To be a great arts organization you have to produce great art. First. You have to put on the kind of shows that win hearts and change lives, that make people comfortable and then make them squirm. You have to take chances and bet the house on ideas that could make you famous or put you right out of business.
Denver’s best cultural groups — the ones that truly get it right — do even more. They help us understand who we are, what we can be and how much fun we can have along the way. They accept their limits without all that grumbling nonprofits do about money, and they increase everyone’s access to art, dropping admission, funding innovation and putting paintbrushes and violins in the hands of kids who can’t afford them.
Which arts groups deserve your support? Who should you patronize and trust with your valuable time and your even more valuable contributions (remember, Colorado Gives Day is Dec. 8)? It has to be the ones that give back the most, the ones that remind us that mid-sized, mid-country
Denver is a world-class city — adventurous, generous, enviable and, most important, enjoyable.
These 10 groups get us there.
The Denver Philharmonic
Food trucks, nature hikes, free admission for anyone 12 and under. The Denver Phil, 67 years young, is redefining classical for the pop age, cutting the intimidation factor and giving the music back to the people. Want to Tweet during a show? Please do. Want to meet the players? It’s easy; everyone hangs out for an after-concert party.
The Phil may not hit every cue in the score; it’s a part-time orchestra without so much time to rehearse — or pay for musicians. But it pushes programming to places meant to please audiences, aiming above its comfort zone and giving local composers a chance to be heard — all without charging anyone more than $20 a concert.
The Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Arts
The Kirkland is, quite simply, a gift to the city, a tiny Cap Hill museum with a killer collection that welcomes everyone into its doors. (Well, everyone over 13 and older; its art deco dishware and mod sofas are up close and extremely fragile.) It’s the biggest advocate out there for Colorado art and continues to expand its precious holdings.
The museum is headed for the big-time, constructing a new headquarters in the Golden Triangle that could make it an international destination. Long-time fans hope it will maintain its charm and trust it will keep its integrity. The museum, funded mostly by philanthropists Merle Chambers and Hugh Grant, opts out of the public funding it easily could receive to support operations. It’s a role model.
Downtown Aurora Visual Arts
DAVA makes magic on a minuscule budget. It doesn’t just give kids a safe, healthy place to hang out after school, it teaches them skills and challenges them to be free and creative thinkers, using tools from potter’s wheels to desktop computers.
The organization is on the move, boldly expanding its cramped storefront studio on
Florence Street with the addition of a new, 3,000-square-foot studio — nothing fancy, only what it can afford to build so that kids have enough space to spread out and learn. DAVA isn’t about getting bigger, just big enough to do its job in a neighborhood challenged by economics and fired up by the promise that an increasingly diverse population can make our region a more interesting place.
Cleo Parker Robinson Dance
Cleo Parker Robinson is a local hero. Her dance company has been a Denver stalwart for 45 years, inspiring young people, giving dancers quality work, staging performances that are a heck of a lot of fun.
There have been down times along the way, financial disasters, health problems, performances that didn’t go as planned. But Robinson has persevered, understanding that art has to stare down the dangers and disappointments it can face in today’s cultural climate and remain ambitious. CPR is just that, resurrecting forgotten works, bringing dancers together from across the country, putting on events that bring together the city’s diverse communities. Robinson gets by — on her talents, her charm, her courage — and gives the cultural scene one of its few local stars.
The congregants at Denver’s Augustana Lutheran Church see art as part of their sacred mission, a way to reach into people’s souls, bring the community together and enliven spirits.
It’s a generous sort of evangelism that has turned the church into one of the most important music venues in the city, a home base for the local Stratus Chamber Orchestra and Colorado
Women’s Chorale, plus globe-trotting choirs, trios, organists and ensembles of every stripe that keep Denver’s musical ear broadly tuned. It’s all affordable with tickets as low as $10 a pop.
Lakewood Cultural Center
Art is booming in the suburbs these days with cultural centers popping up in every Colorado town with a whiff of self-esteem. Lakewood is setting the pace.
Its simple secret: programming. The center has a good eye for high-quality touring acts and puts them together for stellar seasons of music, dance and theater. Lakewood keeps its ambitions in check, booking performers that work well in its intimate space, and its prices low, often offering top-notch attractions for a fraction of what people pay in the urban core. The suburbs will never replace the city as the center of fine art, but they can supplement it, make good things easier to access, and enhance a community’s sense of itself.
El Sistema Colorado
Violins can be powerful tools in the hands of grade schoolers. They can help kids learn about music but also discipline, teamwork and personal responsibility. El Sistema connects kids with culture, handing out instruments and partnering with public schools in Denver to provide lessons in class and after.
The program starts small — kindergartners begin with cardboard violins and graduate to the real thing — and its goal isn’t to create the next generation of orchestra professionals. El Sistema
knows that music helps kids learn in other ways. Third-graders in Denver’s El Sistema programs score 11 percent higher on reading tests.
El Sistema links Denver to an international musical movement that believes disadvantaged kids deserve a chance and, like its peers across the continent, struggles to pay the bills. But once it commits to a school, it’s in it for the long haul, getting by on faith in donors, volunteers and community support.
Clyfford Still Museum
The Clyfford Still Museum has enjoyed every advantage a new museum might expect. Its billion dollar collection of Still’s abstract art was free, and it came, through some wrangling, with an endowment inusring financial success — $106 million at last count.
But here’s the thing: It’s grateful. The Still has lived up to its obligation to put on serious shows within the mega-limitations in its charter: No other artist can be shown, no café or gift shop, no lending (although that one is up for interpretation). The 4-year-old museum— a nonprofit, but the city owns the art — has moved decisively to increase attendance. Youths never pay, and everyone gets in free Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m. and all day on the last Friday of the month. Its education programs are free for schools, and so are its lectures, films and public programs.
Lighthouse Writers Workshop
The Lighthouse Writers Workshop keeps its profile low and its support for Denver’s literary scene high. It declares open warfare on writer’s block, sponsoring unbuttoned events like the Friday 500, where authors come together (over cookies or beer) and add 500 more words to their lit canons, plus it holds inspiring talks, readings and outings to museums.
Lighthouse turns the solitary experience of writing into a community exercise that brings people together, and it doesn’t discriminate. From French poetics to comic book writing, Lighthouse’s workshops validate it all.
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
The MCA comes up with one winning show after another, assembling exhibits of local and international art that travel the country, building the city’s reputation as a serious player.
But it contributes in bigger ways, dreaming up creative events that push the role of a museum beyond its traditional boundaries. The MCA’s “Mixed Taste” talks, combining unrelated topics (fern bars & George Orwell?) remain the most copied idea in the contemporary field. When the MCA dropped admission for kids 18 and under three years ago, museums across the city followed. Last week, the MCA announced it will give 1,000 artists free memberships.
The MCA could use more visitors, but it doesn’t count success in how many it serves, rather in how it serves.