Denver's Imagine 2020 grants give cultural startups an early boost - and the recognition they need to attract audiences and other funders.
For Denise Soler Cox, the road from marketing professional to documentary filmmaker was paved with insecurity and lump-in-her-throat personal reflections about the challenges of being a first-generation, English-speaking American born to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
“I didn’t feel Latino enough for my Latino friends, and I didn’t feel American enough for the mainstream culture that I grew up in,” Soler Cox recalls in a 2016 TedX Talk about the “a-ha!” moment when she realized that regardless of ethnicity, most people feel like outsiders at one time or another. That common thread, she says, can spark “an extraordinarily valuable conversation about identity and belonging.”
Just two years ago, the idea of leading open, public dialogues around cultural identity in America still made this Denver “serial entrepreneur” quake in her stilettos. Then, an invitation to speak during an Hispanic Heritage Month event at Manual High School — an event paid for in part by the City of Denver’s Imagine 2020 Fund — helped launch Soler Cox and her multimedia initiative, Project Enye, into a national tour that showcases her movie, “being ñ”, and her relatable personal history.Denise Soler Cox used an Imagine 2020 grant to create a show about identity.
This week, Denver awards its third annual Imagine 2020 Fund grants, ranging from $2,500 to $5,000. Nearly 20 artists or community groups with original, innovative, grassroots programming proposals will receive the funds this year.
“It was great to have an opportunity to speak in front of an audience that was right in our backyard,” Soler Cox says of the Manual High appearance, which was one of her first Project Enye speaking engagements. “It felt like the city was getting behind us.”
That, in a nutshell, is the value and impact of the Imagine 2020 Fund, one of three grant programs administered by Denver Arts & Venues, and the one specifically pegged to further the Denver Cultural Plan, which Mayor Michael Hancock has called “a shared vision for Denver’s artistic, cultural and creative future.”
Yes, the money is meant to support local creatives in producing impactful, community-based cultural events across the city. But Program Administer Lisa Gedgaudas says the more lasting effect of being an Imagine 2020 grant recipient comes from leveraging the City of Denver stamp of approval for more funding, exposure, and strategic partnerships.
“We’re not granting the typical stuff,” says Gedgaudas, who encourages “anyone!” to apply for an Imagine 2020 grant. The selection committee looks highly on projects that “can change a community, start a conversation (or) continue an important dialogue,” she says. “Mostly we fund things that all of us can learn from.”
In 2015 and 2016, about 15 projects received Imagine 2020 funds, to the tune of $50,000 each of those years. This year, Gedgaudas says, the number of recipients grew to 19, and the grant budget was $75,000. “These are just amazing social impact projects and programs,” she says.
Programs like the Stompin’ Ground Games, a yearlong traveling event conceived and organized by the ‘civic fitness club’ Warm Cookies of the Revolution. The organization is run by Buntport Theater co-founder Evan Weissman, and aims to put a fanciful spin on civics lessons and democratic engagement. It received an Imagine 2020 grant two years ago to implement its Stompin’ Ground Games.
“Our mission is to get people to remember that we own the community,” Weissman says. “Only we can make (our communities) more inclusive and equitable.”
The Stompin’ Ground Games showcased local artists and performers while providing lessons about the history and development of each of the Denver neighborhoods that hosted the event. “It was essentially a way to look at the changes going on in Denver, pause the conversation and say, ‘We’ve got the learn where we’ve been to figure out where we’re going,” says Weissman.
The Imagine 2020 grant, he adds, lent legitimacy to his fledgling community nonprofit and encouraged local officials to get involved with the Stompin’ Ground Games. It continues to serve as a key credential as Warm Cookies launches fresh civics programs for Denver residents.
Elsewhere around the city, the BirdSeed Collective used its Imageine 2020 grant to fund pop-up art workshops in working class neighborhoods in north and west Denver.
“It was really a way to integrate in the community and expose people to art in a new way,” says BirdSeed Collective Assistant Director Carla Padilla. “It’s given us positive exposure and marketing and (enabled us) to hire a bunch of people, because a big thing for us us is being able to provide economic opportunity or artists.”Padilla says winning the Imagine 2020 grant helped make the BirdSeed Collective viable recipients for other, larger grants, which has enabled the organization to hire artists to provide vivid makeovers for Dumpster and park benches.
Padilla says winning the Imagine 2020 grant helped make the BirdSeed Collective viable recipients for other, larger grants, which has enabled the organization to hire artists to lead public mural installations and provide vivid makeovers for dumpsters and park benches near some of the city’s public housing projects. These neighborhoods subsequently report dramatic decreases in graffiti and street crime, Padilla says.
Youth on Record Executive Director Jami Duffy says the Imagine 2020 grant that her organization received two years ago helped further a mission to hire working musicians to steer music education initiatives for at-risk youth. “It was symbolic of the city’s commitment to local artists,” Duffy says. “When you receive a grant like we did, it really helps you implement your programs, and it also helps you leverage additional art funding.”
Another recipient during Imagine 2020’s inaugural year in 2015 was the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts. Program Director Meredith Badler says the funds helped CBCA establish a working group, now called Colorado Attorneys for the Arts. The group's impact will long outlast the initial monies from the City of Denver. The program serves as a “matchmaker between creative professionals with specific arts-related legal matters ,connecting them with a growing database of attorneys who are willing to help free-of-charge,” Badler says.
So even though this particular Imagine 2020 grant went toward an organization rather than artists or musicians, Denver’s creatives may be more likely to take on a big-picture project once they realize that free legal assistance is available to help them negotiate such roadblocks as trademarking, copyright laws or contract negotiations.
“It was really exciting to see the City of Denver put financial support behind some of those things they want to achieve” in the Cultural Plan, Badler says. “It’s an acknowledgement of the amazing work that’s already happening in our communities, and a way to take that work to the next level.”