Denver Arts & Venues furloughs staff, closes venues for the rest of 2020

Despite taking measures since March to run as lean as possible, Denver Arts & Venues officials this week announced that the city agency will furlough its employees and close some of the city’s most recognizable venues, including Red Rocks Amphitheatre, through the end of 2020.

“It just felt like the best course of action right now,” said Ginger White, executive director of Arts & Venues. “We’re preserving our resources now in the hopes that when we can reemerge, we have money in the bank.”

White announced the furloughs to Arts & Venues’ 67 staff members on Tuesday before sending a letter addressed to Friends of Arts & Venues on Wednesday. In the letter, she details some of the measures Arts & Venues has taken to address its wide funding gap, including cutting expenses by 46% and moving its capital improvement funds into its operating budget.

That wasn’t enough, unfortunately. While most city agencies rely on Denver’s general fund for their budgets, Arts & Venues draws revenue from the outside rental of city-owned venues such as Red Rocks, the Denver Performing Arts Complex — which includes the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Buell Theatre and Boettcher Concert Hall — and the McNichols Civic Center Building.

Red Rocks, in particular, has turned from a reliable cash-generator to a gaping hole in not only Arts & Venue’s budget projections, but those of promoters such as AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, which books the majority of Red Rocks’s 150-plus annual concerts.

The furloughs, which are full-time for most employees and part-time for a skeleton crew of leadership and operations staff, follow an August report from Arts & Venues that found Denver’s creative industries lost $1.4 billion in sales revenue and nearly 29,840 jobs between April 1 and July 31.

In other words, it’s taken fewer than six months to wipe out one-third of the gains Denver’s cultural sector had made over the last decade.

“Unfortunately as we started getting into our fall and winter programming, we realized how underutilized some of our venues and staff were going to be,” said White, who added that her business has a “seasonality” to it that relies on indoor activities during the fall and winter months.

Like the rest of Denver’s arts and entertainment community, Arts & Venues is up against more than just the approaching cold weather. They’re handcuffed by public health orders that limit indoor gatherings to 100 masked, socially distanced people, and outdoor gatherings to 175 people. They’re facing reduced interest and comfort from crowds amid ever-shifting scientific and governmental orders, as well as daily-changing news reports about the virus.

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But most important, the economic feasibility of their usual events and rentals just isn’t there. Two of its venues, Denver Coliseum and Colorado Convention Center, are staying open for their current uses as coronavirus treatment centers for people experiencing homelessness and an overflow hospital, respectively.

But without concerts at Red Rocks, Broadway shows at the Buell, orchestral performances at Boettcher or opera at the Ellie, the previous revenue model doesn’t make sense. Colorado Ballet announced dancer layoffs this week, while Colorado Symphony officially canceled the rest of its 2020 schedule. They’re separate, nonprofit organizations from Arts & Venues. But they also show the relationship between ticket sales and budgets, since they haven’t been renting the agency’s theaters since March.

“Much like the Bluebird Theater or other venues, it’s hard for an organization that manages a facility to justify the expenses when you only have 100 people buying tickets,” White said. “This, the public health orders, and people’s comfort with indoor events are all compounding factors that we’re trying to manage.”

Most of these venues were quiet to begin with, of course. And as White says, Arts & Venues will not be “locking the doors” on them altogether. They’ll still need to be maintained. They’ll still be decorated for the holidays. And ongoing fitness and cultural activities at Red Rocks will continue at least through the fall, including drive-in screenings from Denver Film as part of its renewed Film on the Rocks program.

“We’ll still be announcing some music grants through the CARES Act,” said White, whose agency has also contributed to other relief funds for local artists in past months. “We’re still doing our webinar series on how to be an anti-racist organization. Those are low-cost things we can do to stay visible in the community. We won’t be totally gone for the next three months.”

Prior to the pandemic, Arts & Venues had been looking at increased budgets and new partnerships with corporate sponsors such as Denver-based Visible. That Verizon spinoff this week is producing free, live-streamed concerts from Red Rocks with artists including Megan Thee Stallion, Nathaniel Rateliff and Phoebe Bridgers as part of an ongoing marketing effort.

But even if those concerts turn out to be the future of live shows at Red Rocks — interactive, tech-savvy streaming events where participants watch from their laptops, phones and smart TVs — the agency’s revenue model will still have to change, given the lack of in-person audience members. The furloughs, which begin Sept. 27 and run through Jan. 2, 2021, are the most drastic acknowledgement of that.

“Our staff is really heartbroken, and rightly so,” White said. “But our goal is to hit the ground running when we’re able to come back, and I’m hopeful we will emerge from this — and that people will embrace us when we do.”

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