How artist-friendly is Denver?
Talking with Michael Seman about the future of our cultural scene
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