Denver-area arts programs offer path to 'shared experience'

Arts centers, other programs can bridge gaps


Seemingly ever-rising levels of political polarization — particularly amid issues of the coronavirus pandemic — may be wearing on Coloradans, but one place where all of that can melt away is at an art performance on stage.

That’s according to Marcus Turner, a staff member at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities.

With “the arts, by their very nature — especially the performing arts, where you’re sitting in a space and experiencing something, whether it’s music or theater — you are, in that moment, having a shared experience with the people around you,” Turner said.

The arts can be a force for “bridging people and making connections for people who may not think the same,” Turner added.

Local arts centers are a presence in cities and towns across the Denver metro area, from Evergreen to Aurora to Parker. They’re places where crowds can see a play, catch a concert, or even — at some centers — hone their own art skills with a painting or dance class. But arts programs also play a deeper role in their communities.

“There’s a lot more to this world than just our politics, and a lot of times, the way you get to people is through other ways: through music, through art, through dance,” said Abraham Ramirez, president of the Commerce City Cultural Council.

Dialogue and connection

For Ramirez, who was born and raised in Commerce City, demographic changes were the motivation to serve on his local arts and culture organization.

Two of Commerce City’s large demographic groups were Japanese Americans and white residents after World War II until around the mid-1960s, according to Ramirez.

Now, in what he calls “core Commerce City,” roughly between 88th and 56th avenues, there is a substantial Hispanic population.

“Whereas when I was growing up, it was not,” said Ramirez, 68. As he observed the changing demographics, he thought getting involved in the arts scene would be a “great opportunity to show people all the different cultures we do have here,” Ramirez said.

While the city’s Cultural Council — a nonprofit body — doesn’t operate an arts center, it works to coordinate “culturally diverse events” such as the annual Music in the Park summer concert series and Commerce City Eats Week, a weeklong celebration of local cuisine, according to the city’s website. The Cultural Council also administers public art in the city.

At an event, a “Latin band played ranchero music — upbeat sound, boom-boom-boom bass kind of sound. I had a couple sitting there, they’re German, and they said, ‘We love this polka music they’re playing,’” Ramirez laughed. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Turner, the director of communications and audience services at the Arvada Center, said arts centers can provide opportunities for dialogue and connection.

The Arvada Center has taken steps to foster dialogue in audiences through “talkbacks” with actors or through surveys. Talkbacks are akin to a question-and-answer session — after performances of some plays, the actors are made available to the audience, at least before the coronavirus pandemic, Turner said.

A driver in communities

Another reason arts programming is a staple in communities: The arts are an “economic engine” in the Denver metro area, which drives governments and individuals to invest in arts, Turner said.

More economic prosperity and a higher rate of economic development tend to mark regions and communities that have arts presences, he added.

“The other more fluffy, touchy-feely reason” why communities promote art is that “arts are good for the soul,” Turner said with a laugh. He said arts can “enrich a person’s life” in general.

“The truth is: The world would continue to spin if the arts didn’t exist. (But) what kind of world would that be?” Turner said. People would miss out on “beauty, hope, sadness, joy and inspiration,” he added.

The range of emotional connection to the arts “creates a tapestry in a community and in the world, frankly, that would be missed if gone but sometimes is not acknowledged as being there,” Turner said.

An arts newcomer

Despite the long list of foundations and other entities related to the arts in the Denver suburbs, Centennial has stepped into the arts arena too, announcing the formation of the Centennial Arts and Cultural Foundation.

It’s a nonprofit whose initial efforts are being led by Centennial Mayor Stephanie Piko and City Councilmembers Tammy Maurer and Kathy Turley, according to an August news release.

Randy Pye, Centennial’s first mayor and a founder of the city, has long felt Centennial should be more involved in the arts.

“We never approached the arts. We left that to other cities,” Pye said in a 2019 interview. “If you’re a citizen of Centennial, you don’t identify Centennial with any kind of arts. And that’s a major part of a city. I’ve always thought we should have a foundation here about arts.”

The new foundation in Centennial says its mission is “to celebrate, inspire, and connect art and culture in Centennial.”

“CACF is actively engaging and exploring opportunities for art placements in Centennial,” the news release said. “This includes community events, working with our arts community, and researching how best to commemorate the rich history of our city and our region.”


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