How artist-friendly is Den­ver?

Talk­ing with Michael Se­man about the fu­ture of our cul­tural scene

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Wen­zel

As the furor over the city’s sur­prise evic­tions at un­der­ground art venue Rhinoceropo­lis con­tin­ues to re­ver­ber­ate, Den­ver of­fi­cials have re­sponded with a fo­rum for “safe cre­ative spa­ces and artspace col­lab­o­ra­tion.”

Set for Jan. 18 at McNi­chols Civic Cen­ter Build­ing, the com­mu­nity event will al­low Den­ver Fire and Com­mu­nity Plan­ning & Devel­op­ment board to re­spond di­rectly to con­cerns that Den­ver is tar­get­ing — or at the very least dis­count­ing — its artists amid rapid devel­op­ment and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in the River North neigh­bor­hood, and else­where around the city.

That’s no small thing, con­sid­er­ing boost­ers fre­quently tout Den­ver’s art scene and lo­cal cre­atives as cen­tral to its rep­u­ta­tion and eco­nomic health.

Metro Den­ver’s cul­tural scene gen­er­ated $1.8 bil­lion in spend­ing last year, ac­cord­ing to the Colorado Busi­ness Com­mit­tee for the Arts. More­over, Colorado ranked No. 1 in a re­cent re­port from the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts for the per­cent­age of res­i­dents who per­son­ally per­form or cre­ate art­works (with 64.6 per­cent of adults).

But as Ray Mark Ri­naldi wrote in a Den­ver Post op-ed last week, “There’s also a broader re­al­iza­tion that Den­ver has been liv­ing a lie, act­ing like a place that’s friendly to the art com­mu­nity while giv­ing it the shaft.”

En­ter Michael Se­man, a newly ap­pointed re­searcher at The Uni­ver­sity of Colorado Den­ver’s Col­lege of Arts and Me­dia, whose job is to ex­am­ine how the city and state will con­tinue to grow as a cul­tural hub.

Se­man’s un­usual back­ground — as a for­mer Hol­ly­wood in­dus­try in­sider and pro­moter, and a still-ac­tive writer and mu­si­cian — would not seem to pro­vide a di­rect path to a Ph.D. in ur­ban plan­ning and public pol­icy.

The 48-year-old, who moved to Den­ver from Den­ton, Texas, in Oc­to­ber, will also be work­ing an odd job here. From his po­si­tion at CU Den­ver, Se­man will col­lab­o­rate with city ma­chin­ery like Den­ver Arts & Venues and Colorado Cre­ative In­dus­tries, the state’s art coun­cil, to gather data and “in­form pol­icy mak­ers how fu­ture in­vest­ment in cre­ative in­dus­tries will con­trib­ute to over­all eco­nomic growth,” ac­cord­ing to CU.

He’s what you might call a big thinker, or gen­er­ously, a vi­sion­ary. But is he an ob­jec­tive scholar or a civic booster? An artist or a critic?

The following con­ver­sa­tion is com­piled and edited from sev­eral phone and e-mail in­ter­views with Se­man over the past few weeks.

Q: Be­fore we dive in, can you tell us what qual­i­fies you for this job?

A: I worked at CAA (Cre­ative Artist Agency, in Bev­erly Hills, Calif.) from about 1996 to 2003 and worked my way up from the guy who made color copies to an ex­ec­u­tive who worked with in­ter­nal projects and “cul­tural in­tel­li­gence.” That in­volved match­ing en­ter­tain­ment en­ti­ties with cor­po­rate en­ti­ties, so things like Harry Pot­ter with Coca-Cola. I was also de­vel­op­ing the Warped Tour and play­ing in a band ( Shiny Around the Edges). I did all I wanted to do there and ended up in Den­ton, Texas, where I went back to grad­u­ate school for ur­ban ge­ogra-

phy be­cause I was fas­ci­nated by cities.

Q: That sort of re­search would seem to play into what you’re do­ing here.


I based my mas­ter’s the­sis on Sad­dle Creek Records’ $10.2 mil­lion mixed-used ur­ban devel­op­ment project ( Slow­down) in Omaha that cat­alyzed an en­tire area of the city. It hit a nerve for me be­cause no one had re­ally looked at that be­fore: how ur­ban artists and mu­si­cians had helped re­de­vel­op­ment. I learned to ex­plain to peo­ple at the pol­icy level why mu­sic scenes were im­por­tant for their city, and one way of do­ing that is through the lan­guage of eco­nom­ics. My Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion, based on the frame­work of Har­vard econ­o­mist Michael Porter, was “What if Hewlett-Packard had started a band?”

Q: What have you learned that’s ap­pli­ca­ble to Den­ver?


Mu­sic scenes are more than just a col­lec­tion of mu­si­cians and venue own­ers. It’s re­ally a group of peo­ple — artists, pho­tog­ra­phers, de­sign­ers and other cre­atives, plus teach­ers, real es­tate ad­vis­ers, non­profit ad­min­is­tra­tors — who are ed­u­cated or highly skilled and help­ing a city move for­ward. It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand when look­ing at an in­ter­twined econ­omy that what helps one cul­tural scene could very well be help­ing an­other, and more broadly, the city’s econ­omy.

Q: And it looks like you’ve also ex­plored that con­cept in your writ­ing?


I got a book deal with the Uni­ver­sity of Texas Press and at the same time was writ­ing for The At­lantic’s Ci­tyLab and look­ing at this phe­nom­e­non across the coun­try. Richard Florida (who coined the term cre­ative class) and I be­came friendly and started work­ing to­gether as I be­gan giv­ing talks across the coun­try. This whole idea of bring­ing cul­tural pro­duc­ers like mu­si­cians and pol­icy mak­ers to the same ta­ble helps them re­al­ize they both want the same things and can help each other. And hon­estly, most of the time it’s not ex­pen­sive, if it costs any­thing at all. It’s just a mat­ter of un­der­stand­ing the value from both sides.

A: What are you most in­ter­ested in learn­ing in Den­ver?


One of the rea­sons I was re­ally ex­cited to come to Den­ver is that I’m fas­ci­nated by the power that all-ages, DIY venues have, and how they har­ness the younger peo­ple that are emerg­ing as mu­si­cians and artists. I’m also in­ter­ested in how that is con­nect­ing with tech­no­log­i­cal cre­ation. New York City has the Silent Barn, an all-ages, DIY venue but also some­what of a maker space and in­cu­ba­tor for tech­nol­ogy. All-ages scenes are the mi­nor leagues. That is where your ta­lent is blos­som­ing within your city. Some cities are re­ally em­brac­ing that, like Seat­tle or places in Michi­gan.

Q: Let’s talk about Rhinoceropo­lis, which was raided in re­sponse to the Oak­land ware­house fire that killed 36 peo­ple. What’s the vi­a­bil­ity of re­ly­ing on places like these for artis­tic re­gen­er­a­tion when they’re so clearly vul­ner­a­ble to dis­as­ter, or at least clo­sure?


It’s still com­pletely vi­able to rely on DIY spa­ces as in­cu­ba­tors of in­no­va­tion in the arts, as im­por­tant foun­da­tion pieces of a city’s cre­ative econ­omy, and as de­vel­op­ers of com­mu­ni­ties with city-wide net­works. How­ever, in a time when eco­nomic forces are rapidly re­shap­ing the down­town cores of many cities across the coun­try, those who run these spa­ces and lo­cal gov­ern­ments need to take steps to en­sure they be­come less vul­ner­a­ble to pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tions.

Q: How do they do that? A:

It may re­quire think­ing in a broader geo­graphic frame­work and re­lo­cat­ing to less ex­pan­sive space out­side of the city’s core, set­ting up the or­ga­ni­za­tion as a non­profit, part­ner­ing with an­other arts or­ga­ni­za­tion that is a non­profit, con­nect­ing with phil­an­thropic-minded in­di­vid­u­als and or­ga­ni­za­tions that could pro­vide guid­ance and sup­port. In the case of of­fer­ing liv­ing space, a re-ex­am­i­na­tion of the risks and ben­e­fits as­so­ci­ated with that op­tion. It will most likely re­quire a mix of all of the above.

Q: Writer and ac­tivist Bree Davies has called Den­ver’s re­cent ac­tions a “witch hunt on DIY.” Are you wor­ried you’ll be per­ceived as be­ing in the city’s pocket?


The fact that many in Den­ver and na­tion­wide were im­me­di­ately and pas­sion­ately vo­cal in their dis­plea­sure of the abrupt clos­ing of Rhinoceropo­lis was not sur­pris­ing, and af­firm­ing of how im­por­tant these spa­ces are to the ex­tended com­mu­ni­ties that form around them. This pas­sion could never un­der­mine my goals, it sim­ply puts an added spot­light on them and fur­ther en­cour­ages me to do what I can to fa­cil­i­tate the con­tin­ued life of these spa­ces in Den­ver.

Q: It’s also not as sim­ple as “the city wants to shut us down,” I imag­ine.


Yes, it was a city depart­ment that took ac­tion to tem­po­rar­ily shut­ter Rhinoceropo­lis and its sis­ter-space, Glob, for code vi­o­la­tions. At the same time, oth­ers in the city and in the ad­min­is­tra­tive body guid­ing the RiNo Arts Dis­trict, while not aware of the struc­tural de­tails of the spa­ces, were aware of the legacy and value these par­tic­u­lar spa­ces af­ford the dis­trict and city and have been con­sid­er­ing ways to help them con­tinue as a vi­tal piece of the area’s cul­tural land­scape.

Q: As an aca­demic, does it un­der­mine your work to know your re­search is be­ing used by gov­ern­ment lead­ers?


I am trained as a so­cial sci­en­tist (mean­ing) that when deal­ing with data — quan­ti­ta­tive or qual­i­ta­tive — I have learned to bring no bias to the in­ter­pre­ta­tion and anal­y­sis. I want the city to work to­gether with cre­ative pro­duc­ers to ben­e­fit both. Sugar-coat­ing any­thing or ob­scur­ing facts is not go­ing to help either side.

Q: What’s hap­pen­ing in Den­ver now — the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and re­de­vel­op­ment, the artis­tic soul-search­ing — has a prece­dent in cities like Austin, Texas, and Port­land, Ore. What’s dif­fer­ent about Den­ver?


The ad­van­tage that Den­ver has is that it can look to cities like Austin, Port­land, and Seat­tle and see how rapid growth threat­ened, and some­times harmed, their cre­ative scenes, what lo­cal pol­i­cy­mak­ers have or haven’t done to mit­i­gate cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, and proac­tively ad­dress is­sues that threaten the sus­tain­abil­ity of its cre­ative econ­omy.

Q: The city’s al­ready done some of those things, of course, but it still feels like we’re at a precipice in some ways.


Un­for­tu­nately when you’re “dis­cov­ered,” real es­tate val­u­a­tion goes hand-in-hand with hav­ing a re­ally thriv­ing econ­omy. Den­ver has very pro­gres­sive peo­ple who are cog­nizant of that, and I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in learn­ing how to mit­i­gate those ef­fects of marginal­iza­tion of artists and res­i­dents, per­haps through pol­icy. You can call it the pi­o­neer spirit, but Den­ver seems will­ing to ad­dress these is­sues and re­ally try to cre­ate a sus­tain­able city for ev­ery­one. I mean, I’m a trans­plant, too. But I hope I can be a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence.

Michael Se­man stands for a por­trait at his of­fice on the Au­raria cam­pus. Den­ver Arts & Venues has joined with CU Den­ver to ap­point Se­man as the first-ever re­searcher tasked with grow­ing the city’s cre­ative econ­omy. RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

Michael Se­man.

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