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June 23, 2017

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Changing Denver seeks to keep arts relevant through hard work, diversity

DENVER -- Grammy-winning jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who was bused to her Denver middle school years ago, says sharing songs and poetry across the racial divide helped ease tension during the difficult days of desegregation.

Actor and graphic artist Archie Villeda spent high school immersed in theater after seeing people who looked and laughed like him onstage for the first time, in a vaudeville-style satire, "I Don't Speak English Only," by Denver's Su Teatro drama company.

Denver-area directors, conductors and curators want to keep inspiring people like Reeves, who is African-American, and Villeda, whose parents were born in Mexico. But a city survey suggests that African-American and Hispanic residents not only aren't as likely as others to attend arts events, they are also more likely to describe the diversity in the arts offered as poor or fair.

Denver's concerns about the diversity of both the audiences and of the community that manages and presents the arts can be heard across the country as ballet and opera companies, museums and orchestras face declining attendance, contributions and endowments.

Denver institutions are trying to reverse declines by making art relevant and accessible to new audiences. That means taking the arts to where people are, and finding out what works to get people to come in — whether new offerings, cheaper seats, even better transportation and parking.

The discussion in the Denver area comes 25 years after the debut of a special tax that funds arts as well as history, science and other cultural institutions. Communities across the country took note of voters' willingness — 75 percent to 25 percent — to raise their own taxes for art.

Randy Cohen, a Washington-based arts policy expert, said Denver can and must build on the reputation for innovation it earned 25 years ago with the creation of the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District, known as SCFD.

"You just can't take for granted you're always going to have the support, you're always going to have the money," said Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock released a report that includes the survey and stresses that increasing access is crucial because of the economic importance of the arts and changing demographics: about a third of the city's population is Hispanic, and more than half its population growth over the last 20 years has been among Hispanics.

Museums, theaters and galleries employ 10,000 people in metropolitan Denver, according to the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts. Neither the committee nor the city could provide the number of blacks and Hispanics with such jobs.

Jerome H. Kern, CEO and co-chair of the board of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, jokes that his is "an organization that has an aging white audience, that plays dead, white man's music and is supported by a lot of rich white people." He acknowledges the symphony, which is supported by tax dollars as well as donors, long talked about diversity while taking little action.

That's changing, with mash-ups that bring performers like Reeves to the symphony hall. Classically trained musicians are also getting out of the hall to visit neighborhoods where black and other Denverites complain cultural offerings are scant. One pilot project has Colorado Symphony Orchestra musicians working with the University of Denver's Playground Ensemble to make composers out of students at an inner city elementary school.

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