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The Arts Affinity Group: Youth On Record, OhHeckYeah, Buntport and Downtown Aurora Visual Artists

Grant recipients of the Denver Foundation's Arts Affinity Group.

Kids during a job training course at DAVA.

Brian Corrigan, with OhHeckYeah, is one of the grant recipients.

Buntport Theater

DAVA provides community-based arts education programs for youth ages 3 to 17.

Last year, The Denver Foundation launched a special group, the Arts Affinity Group (AAG). The collective giving platform allows the foundation's partners to support the arts in a way that's both impactful for the grant recipients and meaningful for the donors. 
On April 23, the group awarded grants to six leading arts organizations at a reception at The Pioneer. Youth On Record, Buntport Theater Company, Downtown Aurora Visual Arts and OhHeckYeah received the bulk of AAG grant monies, with smaller awards going to El Sistema Colorado and RedLine. Recipients were selected upon meeting criteria that includes innovation, technology, collaboration, community building, and access for disadvantaged populations. 

Youth On Record

"We had some pretty high and strong criteria," admits AAG member and Denver-based opera singer Marcia Ragonnetti. "The AAG opened my eyes to a number of groups doing amazing things with performing arts." Youth On Record's work was particularly mind-expanding, she says. 
  
Youth On Record, formerly known as Flobots.org, works closely with Denver Public Schools (DPS), using technology to engage at-risk youth in the production and making of music. "We send over 20 local musicians into DPS schools and youth residential treatment facilities to teach classes for students who have fallen behind academically," explains Executive Director Jami Duffy. "We are serving 700 at-risk and underserved teens a year."

The organization's elective courses are designed to teach career-readiness skills to teens and young adults ages 16 to 22. The AAG's grant is program-based, so it specifically assists Youth On Record's work in DPS and will help fund music production, hip-hop and spoken-word poetry. All teaching musicians are paid, so Youth On Record not only aids local kids but also employs people in the creative industry. 

"This will give students a trade, a craft, an art, if they are disciplined enough to take advantage of the training on the technical side of music," says Ragonnetti. 

Downtown Aurora Visual Arts
DAVA provides community-based arts education programs for youth ages 3 to 17.
"One of the keys to making art relevant and appealing to youth is to be able to meet them where they are, which is a very technology-focused world," says Denver Foundation Philanthropic Services Officer Kelly Purdy. Downtown Aurora Visual Arts (DAVA) also taps into technology, engaging at-risk youth with community-based arts education programs for ages three to 17. 

The organization has several offerings, including a drop-in style open studio for budding artists, a computer lab for tweens and teens, and a biweekly family art program for parents and preschoolers. The AAG's grant will fund a new project cycle, ArtBots, a summer-long robot-themed program that will have a presence in each of these core offerings. 

"When we do a project like this, it extends throughout our program," explains DAVA Executive Director Susan Jenson. Elementary students will create small-scale robots while older participants can explore technological and sculptural aspects of the machines. 

"We are interested in exploring the confluence between art and technology," adds Jenson. "We are also interested in the performance attributes: What robots do, say, and think." 

About eight years back, the organization did a rudimentary version of the project and saw just how excited the kids were about robots. "When an opportunity for funding came up this year, we wanted to do something that would push the limits," Jenson says. 

At the end of summer DAVA will host a party in its parking lot where handcrafted robots roam free, taking over the space.

Buntport Theater Company Buntport Theater

An ensemble of six full-time collaborators intent on creating innovative and affordable entertainment, Buntport Theater exemplifies the AAG's interest in collaboration to foster an inter-generational approach to arts engagement. 

The AAG grant money will be used to put on a theatrical and digital storytelling program that covers the history of civil rights in conjunction with East High School. "The idea is to make a play that connects the history of civil of rights with different decades," says Jessica Robblee, a member of Buntport's education team. 

"There are really three parts to the grant," says Robblee. At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, several East High School students will be selected to participate in the semester-long program. During the initial phase, the Center for Digital Storytelling, an organization helping people "surface their stories," will work with older activists and students to create stories based on personal experiences. Elders will share their stories through first-person narratives, and student performers will craft those stories into succinct, powerful pieces. 

The students will subsequently share the stories at a public event called the Intergenerational Show and Tell Mixed Tape in October in collaboration with Warm Cookies of the Revolution. "You go to the gym for physical health, maybe church or the mountains for mental health, and then Warm Cookies is a place to go for your civic health," Robblee explains. The idea, she says, is that different people from different generations will get up and share their experiences with civil rights. 

The third and final part of the project involves students working directly with Robblee. "I do a lot of collaborative playwriting residencies with students because that's what we do at Buntport -- we write collaboratively as a team," she says Robblee. She'll help students write an original play covering what they learned about civil rights. Performances will take place at East High School on November 14 and 15.  

OhHeckYeah

The AAG is also funding OhHeckYeah, a massive street installation in downtown Denver created by Brian Corrigan. This multimedia installation, built by Denver-based duo Legwork Studio and Mode Set, is an arcade powered through the Denver Theatre District's LED screens, projections, street art, social media, local media and a website -- a collaboration Corrigan hopes will produce an interactive experience capable of transporting players into a life-sized videogame. Players, Corrigan explains, will use their smart devices and bodies as the game's controllers.

The AAG was interested in OhHeckYeah because of Corrigan's close collaboration with a wide array of local organizations. Corrigan, for example, is in cahoots with the Colorado Symphony, which recorded the score for the game. "We are also working with Downtown Denver Partnership, the Denver Theater District and Bovine Metropolis Theater, which will help bring three of the arcade characters to life by powering their personalities on the web," Corrigan says.  

OhHeckYeah will partner with a number of different cultural organizations during its seven-week run in June and July. During the second week of production, there will be a balloon art festival, and LiveWell Colorado will lead yoga on the street another week.
 
Corrigan sees the arcade acting as social glue, connecting strangers on the street by giving them a reason to interact as the workforce grows increasingly freelance and remote. "It provides an opportunity for public spaces to support this new type of workforce, and the streets become an infrastructure that supports a new type of economy," he says. "It becomes a catalyst for information. Plus, it's just fun! Who doesn't want to play a videogame on the street?"

Awards night

At the AAG's recent awards ceremony, Corrigan previewed his immersive street arcade, which will be live from June 7 to July 26 on Thursdays and Saturday nights on Champa Street between 14th and 16th streets. Several members of the AAG, including the operatic Ragonetti, also performed a rap they wrote in the studios of Youth On Record, followed by a show by the organization's rapper/poet Adrian Molina.

"I could feel lots of positive energy at the event," says DAVA's Jenson. "We have all been funded, and having the funding to do this is really pushing us to another level of excitement." 

"Seeing the level of engagement and excitement from the members has been awesome," echoes Purdy. "This is a very committed group of people who really want to make a difference in the arts community." 

The success of the Arts Affinity Group has inspired the Denver Foundation to expand its group giving offerings with the launch of an environment-focused affinity group later this spring. For more information on this, or any other giving circle hosted by the Denver Foundation, contact the Philanthropic Services Group at 303/300-1790.
 
This story was produced in partnership with The Denver Foundation as part of a series on giving and philanthropy. Read more stories from this series here.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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