By Kyle Harris, Westword | In May 2021, Denver Arts & Venues was still sending out releases calling the city’s cultural plan “Imagine 2020.” Looking back over the past year, who’d want to do that?
In 2014, then-Arts & Venues head Kent Rice and his team, which included current agency director Ginger White, did. At the time, imagining far-off 2020 seemed a little sci-fi, but in a hopeful way. Only a prophet of doom would predict the dystopian hellscape of fascists attempting to do away with democracy, police killings and riots, and mass death from a pandemic that marked the actual 2020.
Last year, we saw mass layoffs in the cultural sector and venues dark as catacombs, some boarding up for good. We couldn’t physically escape into entertainment, liberating ourselves — if only for a night — at concerts, either: Even outdoor amphitheater Red Rocks, which generates a massive amount of the cultural agency’s revenue, sat mostly empty.
So money quit coming in. Arts & Venues started depleting its flush coffers just to run with a skeleton crew. And while six of the agency’s workers were incentivized to retire early (including Mary Valdez, former head of the Urban Arts Fund and one of the people responsible for turning Denver into a hub for street art and murals), most were shipped out of the department to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and help with managing emergency shelters and contract-tracing initiatives.
Around the office, White confesses, the remaining workers asked themselves: “Who could have ever imagined 2020?”
Despite the near-cultural apocalypse, White and her team are now again looking toward the future. So, really, is that cultural plan still called Imagine 2020?
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With Imagine 2020 soon in the rearview, there’s a lot for the city to be proud of, says White, not the least of which is that the cultural plan has been celebrated as a model beyond Colorado: “It’s got resonance, not just in Denver, but in other communities, as well. So that’s, I think, something to be very proud of.”
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Concludes White: “I don’t see those changing. I think we nailed it. I think we got that right.”
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