Building Equity in the Arts in Denver

Suzi Q. Smith was excited to bring her daughter to her first opera. A prominent Denver poet and teaching artist, Smith grew up listening to classical opera; she trained as an opera singer for two years. When she saw the advertisements for Opera Colorado‘s Aïda, Verdi’s famous work about an Ethiopian princess, set in Egypt, she bought tickets.

“I was drawn to see Aïda because I was excited to finally see myself, my daughter, represented on the stage. The advertising poster clearly depicted an illustration of an African woman,” says Smith. “As African Americans, I find that there are very few opportunities in the world of classical music to feel included.”

When the performance began, Smith and her daughter were surprised and disappointed to see that the role of Aïda was performed by Alexandra Lobianco. Lobianco is white, as was the entire cast. As was most of the audience.

“There are very few operas that specifically include black people; if casting black people was too much of a stretch, I really feel like they should have done a different show,” Smith says. “We were so disappointed that we left at intermission, and it will definitely take some time before I am willing to return.”

Smith is a sophisticated consumer of culture, and she’s connected, with a sphere of influence and a large social media following. In other words, she is exactly the kind of person that Colorado Opera and each of the downtown performing arts institutions — Colorado Ballet, Colorado Symphony and Denver Center for the Performing Arts — want and need to attract.

In growing, changing Denver, where audience demographics and tastes are more fluid and sophisticated than ever, engagement of culturally diverse audiences is vital to sustainability. It’s also essential to creating more access and equity in the arts.

But as Smith’s experience suggests, engagement of people from diverse groups isn’t easy. Beyond marketing, it requires building relationships, one patron at a time. It also requires authentic and relevant programming, an institutional willingness to change and meaningful connections to a range of community organizations and leaders, including artists.

“When you look at the question of how you ensure that people have access to the arts, regardless of their socioeconomic status and their race, it’s a very nuanced and complex issue,” says Gary Steuer, president and CEO of Bonfils-Stanton Foundation. “The question is how do you transform your audience and the whole experience to be welcoming, comfortable. It’s not just about putting spin on business as usual. It’s about a larger question of how you best serve all residents of Denver.”

The foundation took on that question this summer, when it surveyed Denver’s leading arts groups, both mainstream and grassroots, in an effort to “elicit honest dialogue about the barriers and successes of engaging diverse audiences.” In response to the research by audience development expert Donna Walker-Kuhne, the foundation recently released a set of recommendations; among them, arts organizations are encouraged to adopt an inclusive approach to staff recruitment and development, to develop long-term community partnerships and to integrate cultural diversity into core audiences.

No small order for the arts.

A will to build

“Fortunately in Denver you have even the larger institutions that are genuinely interested in building more diverse audiences and their looking at strategies to serve the whole community,” Steuer says. “They’re learning that it’s not just about marketing; it’s not as simple as, say, advertising in the Spanish-language newspaper to get Latino audiences. You have to look at everything. Does your staff reflect the community you’re trying to serve? Are you owning this conversation about equity in terms of your strategic plan and as part of your vision?”

Bonfils-Stanton Foundation’s efforts build on the city’s Imagine 2020 Cultural Plan, unveiled by Denver Arts & Venues in 2014. In in its own research, Denver Arts & Venues uncovered large swaths of residents who either can’t, or don’t, participate in the kind of cultural offerings that draw hundreds of thousands of people — and millions of dollars — to downtown Denver. Participation in the downtown cultural arts was reported as low among African-American and Latino survey respondents. Asked why they don’t go more often, many said they wanted to but either didn’t know what was available, or if they did, they chose to do other things. For many respondents, it was simply easier, cheaper and more appealing to stick to close to home, where cultural offerings were presumably more relevant to their lives.

One of Imagine 2020’s primary goals is to increase participation among these underserved communities. Among the public forums Denver Arts & Venues has hosted as part of the Imagine 2020 Speaker Series, the sessions on cultural access and inclusivity have been the most popular; the series will focus on these topics in 2016.

Denver Arts & Venues has also loosened some funding streams to support arts-based community building. So far, much of this work has been done by small-and-midsize organizations that are structurally and historically more grassroots and nimble than, say, a legacy ballet or opera company.

“Creating equity in the arts cannot be attained with a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Tariana Navas-Nieves, director of cultural affairs for Denver Arts & Venues. “It is about the humbling experience of recognizing what has not been done, about educating ourselves on how to connect with individuals and communities that are not like us, about bringing experts to guide us through a process that will be uncomfortable yet necessary if we wish to truly be inclusive. Organizations need to look not only at their programming, but at their own practices — their staff, board, programming expertise. The great news is that I see a willingness towards something that is important to our Denver residents, as we confirmed through our Imagine 2020 input process.”

Reinventing outreach

Within the companies that are resident to the Denver Performing Arts Complex, most efforts to address audience equity issues have focused on the most obvious barrier: cost. All provide free tickets in partnership with the city’s 5 By 5 Program as well as ArtReach, which distributes tickets to more than 50,000 people per year. In 2014, the Colorado Symphony provided more than $300,000 in free community tickets as an offset to rent at Boettcher Concert Hall, in support of Imagine 2020; the program continues in the 2015-16 season, without the subsidy.

These programs, as well as cultural programs like the CSO’s annual Mexican Independence and Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute concerts, do draw diverse audiences. But they are typically separate from those experienced by core audiences. And no one really knows whether or not those who come for free cultural programming ever come back — or why they do or don’t.

“We know that for a lot of the families we serve through our community programs, even just coming downtown is an intimidating experience,” says Anne O’Connor, director of education and community partnerships for Colorado Ballet. “We’re constantly struggling with this question of, ‘How do you get over these barriers? How do we say it right? How do we offer help, and when do we offer help?’ We’re constantly looking for feedback and adjusting, but it’s difficult.”

Most companies have implemented some tools to improve the experience for those who are new to DPAC, with its maze of venues and congested lobbies. Colorado Symphony has a patron “concierge” available to answer questions before, during and after shows; DPAC recently hired two Spanish-speaking box office agents. But it can still be an intimidating place: O’Connor likes to encourage newcomers to come in groups, with a guide from within their community.

A wealth of research on audience development illustrates that, however a person comes to a performance and whatever happens on the stage once she’s there, a meaningful shift to audience diversity is unlikely without a foundation of true inclusion at every institutional level. Without culturally representative influences on the executive staff or in the board room, for example, many cultural organizations are left to make guesses about what does or doesn’t serve, motivate or reach non-white audiences, when they consider the question at all.

The danger of this disconnect, says Tony Garcia, executive artistic director of Su Teatro, is found in the chasm that separates Su Teatro and other culturally specific companies from the DPAC-level performing arts organizations, which claim the overwhelming share of public and private support for the performing arts. Garcia and his counterparts at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and Museo de Las Americas, for example, must work harder, smarter and leaner to reach core audiences and sources of support.

“We are absolutely in competition, not in the sense that there should be only one Latino art exhibit or theatrical company, as there should be enough interest in a multitude of Latino cultural arts activities as there our throughout the country,” says Garcia, who has held leadership positions with a number of local and national bodies working to increase cultural access and preserve Latino heritage through the arts, including the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture. “The competition is for resources and access. For example, if you were a sponsor, who would give you a better profile: the large mainstream institution of the little barrio group? If you are a newspaper or TV outlet, what event would you want to advertise? If you were an artist, what gig would you want to do? Where would you get better pay, better exposure and, in some cases when artists have been able to actually create at these events, a better opportunity to experience your vision?”

“One of the challenges is that there’s so much emphasis put on big: the big institutions, the big arts,” says Steuer. “They’re getting funded to reach a Latino audience, while those organizations from within those communities struggle to get access to resources to serve those communities. And then you have the other-side-of-the-coin challenge: How do the culturally specific organizations [like Su Teatro] build audiences outside of the core? How do you connect people to want to learn about Latino culture, to want to go to Su Teatro and Museo. How do you get the whole community to be curious about other cultures and to serve and support those organizations?”

Leadership development among the next generation of arts administrators may unlock answers to such questions. As part of a plan to implement recommendations that came from this summer’s research, Bonfils-Stanton plans to work with arts groups large and small to build true fluency with issues of inclusion and access, including networking, professional development and other supports for staff members of color.

Creative connections

There are signs that cultural consciousness among the major performing arts companies in Denver is raising at the creative level. DCPA eliminated its resident company in 2013-14 in an effort to broaden casting opportunities; in recent seasons, DCPA has mounted productions that feature Latino and African-American stories, characters and actors, including this year’s celebrated One Night in Miami…. Colorado Symphony has collaborated with contemporary artists drawn from a range of genres, including jazz, hip-hop and gospel; this season, the CSO hired Andres Lopera, born in Colombia and schooled in Latin America, as assistant conductor.

Also this season, Colorado Ballet launched a new black-box series that more closely connects the company to groups in Denver’s Arts District on Santa Fe, where its new building is located. The ballet company has also deployed technology as a tool to broaden access by offering a free live stream of The Nutcracker to schools and communities in Colorado — and around the world. More are planned for 2016.

“The entire mission of my department is built around the idea that dance is for everybody, and that the universality of dance means it can be experienced and enjoyed by anyone,” says Colorado Ballet’s O’Connor. “I’m always looking for any opportunity to open the door to every population.”

And what about Opera Colorado, purveyor of what is arguably the least accessible, and most European, of all the performing arts? It’s developing two non-mainstage series designed for smaller crowds with edgier tastes. Next season, it will stage As One, whose lead character undergoes a gender transformation during the short chamber work. The series are part of a new strategic plan designed to pull the company further away from the financial crises that has dogged it for the past three years.

“We had to sit down and decide: What is Colorado Opera going to be?” says Camille Spaccavento, director of external affairs and marketing for Opera Colorado. “We knew we had to evolve. We had to change. So we asked, ‘If we were an opera company just opening, what would we look like?’ The mainstage operas, the Aïdas and the Carmens, are important, but what are the other things that move the art forward, serve the mission, have an educational element and create art that is relevant as art — and relevant to the community? Going forward, we’ll definitely be looking for more connections, more engagements with the community that really makes sense.”

At Su Teatro, Tony Garcia would rather see energy invested in programs that have authentic connections to Denver’s communities of color. Currently, he’s leading an effort to broaden distribution of Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) funds in order to more equitably represent the cultural work of smaller and more grassroots organizations such as Su Teatro. But he’s learned to define success outside of the popular norm.

“Su Teatro’s path has always been an independent road, and it has served us well,” Garcia says. “Clearly if we had waited for a mainstream organization to acknowledge and affirm us, we would still be waiting. Westword has not reviewed Su Teatro in more than 10 years, Enrique’s Journey was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times and American Theater Magazine, but not by the Denver Post. So what sense would it make for me to spend my time waiting for someone in the mainstream in Denver to notice our work? Really what does it say about the awareness and progress in Denver?

“The reality is that we don’t need [the institutions] to do our programming, we are quite capable of doing this ourselves. What we need is resources and support in order to build the similar institution that can allow us to pay artists, staff and support sufficiently; to interact with the larger institution on a level playing field so that we can negotiate equally and are not exploited or excluded; and to build the recognition that our work is as much a part of the mainstream and not marginalized exotic work.”

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. This is part one of a two-part story on racial equity in the arts. Read part two here.

Bonfils Stanton