At times, it seemed as if everything except streaming had been cancelled in Denver this year.
Dozens of empty theaters and clubs prompted hybrid live-and-digital experiments that ended in frustration as often as success. Decades-long cultural institutions disappeared, some from a lack of revenue, some already nearing the end of their natural lifespans and pushed over the edge by the pandemic shutdowns. Nothing rushed in to take their places.
“Historically, it’s as big as some of the major closings over the years, like (San Francisco’s) Keystone Korner or The Fillmore,” Carlos Lando, program director for jazz station KUVO 89.3-FM, said after Denver jazz club El Chapultepec closed Dec. 8. The venue, bar and former Mexican restaurant, which has stood since 1933 at the corner of 20th and Market streets, represented the city’s pre-boomtime culture to many residents.
Minus local concerts and touring acts — or the ability to serve alcohol with any consistency — independent venues mounted fundraising campaigns, last week joined by the East Colfax Avenue’s historic Lion’s Lair. Hi-Dive co-owner Curtis Wallach and partner Suzanne Magnuson left Denver to invest in Trinidad, an artsy town on the New Mexico border, as did cannabis and Sexy Pizza entrepreneur Kayvan Khalatbari and longtime members of the Denver comedy scene.
The lack of public cultural gatherings, from Red Rocks concerts to street festivals, increased feelings of isolation. Artistic world premieres evaporated. Still hesitant, performing arts companies pushed everything into 2021, where hope glimmers hazily.
Here are just a few things Denver culture lost in 2020, along with some things to potentially look forward to next year.
Lost: Venues that closed permanently include El Chapultepec, Three Kings Tavern, Live @ Jack’s and Le Cour, plus dozens more bars and restaurants that hosted live bands, DJs and karaoke nights, from Armida’s to Zephyr Lounge and Tooey’s Off Colfax.
Also lost: Every major tour and most scheduled, indoor concerts from mid-March on, whether postponed or canceled. Once unthinkable, we skipped Five Points Jazz Festival, Denver Botanic Gardens’ Summer Concert Series, Levitt Pavilion’s season, Westword Music Showcase, The Underground Music Showcase, and Denver Day of Rock, among many others.
How many transcendent nights singing under the stars were lost? How many chance meetings among fans of the same band, whether at an all-ages art space or Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre? It’s incalculable.
The economic losses are not, however, totaling about 90% of the industry’s 2019 revenue, according to the National Independent Venue Association. At this point in the pandemic, the average music venue in Colorado is bleeding an average of $45,000 per month, according to Chris Zacher, executive director of Levitt Pavilion, a public-private partnership that usually presents dozens of free concerts in Denver each summer.
“All these music organizations coming together and suddenly becoming lobbyists wasn’t really in our realm of expertise,” Zacher said. “But if any music innovation has been done in Colorado, it’s on the lobbying side.”
Looking forward to: $15 billion in federal funding for music venues, movie theaters and cultural institutions, which could arrive soon depending on the fate of the Save Our Stages Act (it passed Congress, but awaits the President’s signature). Also: Late spring or summer 2021, which is the earliest outdoor shows could return, according to industry estimates — state mandates willing.
Indoor shows will take longer, likely late fall or early winter 2021, experts say. The glut of programming caused by artists playing rescheduled shows or touring after a long absence will benefit consumers, promoters believe, although that pent-up demand will also route money toward countless cash-strapped venues and artists.
The question is whether the infrastructure that took decades to build can hold out until then. Multinational corporations with Denver offices, such as AEG Presents and Live Nation, will still be around, despite being barred from sharing in the Save Our Stages funding (Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz has already indicated he will lend his company AEG some cash, according to Billboard). In a few months, and without funding, a half-dozen more Denver indie venues including Dazzle Jazz and The Oriental Theater may not be around.
“The funding is important, and so are organizations like CIVA and NIVA,” Zacher said, referring to Colorado and national independent venue associations, respectively. “Our independent venues will need to continue collaborating so we can survive the next waves of this thing, whenever they arrive. … This isn’t about pivoting to livestreaming, it’s about trying to save our lives.”
Lost: Every traditional artistic season in the metro area, including theater, classical music, ballet, contemporary dance, opera, and most forms of stand-up and improv comedy.
Performing-arts nonprofits and individual artists stood united in their need to raise funds, and many — such as Cleo Parker Robinson Dance — were able to supplement traditional earned income with virtual classes. But all, including the mighty Denver Center for the Performing Arts, were forced to lay off or furlough staff and cancel their seasons, which were stuffed with touring artists and exciting collaborations.
Highly anticipated world premieres, such as David Byrne and Mala Gaonker’s “Theatre of the Mind,” would have brought increased international attention to Denver Center’s Off Center group, along with touring Broadway premieres for its Broadway and cabaret division. Original works from acclaimed Denver companies such as Curious Theater Company and Wonderbound were shelved. Only Comedy Works, with severely reduced capacity, held anything like regular indoor performances, and even those didn’t start until later in the year.
Looking forward to: The flood of held-back shows, which will only return when it’s safe to perform indoors, likely late fall/early winter 2021, according to industry watchers.
Despite the challenging forecast for 2021, some Front Range entrepreneurs won’t be deterred. Comic and producer David Rodriguez is investing in the Fort Collins stand-up scene with The Comedy Fort, which he hopes to open in new few months, having bought and refurbished the shuttered Hodi’s Half Note.
“I’m positive we’ll still be around when the doors are finally allowed to open,” Rodriguez said in September. Let’s hope he’s right.
Festivals and conventions
Lost: Nearly every major, metro-area cultural festival, convention and parade from mid-March on, including Cinco de Mayo, Denver PrideFest, Denver Pop Culture Con, Cherry Creek Arts Festival, High Plains Comedy Festival, Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, A Taste of Colorado, Mile High Horror Con and StarFest.
Denver Pop Culture Con, in fact, has canceled through 2021, citing the city’s medical use of the Colorado Convention Center. With so much uncertainty on tap next year, does it even make sense to plan for events such as the Great American Beer Festival?
It depends on the festival.
Looking forward to: Large, themed cultural gatherings, likely starting back up fall 2021.
Whatever next year looks like, Denver Film has partnered with Sundance to present digital premieres at its Sie FilmCenter in January (capacity to be determined), which could point the way forward for organizations that lend themselves to streaming. Denver Film Fest and Supernova went that direction out of necessity in 2020, but offered cheaper tickets alongside robust virtual programming that treated titles with the same respect as an in-person event.
“I was really proud of us for building our virtual cinema platform, which wasn’t just for the film festival,” said Keith Garcia, artistic director of the Sie FilmCenter. “So many aspects of that, from reaching people who are differently abled to connecting with out-of-towners, allowed us to become more accessible to a new audience. We’re going to continue exploring that next year.”
Lost: Unrestricted indoor and outdoor experiences from mid-March on.
Denver’s streets, expanded patios and public parks became our new gathering places in 2020, but some walled-off spaces — Denver Zoo, Denver Botanic Gardens — slipped through thanks to variances. Museums did their best to adapt to head-swiveling mandates, as with Denver Art Museum and MCA Denver. Shuttered touring premieres, such as the “Carne y Arena” virtual-reality experience at the Hangar at Stanley Marketplace, took the holidays off entirely. The show tentatively returns Jan. 7, organizers said.
Looking forward to: A few things that may help reshape the city’s character, such as an expanded shared-streets program. Meow Wolf Denver also plans to open its first Colorado installation in late 2021, hoping that its largest-yet interactive sculpture/art experience will become Colorado’s next international tourist draw.
The River North Art District, a subject of perpetual praise and controversy, is anticipating the opening of RiNo ArtPark in mid-2021, a gathering place that will feature public art, attractively designed seating and repurposed buildings along the South Platte River corridor.
“After several years of advocacy, in February, 2018, the City of Denver granted the RiNo Art District a letter of intent to lease (two) buildings that were originally slated for demolition,” organizers wrote on rinoartpark.com. “Through this partnership, the art district will be responsible for the renovation, build out, activation, and programming for these buildings in a way never before seen in a public park in Colorado.”
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