are doing well, though I don’t ever get a feeling that there has been some huge influx of cash into the art world here. Some places like RedLine and The Temple are growing to become a good center for us, and yet, I feel like as the scene has gotten larger it has inevitably broken off into cliques. I miss the feeling that existed before of the close-knit scene that was here, where it was possible for everyone to know everyone. Some of that feeling still exists, and yet, as we’ve grown it feels more and more like there are different scenes competing with one another as opposed to one big one. Maybe that’s good, maybe it’s bad, but it feels different.” — Lauri Lynnxe Murphy

“People are moving here for weed. The culture here is to get high. They don’t know that this place has so much richness, and they don’t care. People don’t want to know about the Bill Pickett Rodeo, about Corky Gonzales, about the community and the culture of activists here, like myself. They need to learn about why we were dope in the first place.” — Theo Wilson

This story is part of a series on the impact of arts and the creative community in Denver. This partnership with Confluence Denver and Creative Exchange is underwritten by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

Bonfils Stanton