Arts and culture serve as community builders
When I arrive in a city on a business trip, the first thing my hosts usually show me is the work of a local artist. Thinking back on all of these cherished local spots in Denver I have visited over my years of coming here — from Big Blue Bear to the River North Art District — I’m reminded that art and artists are integrated into everything. The arts often embody the most iconic and memorable sights of our cities and communities, and are the very expression of who we are. My visits to Denver show me that community is a core value — there is a strong sense of belonging, of welcoming others, of standing by your neighbor, colleagues, and friends.
Over the past few years however, national discourse and political events have made many people feel that perhaps their communities are more fragile than previously thought. Our country needs help to heal division, to inspire important dialogues, and to carry our communities toward their dreams of health, vibrancy, and equity. These challenges require the creative solutions and ideas of an artist’s mind, because the arts wield the bold power to affect positive change in our communities.
This week, Americans for the Arts, the nation’s nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education, is bringing its annual Convention to Denver. From across the country, more than 1,000 arts leaders and their partners in creative business, education, and government will gather Thursday through Sunday and explore how the future of culture and creativity rely on the ongoing participation and engagement of the entire community. Denver is holy ground for Americans for the Arts, the site of its first convention for local arts agencies almost forty years ago, again twenty years ago, and now this week. Plan on us being back here in 2038.
As an organization, we are paying close attention to artists as agents of change, and want to encourage this work nationwide. The Redline Contemporary Art Center’s Arts in Society grant program is an excellent example of this work, annually funding projects that use art to address social issues and community needs across Colorado. They have funded projects ranging from a multimedia piece to highlight immigration issues and the diversity of life experiences in Montezuma County, to Colorado Black Arts Movement’s development of a performance piece focusing on the rituals of dinner in households in Denver’s Montebello neighborhood.
Many great examples of commitment to community building through the arts can be seen all over Denver. Like Su Teatro, a multidisciplinary cultural arts center that develops and preserves the cultural arts, heritage, and traditions of the Chicano/ Latino community, and Wonderbound, a professional theater of the community and for the community, which hosts a weekly dance party at Saint Francis Center for people experiencing homelessness. And one of our convention keynote speakers, Denver-based environmental activist and recording artist Ietef Vita, aka DJ Cavem, promotes healthy eating through hip-hop — a powerful platform and catalyst for positive change for a community suffering an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
Visitors like me see the real power of creativity in Denver’s neighborhoods. Arts and culture are not just part of a storied past, but are at the heart of the city’s contemporary identity, powerfully expressing who Denverites have been, who they are, and who they hope to be.
It is important to point out this connection between the arts and other community impacts so that artists, community members, advocates, legislators, and corporate leaders all recognize and cannot deny this power and value. The arts drive progress–they create connection, drive the economy, and improve the social well-being of the places we call home.
Pat Milbery, artist working with DPS on the Denver Public Schools Downtown Mural Project paints alongside fourth grader Zach Kelsey, 10, from the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School on May 4.