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  • How Denver’s Art Scene Responded to Black Lives Matter

    A year after the murder of George Floyd, we checked in on Denver's cultural gatekeepers who promised to address institutional racism in the arts—and the artists who held them accountable.

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    The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 prompted many local arts organizations to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but whether those promises translated to lasting change, only time would tell. One year later, we contacted some of Denver’s cultural gatekeepers to find out if their actions matched their words.

    Who said it: Denver Arts & Venues (DAV)
    What it said: The organization, which manages city- and county-owned arts facilities and cultural initiatives, such as the Denver Public Art program, vowed it was “committed to living values of equity, inclusion, access, and justice, and we believe arts and culture can be at the center of social change.”
    What it did: In June, DAV and the city co-commissioned the Black Lives Matter mural on Broadway. That September, it also increased the proportion of seats on its grant-making and public-art selection panels from at least 50 percent to a majority representing historically marginalized communities, including individuals of color, people with disabilities, and those who identify as LGBTQ.
    Why it matters: The mural had an outsize impact on participating artists. “It changed the way I speak,” says Adri Norris, who led the project with Pat Milbery. “I’m comfortable with calling things as I see them. I talk about racial and gender inequality and experiencing them simultaneously.”

    Photo courtesy of Tattered Cover Book Store

    Who said it: Tattered Cover Book Store
    What it said: On June 6, Tattered Cover’s then-owners explained they had not voiced support for the BLM movement because it was “not for us to determine which ideas in the pages on our shelves are valid and which are not.” Two days later, after a wave of backlash, they backtracked, stating, “We understand that trust has been broken, and that we have a long road ahead of us to repair that trust.” They sold the company in December.
    What it did: The new ownership group has continued diversity-training initiatives started under its predecessor and launched a partnership with Clara Villarosa, who founded Denver’s first Black-owned bookstore. Villarosa’s Hue-Man Experience at Tattered Cover will curate shelves to ensure Black authors and perspectives are represented, make recommendations, and consult organizations seeking diverse literature.
    Why it matters: “For a very long time, [institutions] lived under a veil in which they believed that whatever issues there were, were on the margins, and they weren’t contributors to those issues,” says Viniyanka Prasad, founder of The Word, A Storytelling Sanctuary, a Denver-based nonprofit that promotes publishers and writers from underserved and diverse backgrounds. “Now they realize that failing to make equity and justice a priority contributes to the problem.”

    Who said it: Colorado Ballet
    What it said: The ballet pledged it would “reexamine all operations of the organization to identify ways in which Colorado Ballet can improve opportunities, policies and training to ensure a fair and equitable future for all.”
    What it did: Artistic director Gil Boggs noted that dancers of color comprise one-third of the company, but no Black Coloradans serve on the nonprofit’s leadership or board of trustees. “Honestly,” he says, “finding board members of color is not the easiest for a lot of arts organizations.” Following its March 5 interview with 5280, Colorado Ballet’s executive committee met to discuss how to further its search for diverse trustees.
    Why it matters: “There’s a bit of resistance, not from a bad place, but [board members] get defensive and try to justify and make excuses and say, ‘Well, we have a multicultural company. We’re fine,’” says Fernanda Oliveira, a former Colorado Ballet dancer. “They don’t realize the issue is bigger than individual thoughts about race, but once they do, then we can look forward to a more inclusive industry.”

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