Event Recap: IdeaLab

About 200 attendees gathered for a day of collaboration at IdeaLab, and a chance to connect and network, hone ideas and get inspired.

“I’m particularly excited, looking around the room, I don’t know most of you,” said Bonfils-Stanton Foundation President and CEO Gary Steuer during his introductory remarks at the Studio Loft at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. “First off, I want to talk about who you are. You are creative leaders dedicated to using the arts to make your community better.” 

Community-minded art and high art need not diverge, he added. “They don’t have to be two different things.” But to catalyze real change, artists need help. “You don’t make change in a vacuum,” said Steuer. “You don’t make change alone.”

And ongoing education is critical to the process. “We’re never done learning,” he said and added,  “Get inspired, make connections and learn from your peers. Have a great day, everybody.”

The morning panel

Carl Atiya Swanson, director of movement building for Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, pressed attendees to tweet with the hashtag, #DenverIdeaLab, to create “a public record of the event” in order to “reach an audience far beyond the room” before welcoming the five panelists.

Jami Duffy of Denver’s Youth On Record began with a quick primer on a big local and national problem. “We are facing the first generation that will be less educated than their parents,” said Duffy, citing a dropout rate that’s north of 50 percent in Denver.

“So what’s the good news?” she continued. “At Youth On Record, we believe music has the power to change all of this.”

She said the organization also supports artists by paying working musicians as its teachers. “Musicians are asked to do a lot for free all of the time. . . . We’re trying to create an economy for local musicians.”

She’s also trying to create a social enterprise that will generate 25 percent of the funds necessary to support the organization by selling CDs and other music-related products and services.

Collaboration has been critical: Duffy called Youth On Record’s partnership with the Denver Housing Authority “unique nationally.” The organization is an anchor of the Mariposa development.

Samantha White, founder of Shakespeare in Detroit paraphrased Julius Caesar in her opening remarks: “It is not in our stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

“What does that mean?” she asked the crowd. “Our journeys in life are controlled by us.”

An example: “When I was eight, I loved Salt-N-Pepa and N.W.A.,” continued White. Her mom, not so much. “She told me, if I loved lyrics so much, I had to read Shakespeare.” That early introduction to the Bard led to Shakespeare in Detroit’s founding decades later.

“The arts are what makes Detroit so special,” she added. “It’s even more important when things are going bad, because we need an outlet.”

Stuart Hyatt of M12 Collective in Byers, Colorado, discussed his organization’s “site- and context-based art practices” in rural areas. “We consider ourselves more of a rock band than a nonprofit,” he joked.

The resultant works can provide “a valuable counterpoint to contemporary art in an urban environment,” he added. “We’re critical of the failings of rural America. We also seek to celebrate the complexities of the region . . . and ride the line between everything and nothing, rural and urban.”

Colorado’s Eastern Plains have provided the backdrop for many projects. “Come out to Byers,” he said, where M12 is based in an old feed store that “probably cost less than it does to park a  car in Denver for a month.” The organization also leases 40 acres in Last Chance, Colorado (pop. 23), for installations.

Joan Vorderbruggen of Made Here in Minneapolis-St. Paul is a nurse-turned-public artist whose work has helped revitalize the Twin Cities.

She started with a single storefront at Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis. “Their sales increased by 40 percent,” recalled Vorderbruggen. More storefront installations followed. “I got really, really hooked on hanging stuff up in the window and people being arrested by it.”

The idea snowballed into Artists in Storefronts then Made Here, which now encompasses live performances along with visual art in all sorts of overlooked places, as the number of empty storefronts has dipped considerably. It now includes 45-plus storefronts, said Vorderbruggen. “It’s the largest initiative of its kind in the nation.”

Lisa Eldred, director of exhibitions at the Denver Botanic Gardens, showed a slide with a Venn diagram, with two overlapping circles: art and science.

“That important sliver in the middle is wonder,” she said. “We so often want to educate people we forget about that wonder piece of it.”

Eldred said DBG’s multidisciplinary approach is epitomized by the new-for-2014 Science Pyramid, where the unique architecture emulates nature. “Often that wonder piece is about juxtaposition.”


Swanson asked about the panelists’ artistic backgrounds during a moderated panel discussion.

“I consider myself born an artist and I became an entrepreneur,” said White. “It chooses you.”

Not that education is unimportant. “It is an and, not an or,” she added. “You need math, you need science, you need art.”

“It’s cliche but we are really the ones we’re waiting for,” said Duffy. “We march into the classroom every day. We’re models for young people.”

Digital technology has made collaboration and education exponentially more accessible and available, said Hyatt, “but we insist on getting together and making stuff with our hands.”

Swanson asked how the panelists grew their organizations.

“We wanted to heal the street with art,” said Vorderbruggen. “I didn’t realize I could monetize it.”

But she did: After finding a sponsor in Andersen Windows, she was able to catalyze revitalization with an eye on results. “Art does really help the bottom line and we know that.”

Outreach and special events are Eldred’s two keys for growth, and it’s hard to argue with the smash hit that was last year’s Chihuly exhibit. “Everyone’s connected to land and plants and food,” she said. “Whether it’s two people you’re reaching or 500, there’s always value.”

“Whenever I approach a potential partner, I try to ask myself, ‘What’s in it for them?'” said Duffy. “I really value the idea of an authentic partnership.”

Success “is a fuzzy, nebulous thing and we just kind of go by our gut,” added Hyatt of gauging M12’s impact. “That’s a hard thing to report to a funder. We just keep our eye on the prize and hopefully make great art.”

How can the arts be inclusive and not invoke political disagreement and class warfare? asked an attendee.

“That war is happening outside of art,” White answered. “That’s the beauty of art. It balances out everything.”

Echoed Vorderbruggen on the unifying nature of public art: “We share our streets. It’s a place where we really, truly are together.”

Duffy pointed out that 90 percent of artists who make a living from their art are white. “What’s it going to take to create an arts city that employs diverse artists?” she asked. “What do we consider art? Do we consider hip-hop art? Do we consider graffiti art? It’s important to have that conversation.”

“Obviously, it take and we can’t be afraid of these discussions,” added Eldred. “Arts in whatever medium can be a catalyst for dialogue.”

Another attendee asked about the entrepreneurial nature art: When is it time to quit your day job?

“We all have day jobs and will continue to have them for the foreseeable future,” said Hyatt of M12. “Eventually, the body of work becomes the thing. My advice is to not rush it. Take it slow and let it grow organically. The slow-growing tree is the strongest one.”

Added White: “Do it with no compromises that first time — then learn the art of compromise because it is going to happen.”

Duffy said that perseverance pays off. “We were uncompromising in that we knew we would be a national movement and we wouldn’t let it go.”

Echoed Vorderbruggen: “If you care about it enough, you get thick enough skin to just believe in yourself and see what you can do.”

Afternoon tours and workshops

The lunch session included breakouts for behind-the-scenes tours. Two groups got a glimpse backstage at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House and buses departed for tours of Youth On Record and Denver Botanic Gardens.

Once the group reconvened, representatives from the fields of education, the arts, media, real estate, and healthcare were among the cross-sector participants who gathered around tables for the afternoon session. Swanson said his goal was to get everyone working and talking with one another.

“Change favors the connected mind,” he said, quoting author and sociologist Steven Johnson, from the book Where Good Ideas Come From.

Indeed, IdeaLab’s second half was focused on the power of a creative network, in both theory and practice. “What we’re asking today is, how you can partner in Denver, to make new connections,” said Swanson. “We call them ‘new weak ties,’ to start up new areas of connection, to knit people together through conversation and create practical resources.”

Swanson shared examples of cross-sector partnerships in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Springboard for the Arts is based and operates Creative Exchange, a “national platform for storytelling and resource-sharing around the movement of artists and communities coming together to spark change.”

In St. Paul, connected networks of artists, community organizers, businesses and nonprofits have come together to activate and strengthen neighborhoods through collaborative, creative projects, such as The Big Table — a large wooden table on wheels — that moves from location to location within St. Paul, inviting conversation, interaction and connection between strangers.

Swanson encouraged participants to seek connections to others within their direct sphere of interest and influence, as well as outside of them.

“These projects take more than just having the artists,” he said. “You’ve got to find the partners, the spaces to really create change in neighborhoods. And within these partnerships, you’ve got be relentless and focused and not stray away from our values.”

Around tables, participants dug into small-group discussions about how values inform the work of creative changemakers in Denver: Issues of access and inclusiveness, as well as of the importance of nurturing curiosity and empowerment to create art that is experiential and useful, were themes.

Storytelling was also celebrated as a tool for building networks and momentum around movements to create change in Denver and beyond. Specifically, Rebecca Saltman of Confluence Denver encouraged the crowd to submit stories and news of work underway in Denver’s grassroots creative network to the site.

The conversation came easily to most in the room. In Denver, an openness to collaboration, at both the grand and grassroots level, is a hallmark — celebrated by audiences and rewarded by foundations and funders. As business cards flew across tables, you had to wonder what new project might have hatched in that moment.

Stay tuned for IdeaLab 2.0.

IdeaLab was presented by Creative Exchange and Confluence Denver, with partnership from Denver Arts and Venues through IMAGINE 2020, Denver’s Cultural Plan, and sponsored by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

Bonfils Stanton