Event Recap: The Importance of Arts and Culture in Building a City

The second community discussion produced by Confluence Denver explored how artists and arts organizations play a vital role in education, placemaking, talent attraction and social good, and looked at ways to support this important community.
After wine and beer from Sutcliffe Vineyards and Grandma's House Brewery and appetizers from Heirloom Catering, the standing-room-only crowd at Converge Denver in RiNo were treated to a slam poetry starter from panelist Jovan Mays of Slam Nuba.

(One of many memorable lines: "I bet you want me to twerk at the gallery on First Friday while you sip white wine." Okay, another: "I tell them every mind is a parachute with a ripcord made of the weight of imagination.")

After the slam, Gary Steuer of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation gave his two cents and introduced the panel. "I really think arts and culture is shaping Denver for the 21st century," he said. "As a relatively new arrival, I hear this phrase: 'Denver isn't a cowtown anymore.' It probably hasn't been one for decades, but it certainly isn't one anymore."

Steuer said he strived to not look at the arts "through a prism of nonprofit foundations" but look at them as part of a "constellation" tethered to public and private startups in Denver. "It's all kind of a soup of creativity and innovation, and everything feeds everything else," he explained.

Bonfils-Stanton pivoted to exclusively support the arts in 2012, eschewing a national "nice-to-have, not-need-to-have” attitude towards arts education taking hold in the last decade. "We saw arts and culture becoming more important to this city," said Steuer.

An educational cornerstoneIt was a standing room-only crowd.

Mays said his experience in arts education is all about getting kids to think for themselves. His advice to his students: "No one's going to write your story. Only you are."

Brian Corrigan, the mastermind behind the OhHeckYeah "interactive street arcade," said it's all about opening public spaces to art. "The whole idea was to use the power of play on the street," said Corrigan. "We don't really have that random interaction anymore. OhHeckYeah is about bringing that back. Instead of having people come to us, we have to go to them."

Jami Duffy, executive director of Youth On Record, Denver's largest youth music education program, said she gives all of the credit to the program's 20 teachers. "They're really, really good musicians. They're putting out albums, they're working in studios, they're touring."

Duffy went on to tell the crowd her perspective on the city's recent boom. "What people don't realize is Denver's an absolutely incredible city," said the fifth-generation Denverite. "I couldn't be prouder of what's going on."

However, the city's high-school graduation rate is only 51 percent and just 12 percent in Youth On Record's La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood. "If we are really invested in making this a world-class city we are all proud of, we have to address that," says Duffy. 

In the face of these startling numbers, the arts are a necessary ingredient for an educational comeback. "I believe the arts can address the most depressing things."

But there's a serious divide to conquer. "You're going to have high-quality arts programs in communities that can afford them," adds Duffy. But poorer neighborhoods suffer.

Mays said that the biggest and best lessons are learned from looking back. "We aren't looking at the the history of these neighborhoods and the art that was there before," he says. He points to the jazz legacy in Five Points. "When you know the brilliance that was there before, that's the first step."

Steuer's next question: Why are we still having this conversation? The data is there -- why doesn't the educational system embrace the arts?

"Artists aren't at the decision-making table," answered Duffy. "That's because we're out making art. Which is great but not enough. You've got to try and get to that table."

Community supportBrian Corrigan, the mastermind behind the OhHeckYeah "interactive street arcade," said it's all about opening public spaces to art.

The conversation soon moved to the role of the nonprofit community and government. "Look at how much support there is for professional sports," said Corrigan. "If we had that much support from the mass market, we wouldn't need need foundation support. How do we shift the thinking of the mass market to think creative thinking is not just a luxury?"

There needs to be an integration of existing arts amenities and facilities and new ones. "Together, we could do a lot more," says Mays, referencing the hashtag #columbusing -- describing the phenomenon when white people think they discover something that has actually been around for years.

Steuer argued that the arts world has a lot to learn from pro sports. "Professional sports has figured out that engaging the public is letting reporters into the locker room, literally and figuratively. The more people who understand it's a human drama, the bigger the connection to the audience."

Duffy said that, also like sports, participation in the arts is key. As Mays put it: "Everybody has picked up a paintbrush . . . but it hasn't been fostered." And that's critical, he added. "It's a really tough thing to groom."

Corrigan: "I think the ultimate act of creativity is just being yourself. Everyone is a piece of the puzzle and that piece is needed. The magic is when we started mixing them together."

All we need is a connection. Corrigan equated it with Harvey Milk urging his gay friends to come out as a political act that strengthened the community through connection. His parting advice: "We all need to come out as artists."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

This event was sponsored by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and Converge Denver.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
Signup for Email Alerts