“The arts give us a unique lens with which to view our world, and express ourselves. The arts uncover the beauty in seemingly ordinary objects, and help us discover and celebrate the assets within ourselves and within our communities. They can illuminate possibilities in entirely different fields, from healthcare and transportation to agriculture and science. With the uniquely creative perspective the arts provide, our society can show us a new angle we never before noticed, a new possibility when all options seemed closed, or a fresh outlook that bucks the trend of business as usual.” — Jane Chu, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and this year’s keynote speaker at the CBCA Business for the Arts Awards Luncheon (Jane Chu “The Beauty in the Ordinary.”).
Denver is home to an impressive number of professional dance companies, large and small, established and new, classical, cultural, and contemporary. What does it take to create and sustain a successful dance company in a mid-sized city like Denver? In addition to dancers with talent, artistry and technique, companies need loyal audiences, faithful donors, generous corporate sponsors, adequate rehearsal space, and affordable performance venues. But business is not taught at the barre, and most dancers do not start their careers or companies already having the necessary expertise, resources, or connections to keep a company afloat. So what to do?
This is where the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts (CBCA) comes in: CBCA has been forging partnerships between business and the arts in Colorado for 31 years (Colorado Business Committee for the Arts). As a nonprofit, membership based organization, CBCA advocates for the arts, does research, trains board members, encourages volunteerism, and offers arts engagement programs and events. Its many programs include Leadership Arts, which trains individuals in the business community to be leaders and board members for arts organizations; Business for the Arts Awards, which honors partnerships, leadership, and philanthropy; Night At…, which provides free tickets for member companies and employees to local arts events; and a brand new pro bono legal referral service, Colorado Attorneys for the Arts, which matches artists and arts organizations with attorneys willing to donate their time and expertise. These programs offer a myriad of resources for local arts organizations to strengthen their business side.
Corporate support for the arts in Colorado dates back to the vision of commercial real estate developer John Madden Jr. He was inspired by philanthropist David Rockefeller (grandson of the billionaire oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller), who created the Business Committee for the Arts (BCA) in New York in the 1960s to demonstrate corporate social responsibility through support of the arts. In 1985, Madden brought together local Denver business leaders who believed in the importance and value of arts and culture, and founded the CBCA Board. CBCA is affiliated with the BCA (now part of Americans for the Arts), but operates independently from the national organization.
While CBCA grew out of the business world, its three staff members come from arts backgrounds and are deeply rooted in the arts. Headed by Executive Director Deborah Jordy, they see themselves as connectors between the two communities. Meredith Badler, Program Manager, says “We are the conduit between the artist and the business community. And no one else is working in that space.”
CBCA is proud of its long standing relationships within the local business community. Currently, over 170 metro area companies are CBCA members with more than 60,000 employees in all sectors. Shari Regenbogen Ross, Membership and Development Manager, meets with upwards of 300 businesses per year. Ross sees three major reasons why Denver based companies join CBCA to support the arts: “Some are national companies with a history of giving that is part of their corporate culture, some join because they want to offer free tickets and special arts experiences as a perk for their employees, and others believe that a healthy arts community makes a healthy, strong community.” Badler adds that many individuals in business want to engage in their communities and give back through the arts, and CBCA provides outlets for volunteering and civic engagement.
One of these outlets is the Leadership Arts Program (Leadership Arts Training), a unique nine-month training program that prepares individuals to serve on the Boards of nonprofit arts organizations. Meeting monthly in different cultural venues, the program trains prospective board members in strategic planning, advocacy, governance, fundraising, and other relevant topics. Nearly 700 people have been through the program. Leadership Arts graduates attend an annual Board Fair to meet representatives of arts organizations, and, according to Badler, more than 40 arts organizations attended last year’s Fair. Many dance organizations have participated over the years, including Colorado Ballet, Cleo Parker Robinson, Ballet Ariel, Kim Robards Dance, Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance, Presenting Denver, Wonderbound, and Colorado Conservatory of Dance.
Michelle Moorman Applegate, Senior Director of Technical Services at Black Hills Energy, participated in Leadership Arts about three years ago at the suggestion of a mentor, and now sits on the Board of the Colorado Ballet (Colorado Ballet). She was motivated to serve because dance was an important part of her life when she was younger. She says, “my family moved a lot when I was growing up, and we always looked for dance classes and performances to attend wherever we lived. Every Christmas, no matter where we were, we went to see The Nutcracker.” After graduating Leadership Arts, Applegate hit it off with the co-chairs of the Colorado Ballet Board of Trustees during the CBCA Board Fair’s “speed dating” process. She joined the Colorado Ballet Board in 2014, and believes she is a more engaged and effective Trustee as a result of her training. In addition to her formal role on the Board, Applegate acts as an informal ambassador for dance. “Many of my colleagues know I sit on the Colorado Ballet Board and ask me questions about it, like where are the best seats for the ballet.” Word of mouth is powerful. “I tell them that it’s not just tutus and pointe shoes. Dancers are athletes.” Conversations like these help educate people in the business community about the arts in a personal way.
The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company (Cleo Parker Robinson) has a long and well established relationship with the CBCA, and recently hosted a Leadership Arts monthly meeting at their studios. Cleo’s also distributes discount tickets for their performances to CBCA member businesses to encourage audience attendance and to cultivate corporate sponsors. Executive Director Malik Robinson says, “I first went to a CBCA Board Fair about 15 years ago, and since then we have kept in close contact. CBCA helps create awareness about the arts here in Denver, and encourages the corporate community to support and engage in the arts. They create a platform for us to be present.” In honor of its 45th anniversary, Cleo Parker Robinson was invited to perform to a crowd of 700 business, arts and civic leaders at the sold-out annual CBCA Business for the Arts Awards Luncheon. Ross says they usually invite a dance company to perform at the Awards Luncheon because “highlighting a dance performance tells the room that dance is valuable and important.”
According to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), arts and cultural production contributed $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy in 2013. Denver has a thriving arts and culture scene, with 14.2 million in attendance at arts events and institutions in 2013 (CBCA Economic Activities Study). Colorado is one of eight states in which performing arts attendance rates are relatively high, and Colorado is the only state to rank above the national rate of dance attendance: 13.2 percent of adults in Colorado attended a ballet or other dance performance in 2011-12, more than 5 percentage points higher than the U.S. rate of 7.4 percent (NEA Study of Performing Arts Attendance by State). According to Ross,“The arts community is growing here. People used to move to Denver for the outdoors, but now the arts are becoming an economic driver. It’s more affordable to see dance here than in many other cities.” Clearly, there is a market for dance in Denver.
Badler and Ross, however, suggest that growth in the dance community is lagging slightly behind other performing arts organizations in Denver. Applegate suggests that smaller dance organizations in Denver face the same challenges as other non-profits. “How do you captivate an audience when there are so many choices? How do you engage funders and donors, and keep donors coming back?” One of the challenges for companies is finding a place to perform. Dance audiences tend to expect a consistent, central venue to attend performances; however, many of the affordable dance theatres are located in surrounding communities like Lakewood, Arvada, Thornton, Lone Tree, and Parker. Malik Robinson hopes that making Cleo’s 250-seat theatre in Five Points available for rent will help fill the need for central performing space for a variety of dance groups. He also points to the Newman Center and its dance series as another centrally located venue for Denver audiences. Colorado Ballet’s Black Box Theatre now provides a central venue for smaller audiences. Located inside the Ballet’s new Armstrong Center for Dance in the Arts District on Santa Fe, the Black Box has seating for up to 177, and also is available for rent to the public.
Despite the challenges, CBCA staff are optimistic about the state of dance in Denver, and they are eager to connect with and increase visibility for newer dance companies. They understand the demands of running a nonprofit arts organization. “Newer arts organizations tend to be run by someone who is working 70 hours a week, and they don’t have the time to be objective about their challenges,” says Ross. “We can help them clarify their needs, refer them to resources, and equalize the playing field.” They also can connect artists with the business community, potential donors and audiences. “They want to be on our radar,” says Ross, and she encourages dance company directors to come in and meet with her, Badler, or Deborah Jordy at CBCA. Malik Robinson also offers encouragement to newer, smaller companies, and says, “Art is what keeps cities vibrant. The arts are drawing a pool of talented and engaged people to Denver. Dance companies need to have staying power. Stick with it. Things are picking up.” Colorado Ballet Trustee Applegate echoes this positive outlook on the state of dance in Denver. “I have lived in many places, and I think the arts scene in Denver is alive and well. There is an audience and a passion for arts in this city.”
CBCA will hold its annual Business for the Arts Awards Luncheon on March 9th, honoring Colorado companies and individuals for their partnerships, leadership, and engagement with the arts. The event is sold out, with more than 700 business, cultural, and civic leaders attending. The keynote speaker will be Jane Chu, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. This year’s event includes a sneak peek at Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Sweeney Todd, and performances from Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Swallow Hill Music, and Arvada Center for the Arts & Humanities. CBCA will announce winners in five award categories: Create, EY Next Wave Leadership, Impact, John Madden, Jr. Leadership, and Philanthropy. Deanne Gertner, writer for Presenting Denver, is a nominee for the EY Next Wave Leadership Award, honoring rising young professionals in the arts world (Business for the Arts Awards Luncheon).
Hilary Simon Morland: Hilary is a free-lance writer and grant-writer, and writes often about dance. She is a life-long aficionado of the performing arts, and studied dance through college. Hilary is a Denver Ballet Guild Board Member and Adjunct Faculty at the Colorado Women’s College, University of Denver. In the past, she has done fieldwork on lemurs and monkeys, coordinated conservation programs in Africa, and been a stay-at-home mom to three children, one of whom is a dancer. Hilary is a California native, and has a BA from Reed College and a PhD from Yale.