What is a Stanford law school graduate doing running a university performing arts center? Creating one of the most innovative art programs in town, that’s what. With an emphasis on cultural and artistic diversity, University of Denver’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts Executive Director Steve Seifert fills a much-needed gap in Denver’s arts ecosystem, presenting audacious and bold works from national and international acts that complement rather than compete with Denver’s local talent. Take, for example, the upcoming 2015-2016 season that opens July 19th with Rio de Janiero-based Companhia Urbana de Dança, a dance company that fuses hip-hop, samba, capoeira, and contemporary dance, in conjunction with the Biennial of the Americas and ends with jazz pianist and three-time Grammy winner Billy Childs. In between these performances, season subscribers will be treated to Twyla Tharp Dance, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the Metropolitan Opera’s Rising Stars Concert to name a few.
While Seifert recognizes the Newman Center’s uniqueness in the Denver community, he points to a long-standing history of academia’s arts patronage that dates back over a century to Ann Arbor, Michigan, specifically to the University of Michigan’s University Musical Society. Other similarly sized college towns with a desire for world-class cultural experiences but without the means to support year-round, resident organizations opted for UMS’s presenting model that sourced the best talent from around the country and soon the globe. Of the 4,000 universities in America today, 2,800 have presenting programs. The trend spawned an entire industry of travelling artists and trade associations. Today municipalities and other arts institutions have joined the mix.
Seifert joins thousands of his colleagues around the nation at several key booking conferences to scout for talent and work with agents with the aim of bringing in new artists to Denver for the first time. Often, however, his season rests at the mercy of the touring route. Denver, Seifert points out, remains the largest geographically isolated city in the contiguous U.S. with our nearest neighbors being Kansas City and Salt Lake City. It’s sometimes hard to get here and can take up a considerable chunk of time to do so. Still, he’s been able to forge relationships that have made Denver a can’t-miss stop.
But unlike local governments and arts nonprofits, universities, with their commitment to education and artistic experimentation, can withstand the financial risks that come with both. As the former and somewhat accidental Executive Director for Opera Colorado, Seifert knows all too well the pressure that most performing arts organizations grapple with each performance, each season. Economic realities often outweigh artistic risks. “You never get the productivity gains in the performing arts that you do in other industries,” Seifert says. Indeed, such a fact remains a blessing and a curse for the performing arts. But institutions like the Newman Center embrace rather than lament the situation and seize opportunities when they arise with a “you win some, you lose some” mentality. That philosophy has earned the Newman Center a dedicated and loyal following.
Seifert says, some of the Newman Center’s oldest patrons can be the most adventurous while some of its younger patrons are not as adventurous. He attributes the patronage of the older audience to a thirst for life-long learning and a trust in the programming – while an audience member may not like a particular performance, she knows that the next performance will be a completely different experience. Like the university, these patrons have developed a risk tolerance that doesn’t scare them off from the Newman Center permanently. In fact, Seifert may just be building the most sophisticated performing arts consumers in the city with his season subscribers, consumers who’ve seen anything and everything come across the stage and are hungry for more.
Still, the younger audiences remain a difficult nut for most art organizations to crack. He attributes this to several factors: the steady decline in arts education over the years, perceived cost barriers, and, for students, the high and demanding course load. The Newman Center is not alone in its quest to capture the young professional demographic; every arts organization in town, it seems, has specific programming for twenty to forty-year olds. With the high intimidation factor for modern dance, opera and classical music that demands a certain level of education, performing arts groups, especially, have their work cut out for them. But the Newman Center may hold the key with its multi-cultural, eclectic and progressive offerings. Denver-metro arts patrons and the dance community especially should view the Newman Center as an unprecedented source of inspiration and a yard stick by which to measure itself. After a performance or two at the Newman Center, local arts organizations may just find they’ve got some work to do. With the Newman Center’s Behind the Curtain pre-show talks, there’s plenty to learn from Seifert and the performing artists themselves.
If you’re interested in seeing the Newman Center first hand, you should check out Presenting Denver’s Ticket Subsidy Program that provides a limited quantity of partially subsidized tickets at a special rate of $15 to see Companhia Urbana de Dança, Twyla Tharp Dance, Vertigo Dance Company, Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion Dance, and Paul Taylor Dance Company performances during the 2015-2016 Newman Center Presents season. Details will be announced in mid-July. For more information, join Presenting Denver’s mailing list to stay up to date on all our programs and services.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog, Daily Serving and KYSO Flash.