Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Some Thoughts About the Arts and Philanthropy - From Aspen

Recently I spent some time with Carolyne Heldman of Aspen Public Radio for her program CrossCurrents, and the segment has just recently aired and been posted to their website. It was a wide-ranging interview covering how I got into the arts/philanthropy/policy world in the first place, my thoughts on the challenges arts groups face, and finally, the work of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and the state of the arts in Denver and Colorado. I thought my blog followers might find this worth listening to: http://aspenpublicradio.org/post/crosscurrents-gary-steuer-bonfils-stanton-foundation

Carolyne was a great interviewer and got me talking about some things I am not sure I have talked about before - at least not to the media. And my apologies in advance to the many groups and programs I could have mentioned in the interview but didn't, or that got edited out. I was particularly aware in listening to it that in talking about Denver and Colorado's great cultural assets I cited all visual arts examples, and there are of course MANY important performing arts groups: the Symphony, Opera and Ballet companies, as well as Central City Opera, Wonderbound, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and Curious Theatre, just to name a few. Given the Foundation's grant focus on the Denver metropolitan region, I also did not really talk about the out-sized (relative to population) cultural assets of Aspen  itself - from the Aspen Music Festival, to the Aspen Art Museum, to Anderson Ranch, to the Aspen Institute (especially the Ideas Festival) and JAS Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Aspen is truly an international cultural mecca. Even if they went unmentioned on-air, the least I can do is cite them here on my blog. It is inevitable in these conversations that there are some omissions, so I hope everyone will be understanding.

Frankly, I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the extraordinary cultural assets of the Colorado mountain towns like Aspen, Vail and Telluride, and that combined with the cultural assets of Denver it is a pretty unprecedented concentration of world-class culture within just a few hours drive. Yet, from a consumer and patron standpoint, they have too often operated in different worlds. The cultural patrons and second home owners of Aspen and Vail for the most part fly in directly to those towns from wherever in the US or abroad they reside (whether commercial or private), and while they may change planes in Denver (or rent a car there) they don't really take advantage of the cultural offerings of the City. And this is a shame because the vast majority of them are culturally sophisticated people (and, yes, with wealth) who can and should be appreciating Denver's cultural assets. Also, the audiences for these Rocky Mountain town cultural assets tend to be largely national and international, with a pretty small local contingent - a shame given that these cultural offerings are so accessible to Denverites.

Similarly, the great cultural festivals in the mountain towns tend to overlook Denver artists and arts organizations when doing their programming. Because their audiences come from all over the nation and the world they tend to strive in their programming to present "the best" art, and there is a tendency to view local artists as being somehow lesser. While perhaps many years ago that perspective may have had some basis, in fact, I think some of the local arts groups ARE now world-class, and merit consideration. There is a role for these festivals to play in selectively introducing local artists to such a discerning audience. This came up recently in a story aired by Colorado Public Radio: "Few Colorado artists highlighted in international arts festivals in Rockies."  In that story State Film Commissioner Donald Zuckerman notes that the Telluride Film Festival is not really produced locally, but in Northern California, and that only 20% of its audience is from Colorado. And to quote directly from the CPR story: Garrett Ammon, the artistic director of Wonderbound, believes Colorado’s lack of showing at the big festivals has to do with the fact that perceptions about Colorado artists may still be stuck in the past. “I look at some of these big festivals in the mountains and they grew out of a very different time, when Colorado didn’t necessarily have a lot of cultural offerings," Ammon says. "If you’re looking to bring cultural experiences in, then you’re going to build the systems to do that.”

If would be great if we could get even a small share of the Aspen/Vail/Telluride summer arts crowds to spend some time in Denver getting to know its cultural riches, and would also be great if more of our great local arts groups and artists could occasionally find a place in the programming of the festivals. That said - not a bad problem to have in Colorado: so many breathtaking cultural experiences to go along with the breathtaking setting!

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