Could Denver’s boom economy be putting a squeeze on artists? – Denver Business Journal

Denver’s record-breaking growth is a boon for women who own small businesses in the creative industries. It’s also a curse.

In Colorado’s capital, which boasts among the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, many artists who show their work in Bobbi Walker’s gallery in the Golden Triangle Museum District cannot afford health insurance. The city’s escalating rents necessitated that some move to substandard housing in the foothills. Others were forced to leave warehouses they painstakingly converted to showcase their work.

“Denver is very fortunate – Colorado is very fortunate,” Walker said. “With Imagine 2020, the city put together an arts template picked up by other states.”

“Our artists built our community and made it cool, and now they’re being pushed to the fringe,” she added. “How do we educate industry and developers about this?”

Walker spoke at an event convened by the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts to discuss how small creative businesses owned and operated by women are at the forefront of Denver’s flourishing cultural scene.

Cultural nonprofits generate $1.8 billion in economic activity and employ nearly 11,000 in the seven-county metro area, according to the CBCA’s 2016 Economic Activity Study of Metro Denver Culture. These businesses feed off of Coloradans’ proclivity for the arts. The state ranked first in the nation for the percentage of residents who perform or create artworks, according to National Endowment for the Arts.

Seven women who spoke on a panel at the “Backstage with Women in the Arts” event at Walker Fine Art on Jan. 25 detailed how harnessing this creative energy propelled the organizations they lead to profitability and record attendance. They also highlighted efforts to incorporate diversity into the region’s arts scene and to introduce students to creative pursuits.

Wende Curtis started her career at Comedy Works as a cocktail waitress 31 years ago. She now owns and operates the 200-employee business. Her two Denver clubs serve more than 250,000 patrons each year and are known nationwide as a place for comedians to show what they’ve got.

“We are not a bar, we are an art form,” Curtis told the 100-member crowd. “Ask any comedian in the country and we are in their top three.”

Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Kristen Blessman conceived the event with Christin Crampton Day, executive director of the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts as a way to inspire women to found their own businesses and to promote each other’s work.

“Let’s get these businesses to grow and hire more women and let’s get more women to the top,” Blessman said.

Women are increasingly looking to escape corporate board rooms where people throw chairs – an experience recounted by several women on the panel early in their careers – to become entrepreneurs. More than 9.4 million firms in the United States are now owned by women and employ nearly 8 million people while generating $1.5 trillion in sales, according to a 2015 report by the National Association of Women Business Owners.

These leaders are finding Denver presents fertile ground to grow. Darlene C. Ritz moved back to her hometown after a 20-year absence in 2014 to launch the Fashion Design department at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. Ironically, the campus is situated near the pink tower marking Casa Bonita, where Ritz worked in her first job as the only female dishwasher.

“Colorado’s gone through artistic growth that allowed me to come back and make a living as an artist,” said Ritz. She also owns DCR Studios, which designs clothes “for the average sized human with above average taste,” according to the company’s web site. She founded the business in part to show students how to reach their goal to become an independent designer.

Several panelists highlighted their efforts to assure art reaches a broader audience as Denver struggles with gentrification. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which operates venues and offers Broadway musicals, cabaret and plays at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, is starting a new conversation in the region about how art can help overcome the hateful discourse in politics, said Janice Sinden, DCPA president and chief executive officer.

“I’m really not OK that 86 percent of our audience is white, especially having worked for a black mayor who every single day was often the only black person at the table,” said Sinden, who took the job in 2016 after a career in politics, including five years as Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s chief of staff.

Sinden cited “Disgraced,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar that highlights prejudice experienced by Muslim-Americans. DCPA held “Talkback” discussions after each performance, engaging hundreds of patrons in a dialogue about the challenges experienced by Muslim-Americans.

Panelists agreed that fostering diversity in the arts is key to assuring Denver’s cultural scene remains relevant. Along with a push to educate the community about the importance of the creative industries to the state’s economy, the entrepreneurs called on all business owners to be mindful of the disruption caused by unchecked growth.

“I’m concerned we are squeezing culture out of the community,” Walker said. “The quality of life here is because of our artists.”

Jennifer Oldham is a Denver freelance writer.

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