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Building DPAC's "Next Stage"

The Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre opened in 1991.

The vision includes an outdoor venue and a park.

Many believe DPAC will emulate Union Station if changes are made.

The vision is to make DPAC the centerpiece of an arts-centered downtown.

 Following a rigorous timetable, the Executive Leadership Team for "The Next Stage: The Future of Denver's Performing Arts Complex" will propose just that via their master plan recommendations, to be delivered to Mayor Hancock at the end of January.

Planners undertook an intensive process to solicit public input.

A rendering of "The Wege" proposal features  an outdoor stage and an apartment tower.

The Denver Performing Arts Complex is a national standout, but that doesn't mean it's resting on its laurels. As an ambitious vision takes shape, what's next for the venerable facility?
The vision is vast: transform the Denver Performing Arts Complex from a fortressed compound that lacks foot traffic or vitality outside of performances to the vibrant, diverse and participatory centerpiece of an arts-centered downtown.

Following a rigorous timetable, the Executive Leadership Team for "The Next Stage: The Future of Denver's Performing Arts Complex" will propose just that via their master plan recommendations, to be delivered to Mayor Hancock at the end of January.

"The Next Stage," in concert with Denver's cultural plan IMAGINE 2020, points to the profound shaping of the urban landscape and Denver raising its national artistic profile. But with opportunity also comes challenge -- locating resources for a high-dollar price tag, hosting the right facilities and programming to attract Colorado's diverse audiences, and moving stakeholders toward a collective vision of success.

Performing a design marvelPlanners undertook an intensive process to solicit public input.

The firm responsible for the master plan is New York-based H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture. Working with Denver Arts & Venues, H3 undertook an intensive process to solicit public input about the complex's future that included 24 focus groups, 84 stakeholder interviews, 2,000 surveys and six public meetings.

Arts & Venues Deputy Director Ginger White Brunetti says that trends discovered mirrored the Denver lifestyle and brand, including "a desire to be active…and include more informal and experiential arts opportunities."

Public input also revealed that the design must focus on the quality of the space, as well as lower the barriers to entry.  

As a result, White Brunetti says the proposed plan abandons the complex's stagnant existence locked between Speer Boulevard and 14th Street in favor of providing a continuity of diverse cultural experiences with multiple access points that reach into, rather than close off from, the center of downtown.

Of three proposed designs, "The Wedge," which favors an emphasis on arts, culture and public space over commercial investment, provided the winning formula. This design "wedges" more informal landscape from the periphery to the complex's center with the hopes of creating increased foot traffic and providing for the creation of place, not just space.

"This design resonated with people," she says. "It is a blending of park space with the arts." The aim is "creating a vibrancy that has not existed."

The park space White Brunetti refers to includes an art pavilion for public events, an event plaza connected to a renewed galleria, a bike house and underground parking, a park café and a horticultural entrance that welcomes visitors from Speer Boulevard.

Gil Boggs, artistic director for Colorado Ballet and member of the Executive Leadership Team, says the design also achieves a primary objective: building the Colorado Symphony Orchestra a new, mid-sized home, in addition to bringing in smaller theaters to increase informal art opportunities. These additions include a school of the arts and experimental venues such as an arts incubator, digital media and film center and music workshop.

Increasing access and diversifying experiences  The vision is to make DPAC the centerpiece of an arts-centered downtown.

While on a national scale, Denver has higher than average arts participation, the success of "The Next Stage" is still dependent on diversifying: not just the types and ages of DPAC's customers, but what is available and the times of day it will be accessible.

"This process was launched on three things -- to enliven, sustain and diversify," says White Brunetti, "so equity is baked into the thinking." She also notes that IMAGINE 2020, which includes a vision of achieving access and inclusivity, bridges the issue to DPAC.

"The intention is to create different points of entry for a diversity of participants," White Brunetti says. "Attendance to a park concert at night or a food hall during the day may be an initial point of entry, and allow people to return for different activities in the future."

Boggs also believes that growing program offerings, such as more informal experiences with dance, will help to diversify audiences and de-stigmatize traditional art forms like the ballet.  

However, a healthy amount of skepticism remains about the effectiveness of these tactics.

Gene Sobczak, board member of the Mexican Cultural Center of Denver and former executive vice president of CSO, believes the City and County of Denver's intention to increase artistic inclusivity and diversity is "hugely important." However, he relates the hard work necessary in 2003 to create a relationship between the Mexican Cultural Center and CSO that bred continuity and built audience through authenticity.

"Until minority population are truly engaged so that DPAC understands what fulfills them, what they want to see, in what volumes and where, they will have a hard time providing them with what they want," Sobczak says. "New programming or marketing may increase sense of belonging or encourage return visits, but they still originally have to get there by themselves."

Complex collaboration

What stakeholders do agree on is the importance of collaboration for success. However, how and to what extent coordination will happen remains a question.

White Brunetti views collective outreach and marketing to be an enormous opportunity and a challenge; because success is jointly shared between resident companies and the city of Denver, coordination will be key.

"We would love to see a re-imagined process where we share common goals and responsibilities," she says. "We need to take a new approach and lean in on the future we want together."

Boggs is of a similar but more reserved mind. While in favor of shared marketing, such as a complex-wide "passport to the arts," he stresses that all the resident companies have similar but distinct business models that allow for coordination on some pieces but not others.

The most significant question of "The Next Stage" remains how the several hundred million dollar complex will be fully financed. While there is agreement that DPAC will transform Denver's downtown and serve as an economic driver, consensus wanes on the best path to pay the bill.

"The city knew from the outset that we would have to be financially creative," White Brunetti says. "We also knew that public-private partnerships would be an important vehicle."

These partnerships currently take the shape of commercial and residential towers, a money-making but divisive addition for many, integrated into the complex's design. Other funding options include working with other city agencies to find additional resources, general philanthropy through the Denver Civic Arts Foundation, a city-associated 501(c)(3), and naming rights sponsorships.

In 2007, voters approved a $60 million bond to renovate Boettcher, which was redistributed to cultural institutions due to the symphony's inability to raise a $30 million match. Just this year, voters also passed Measure 2C, which will upgrade National Western Stock Show by increasing Denver's debt and extending a tourism tax.

As a result, "our partners at the city do not think citizens would pay for another bond at this time," White Brunetti says.

A new vision for Denver arts

Similar to the vivacity the revived Union Station brought to LoDo, Boggs believes the reimagined DPAC will emulate this scenario.

"Every great city needs great arts, and without this transformation, there would be a missed heartbeat for Denver," he adds. "This complex will benefit all of Denver and affect the vibrancy of downtown."

White Brunetti also stands firmly behind the benefits versus cost of implementing "The Next Stage."

"The new design will be akin to great art complexes seen in other culturally vibrant cities, including one that will provide the full spectrum of the cultural experience," she says.

A request for proposals will likely be issued toward the end of 2016 for the complex's actual design; vendor selection and development is not expected to begin until 2017.

Read more articles by Camron Bridgford.

Camron Bridgford is a Denver-based freelance writer focused on  the arts, urbanism and economic development.
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