Arts with Purpose: Catalyzing Civic Engagement in Denver

Pay no mind to the woman in tattered layers with dirt caked onto the hands with which she holds a cardboard sign. Disregard the worn-out sleeping bags strewn across the sidewalks and trash-bag suitcases that congregations of faceless men and women drag with them, perhaps their only belongings in the world.

Not engaging seems like a sound strategy: It’s self-preservation in the big city, right?

But if you mosey your way to Broadway and Park Avenue West in the northeast corner of downtown Denver, where three of the city’s human services organizations — Catholic Charities, Denver Rescue Mission and St. Francis Center — are within a few short blocks from one another. There, you just might fall prey to the inviting music and pitter-patter of ballet slippers, luring you to a set of open garage doors that instantly transform pedestrians into audience members.

If you can peel your eyes away from the studio rehearsal long enough to notice your surroundings again, you might realize that your fellow patrons are the same individuals you just ignored, and they’re equally mesmerized by the beauty of Wonderbound.

It hammers the point home: Arts and culture can promote understanding and prompt action to tackle the issues confronting our communities.

“I don’t think it’s possible to engage in the arts and not feel connected to something bigger — whether it’s watching a musical with thousands of your peers or taking in a piece of artwork that presents a new perspective,” says Meredith Badler, program manager for Colorado Business Committee for the Arts (CBCA). “The arts are an entry point for people to engage with your community through volunteer service, patronage, giving or just participation.”

Badler offers a recent example: CBCA recently honored Will Chan at the Denver Public Library during its annual awards luncheon. Chan serves as the program administrator for the Services to New Immigrants program and has been using the arts to aid in integration and assimilation to new populations.

“Their Plaza Passport program invites immigrant families to ‘check out’ museum passes so they can explore our cultural institutions without barriers,” Badler says. “In all of his programs, the arts are used as a universal language and a means to help a person or family holistically.”

Changing perception

Badler points to Wonderbound and other local arts entities — RedLine, Hope Tank and PlatteForum among them — that produce projects that explore and encourage social engagement.

Though not entirely intentionally, Wonderbound offers a gathering place around its works-in-motion. The audience is not divided by economic standing, race or any other “silos,” according to co-founder Dawn Fay.  “We didn’t enter into this thinking we were going to change the world, but we have changed perceptions.”

Under the leadership of Fay and her husband and co-founder, Garrett Ammon, the dance company has committed to creating and sharing its work to engage audiences in candid discoveries of the human experience.

When the duo set up shop in the “Junction Box” building, they were introduced to Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center. “He said there were some golden rules when it came to the diverse population in the neighborhood, and in particular the homeless community: Always be friendly, but they’re not your friends; don’t be afraid, but be cautious; and don’t disregard them — look at them as human beings.”

Throughout much of the year, during rehearsal hours, installations, classes and spontaneous performances, Wonderbound opens its doors to the public to promote equity and pride in the neighborhood. Fay says the homeless — who make up the majority of these impromptu performances’ audience — have “taken great ownership of us,” noting the typical stereotypes attached to the “elitist art form.”

“They watch us dance, and the beauty and imperfection of the process,” she adds. “Because our rehearsals are often open, they have some ownership of it. I think that makes them feel like they matter, their opinions matter. Most of them don’t have a sense of relevance.”

Fay says this attitude has permeated her team and the community around her. “It’s not uncommon to see one of our donors drive up in a Maserati and watch the same rehearsal as one of the homeless individuals in the area,” she says. “In those moments and beyond, there’s this newfound acceptance of vulnerability that produces the most amazing art.”

“A lot of our supporters have changed their perceptions of the homeless,” Fay continues. “They’ve become newly exposed to people who are very polite, very caring, very respectful, and it’s happened in an organic way by our mere existence here.”

She sums it up succinctly: “We’re promoting humanity.”

A basic human need

Gary Steuer, president of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, explained that Wonderbound’s openness and its work with children and seniors led to his foundation’s investment.

“Wonderbound is a great, new model of what a dance company can be,” he says.

The Denver-based Bonfils-Stanton Foundation shifted the entirety of its support — roughly $3 million per year — to the arts, in a bold move in late 2012. Today, the organization provides grant funding to between 45 and 50 arts entities each year, primarily in Denver.

“In the wake of the recession, we saw many funders not including the arts within their giving lines,” Steuer says. “Funders had made the decision that because of economic challenges of the 2009-to-2010 downturn, they had to focus on basic human needs. From our standpoint, the arts are a basic human need.”

When pressed to shed light on other artistic and cultural endeavors that support social missions or engagement, Steuer — who most recently served as the chief cultural officer and director of the Office of Arts, Culture & the Creative Economy for the City of Philadelphia — cites Youth on Record and Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and calls the family programming at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) “better than any other he had seen.”

Steuer adds that a combination of major institutions, like DAM, along with healthy, independent organizations embedded in individual communities can impact a more diverse audience and spur a willingness to become more involved. He echoed the IMAGINE 2020 cultural plan spearheaded by Denver Arts & Venues in 2014, which called for a more inclusive and diverse base of arts organizations dispersed across Denver’s many neighborhoods.

An artistic on-ramp

“That’s the point of being an artist in some ways: to reflect what’s going on in your surroundings,” says Evan Weissman.

Weissman, formerly of Buntport Theater Company, started his “civic health club,” Warm Cookies of the Revolution, in 2012. He has since brought Denverites together over casual conversation, current events, culture, entertainment, and of course, cookies.

Within the last year, much of the programming has turned to what Weissman calls The Stompin’ Ground Games, a series of one-off neighborhood events each month where arts, culture and history collide in an attempt to bolster civic pride. The idea came to Weissman as he sat in a Park Hill coffee shop and noticed a popular poster with the neighborhood names of Denver designed inside a map of the city.

“As I looked closer, I realized it was missing eight or nine neighborhoods that I know of — Montbello, Elyria Swansea, Green Valley Ranch,” he says. “These are mostly low-income, primarily neighborhoods of color. So I thought the person who made this either just did the best they could, or they had a map and design and they needed to cut some neighborhoods and justified it was okay to cut these.”

Weissman got to thinking about what makes Denver a magnet, and how the city is distinctive. “For as friendly as this city is, we still have a lot to learn about each other. Maybe if we get to know each other better, then we’ll be a little less apt to oppress one another.”

The Stompin’ Ground Games series launched last July at the McNichols Building in Civic Center Park. The group has since traveled to Capitol Hill, Four Mile Historic Park in southeast Denver, Ruby Hill and other neighborhoods, each time drawing a crowd with live music, comedy or maybe homemade ethnic food.

“We know and talk about neighborhoods being poor or rich, but we’re only talking about the economics,” Weissman says. “That doesn’t take into account the spiritual wealth — there are other ways to define communities.”

Warm Cookies received funding from a wide range of grantmakers, including Bonfils-Stanton, Rose Community Foundation and Greater Than.

Recognizing the pop-up nature of The Stompin’ Ground Games, Weissman says he and his team remind people to follow up on issues that resonate at the events. “We’re just sort of an on-ramp for people to learn,” he explains. “Once they get hooked, they can go and be a part of it.”

And Weissman sees the arts as a conduit to the kind of civic engagement he’s promoting. “Artists are teachers, they’re philosophers, social critics and laborers,” he says. “We learn a lot about who we are and what our community is through our artists.”

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

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