Denver arts and culture lost $1.5 billion during pandemic, threatening growth

In addition to erasing a decade of growth in Denver’s art scene, with a whopping $1.5 billion in losses in 2020 as compared with 2019, last year’s venue closures and stay-at-home orders could continue to threaten the metro area’s creative economy for years to come.

That’s one of the takeaways from a new report compiled by Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, which found that key metrics for financial health in Denver arts and culture plummeted by double-digit percentage points in most categories — some by nearly 50%.

The 2021 Economic Activity Study of Metro Denver Culture, typically released every two years, complies self-reported data from the roughly 300 members of the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District for 2019 and 2020. The SCFD is the seven-county metro area program that injects about $60 million annually into cultural nonprofits, thanks to a voter-approved sales tax.

“(The study) illustrates years of record-breaking cultural growth, which hit an all-time high in 2019, and conversely in 2020, how a community responds to drastic and disruptive circumstances,” said Christin Crampton Day, executive director of CBCA, in a press statement.

Overall economic activity, for example, was a robust $2.3 billion for the arts and culture sphere in 2019, representing a 17% increase over figures from 2017 (the last year the study was conducted). In 2020 it fell by nearly a billion dollars to $1.5 billion, shrinking Denver’s art scene back to its 2010 size.

Other shocking figures include a 49% drop in economic impact from arts spending; a 28% decrease in jobs since 2019; a 49% drop in attendance; and a 49% decrease in educational outreach program for students and schools.

“As culture lovers and attendees we all felt what the pandemic did to the arts, but I hope that actually seeing the hard numbers will show just how devastating it was to the organizations themselves,” Meredith Badler, CBCA’s deputy director, told The Denver Post on Wednesday.

As Badler noted, pandemic-era studies highlighting deep wounds in the arts world are certainly not new. But drawing a line between metro-area cultural attendance, spending, jobs and neighborhood health is simpler when the ripple effects can be seen from above, Badler said. Without those ripples, growth is unlikely.

“I’m sad that I didn’t get to see any live theater last year, and our study shows that because of that, I didn’t pay for parking at the DCPA, or get dinner at Steuben’s before a show at the Arvada Center,” she said, citing the nearly 50% drop in cultural attendance — from 15 million people in 2019, to 8 million in 2020.

The only increase CBCA found for 2020 was in philanthropy and public giving, which rose a overall 5% last year as compared with 2019. That was one of the only bright spots, as local, state and federal grants worked to keep nonprofits conscious as they hemorrhaged revenue and staff members.

Badler also praised the pivots organizations made in 2020, from going virtual to rethinking access and inclusion at venues. She hopes to get CBCA’s new study in front of not only arts lovers, but the business community her organizations serves, chambers of commerce, economic development councils and elected officials.

When asked why many Denver residents who are barely scraping by should make contributions to arts organizations, Badler said financial support can come in any size, from micro-donations to attendance at events.

“It took us a long time to bounce back from the Great Recession, and it’s been a tough decade,” Badler said. “But there was so much momentum before the pandemic, so how do we get back to that? This is a call to action, because we can’t afford taking another 10 years to get back to that place.”

Read the interactive, bilingual report at cbca.org/2021-economic-activity-study.

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