Arts & Venues Denver merger not a hit with critics

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Michael Hancock hasn't yet taken office as mayor of Denver. That's on tap for later today.

But Hancock's already being pressured by some arts advocates to take another look at the recent merger of the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs and the Division of Theatres & Arenas into Arts & Venues Denver, as reported in the Denver Post yesterday.

The gripes might have more credibility if one of the primary complainers hadn't been passed over for director of program development, the top arts job in the new division. That slot went to Jan Brennan, who was named director of the Office of Cultural Affairs after Erin Trapp became then-mayor John Hickenlooper's deputy chief of staff at the end of last year.

Or if Trapp and Jack Finlaw, the arts-loving former head of the Division of Theatres and Arenas, who was tapped to become Hickenlooper's last chief of staff and kept the post under outgoing Mayor Bill Vidal, hadn't kept an eye out for the arts during the planning process for the restructured division, which was designed as both a cost-savings and efficiency measure.

Or if the system was so much better when the head of the arts commission reported directly to the mayor, as critics suggest -- but that didn't work too well when then-First Lady Wilma Webb had the job.

Or if the arts community had figured out early enough that tonight's Henry Awards, which celebrate local theater, are scheduled at the same time as the mayor's inaugural -- and unlike those awards, the date of the Denver mayor's swearing-in is set by city charter.

As a city councilman, Michael Hancock signed off on the merger that created Arts & Venues Denver. As an arts lover (he's married to a musician), he'll be wary of any attempts to diminish their clout. And as Denver's top booster, he'll have to be: This city's creative class, which has grown over the last few decades (often without benefit of much political support) to become one of the town's primary claims to fame.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Michael Hancock appoints 'dream team' to plan Denver's financial future."

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3 comments
Anthony Radich
Anthony Radich

Patricia CalhounEditorWestword

When I read the Westword, I usually find insights and information that move community dialogues forward. Unfortunately, your recent opinion piece on the merger that formed the new Arts and Venues Division of the city fell short of that standard.

In that piece, you imply that leaving the merger detail to two individuals who care deeply about the arts is appropriate and that we need to trust them. I disagree. While Erin Trapp and Jack Finlaw may have backgrounds in the arts, their crafting of the merger of the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs with the old Denver Division of Theatres and Arenas has left the city arts effort in a far weaker position. Consider the following:

*The two claim the merger saved $1.2 million. What the merger actually did was remove the city's core arts effort from the general fund and fund it through surplus Theatres and Arenas earnings. Those earnings were previously designated for repair and maintenance. So now the arts are dependent upon there being a surplus to survive, and maintenance will either be deferred or funded through the general fund. Where are the savings here?*When the merger was devised, apparently no plan was made to ensure that the arts continued to have direct reporting access to the mayor. Currently, the leader of the arts segment of Arts and Venues connects to the Mayor's office through the head of Arts and Venues, who is a facilities manager.*The hiring of the lead career service person in the arts part of Arts and Venues was accomplished through a process that resulted in the city's top career arts person being selected by a committee largely composed of facilities managers. These managers have little or no nonprofit arts or public-sector art experience. As a result, for the next 20 years, Denver has an arts leader cemented in place who is not a nationally competitive arts leader.

Thus, under the guise of efficiency and money saving, Trapp and Finlaw have diminished Denver's arts effort. The Hancock administration needs to take a look at this downgrading and fix a system that was broken by two arts people who should have known better.

Anthony Radich(Anthony Radich was the second chair of the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, appointed by Mayor Peňa. He currently serves as executive director of the Western States Arts Federation.)  

Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts

Anthony, thanks for sharing your thoughts. We're going to make them an upcoming Comment of the Day.

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