Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Denver and Detroit: Link me, two-time

By Barry Johnson

We look to other cities both for good ideas and cautionary tales. These two links take us Detroit, where the Detroit Symphony strike is full of the latter, and Denver, which has shown a far more robust interesting in funding the arts than most other American cities.

The planned art center in Parker, Colorado.
Since it created a metro-wide Scientific and Cultural Facilities District 22 years ago, Denver has become the Shining City on the Hill for arts groups around the country. The district's taxing system sends about $40 million a year coursing through the veins of local arts organizations. Now, the city is seeing a sudden blossoming of smaller arts centers, specifically two in the southern reaches of the metro area, as reported in the Denver Post. These aren't specifically connected to the cultural facilities district -- they have their own funding mechanisms, public and private -- and it might be difficult to prove a strict cause-and-effect relationship, but the correlation is at least interesting. 

In some ways, Denver is an urbanist's worst nightmare, with its rings of sprawl, emphasis on superhighways and dearth of urban amenities. Its streets certainly aren't made for walking. But its also at least interesting that one way its suburbs are attempting to define themselves, give themselves a distinct sense of place, is through arts centers. Not little ones, either. Both of the ones under construction  cost north of $20 million. Undoubtedly, everyone will have to drive to them, but as Denver grows and the traffic there gets worse, the population of south metro will likely find it far easier and satisfying to attend events at these arts centers rather than dare the trip to the downtown cultural center -- better 15 minutes in the car than 45 minutes or an hour.

There's a lot to munch on in the Post account -- the importance of a local developer to one of the centers, for example, or the emphasis on arts education at the other.  But just the fact of them, in this economy, is worth mulling: Some people think the arts are a pretty good investment.

Drew McManus's Adaptistration blog followed the Detroit Symphony strike closely, and McManus is also interested in the aftermath, which at this point couldn't look less promising.  McManus analyzed the set of weekend stories from Detroit, and he found that the musicians are distrustful of a management team that steered the orchestra onto the financial rocks in the first place, and the managers are still moaning about the amount of money they have to raise.  Management might have plunged  into discussions with the musicians about how they could start doing the Memphis Style outreach that the new contract call for or announced a new financial plan, new funding initiative or a new set of donors who agreed to help once the strike was settled. But that's not what they did. So, I guess that makes me distrustful, too.


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