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Felicia Gallegos Pettis as Lupe Briseno in War of the Flowers / Photo by Steven Abeyta for Su Teatro

Efforts to Help Local Artists as the Coronavirus Shuts Down Venues

It is just the start, but here are some ways people are helping creatives keep doing what they do best: create.

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When you’re sitting in a theater’s audience and watching a performance, it is easy to forget the work—all the tiny pieces—that makes a show happen. After all, that magic-like amnesia is part of why you are at the theater. But from costumes to music to lights to ticket sales, there’s a small army of people who help put on the productions you enjoy.

So, when a show is canceled, the impact extends far beyond your unused ticket. And that’s what happened at Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center last week.

War of the Flowers, a play about a 1969 strike for labor rights at the Kitayama Carnation plant in Brighton, opened on Thursday. Attendance was down on Friday and by Saturday, the group—which formed in 1972—had made the decision to postpone the rest of what was supposed to be a 10-show run. “We only got to do two shows,” says executive artistic director Tony Garcia.

The decision was tough, especially because Garcia knew it would negatively impact the actors and musicians involved in the production. “If we closed the show, what were they going to do for that income?” Garcia says. “We made a decision to pay everyone for all 10 shows.”

He says it was an easy choice. “Part of why we exist is to support our artists,” he says. But there are more decisions to make. There are future shows, a national tour, and a building that requires upkeep even if audiences don’t fill the seats. He’s concerned about creatives who’ve been hit twice with canceled gigs or performances and losing teaching opportunities. There’s also food in the theaters’ freezers, which Garcia is giving away. “We just have to survive this,” Garcia says. “That’s what we do as people…it is the story of human existence.”

Gary Steuer / Courtesy of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation

It also helped that the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, which funds local arts and creative endeavors, stepped in with extra money for Su Teatro and 42 other organizations that it has supported recently. The emergency funding came together in just a matter of days. “We [were] extremely concerned about what was happening to all the cultural institutions—from the biggest ones to the smallest ones,” says Gary Steuer, the foundation’s CEO and president.

The foundation felt strongly that the organizations it works with needed funds—fast. And that those groups needed that support without strings attached to how it was used. This, Steuer explains, wasn’t a time for a lot of paperwork or a new grant process. These were all organizations that the foundation works with and it wanted to send a message of trust.

The foundation wrote checks early this week for 10 percent of whatever grant amount was last awarded to the organizations it supports. “The response has really been extraordinary,” Steuer says. “The whole point was to get the money out quickly, fairly, and equitably.”

He also says that this is just a first step (there are many efforts—like this one just announced by Mayor Michael Hancock—in the works to help the cultural community) and that the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation will continue to look at ways to get involved. “As a funder, there is a role that we can play,” Steuer says. “When we look at recovery, this is a critically important sector for health and vibrancy.”

Courtesy of the Denver Metro Area Artist COVID-19 Relief Fund

Another, separate effort to support artists is helmed by Merhia Wiese, who was named a 5280 Disrupter last year for her work with Meow Wolf and advocating for a living wage for creatives. After hearing about an artist relief fund in Seattle, she started asking people if there was an equivalent effort in Denver. When she didn’t find one, her friend told her to create one herself. So, she did.

“It made me start thinking about the people who are already struggling to make it in this economy,” Wiese says. “I talked to my partner, Andrew Novak…and we started talking to some of our friends.” She’s gathered the support of Novak, as well as local arts supporters Marnie Ward, Kia Ruiz, Quana Madison, and Molina Speaks to manage the Denver Metro Area Artist COVID-19 Relief Fund.

The fund aims to provide emergency money to artists impacted by cancellations, layoffs, and more. “The intention is: What is the minimum amount you need to meet an immediate expense?” she says. “What do you need to help you to live?” The team, which is working pro bono and will not receive funds, will review all applications for aid and make decisions about how the money is handed out with a priority to groups that have been historically marginalized, including people of color and LGBTQ individuals. “We will make sure that they can continue,” Wiese says.

The fund has already raised more than $5,000 but has also received applications for $30,000 in aid. Wiese hopes donations from the community will close that gap. And the team of artists she’s assembled are committed to making that happen. “I think it is important to see what we can do to uplift people,” says Quana Madison. “Crisis makes community in unique ways.”

This article will be part of ongoing coverage about how COVID-19 is impacting our cultural community. If you have a story tip, please email us at digital@5280.com.

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