Colorado's Creative Industry Is Still Feeling the Pandemic Pinch

Daliah Singer
·6 min read

DENVER--It was mid-March and Rob Drabkin had just arrived home in Denver after touring through music festivals as far away as Rwanda and Istanbul. The singer-songwriter -- known for his fluffy dark hair and positivity-infused tunes -- was returning stateside to a busy spring and summer concert lineup. Or so he thought.

His homecoming was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Within days, Drabkin experienced what he calls the "Friday night massacre of gigs." In one weekend, 90 of his booked shows were canceled. "Everything was just wiped out all at once," he says. "March through May was a total panic."

The global pandemic has impacted nearly every industry, but the creative sector -- and the performing arts, in particular -- may have one of the toughest times bouncing back as venue capacity restrictions will likely remain in place for months. In August, the nonprofit Brookings Institution estimated that nearly one-third of all creative industry jobs in the U.S. had been lost because of the pandemic, along with 15% of total average monthly wages for those in creative occupations, such as musicians, artists and performers. An industry that had been thriving and growing pre-pandemic now finds itself in a never-ending intermission.

The situation is particularly acute in Colorado where arts and culture contribute 4.5% of the state's gross domestic product and support more than 190,000 jobs.

A survey on the impact of COVID-19 on the state's creative economy through October found that music, theater, dance and visual arts had collectively lost more than $1.4 billion in sales revenue, contracting those industries by 41%. When the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District, a special tax district that covers seven counties, checked in with 244 Denver metro area cultural organizations in September, nearly three-quarters said they were "moderately confident or not confident at all that they would survive."

"It's been devastating," says Margaret Hunt, director of Colorado Creative Industries, part of the state's economic development office. "I don't know if there's any other way to say it."

To save an industry that contributes so much to the state both economically and culturally, local and state governments, nonprofits and arts organizations began offering a variety of grants as early as April 2020. Most recently, during a special session in early December, the Colorado Legislature passed the COVID-19 Relief Small And Minority Businesses Arts Organizations bill -- $57 million of direct aid to small businesses from the state's general fund, with $7.5 million earmarked for cultural organizations, performers and crew members. (Nearly 2,500 grant applications were received by the Jan. 8 deadline, and the funds will be distributed in early February.)

"That's not going to be enough to save all of our venues and all of our artists. We were limited as a state to the resources we had, so we did what we could," says state Sen. Faith Winter, one of the bill's prime sponsors. "(The arts and culture sector is) a really important part of our economy. ... We need them to survive. They're also really important to our community."

Known as the Colorado Arts Relief Grant, the special session-approved $7.5 million is part of a collection of various emergency funding programs that popped up throughout 2020 to help creatives and venues across the state. The offerings varied in amounts, and some were broadly available while others were focused on specific mediums. The Colorado Music Relief Fund, for example, was responsible for 557 grants, amounting to more than $553,000. The state also set aside CARES Act funds specifically for nonprofit arts organizations; 88 grants of $5,300 each were given.

"We don't want to see this talent pool drain out of the state," Hunt says. "People are in survival mode. (Whatever we can do to help them get back to) their creative pursuits is really important."

More help is on the way. The second national stimulus bill that passed in late December designates $15 billion to "live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions" through the Save Our Stages Act, though it's not clear exactly how the money will be allocated, how much Colorado will receive or when the funds will arrive.

These grants come with challenges, too: It's difficult to communicate to every corner of the state to make sure people know the funds are available; some folks don't have access to computers or smartphones to apply; others simply fall through the cracks based on the definitions and parameters baked into the process.

Emily Harrison is the producing artistic director of Square Product Theatre, a small, experimental theater company in Boulder that was forced to cancel its most recent season. Because Square Product is not a nonprofit, it was difficult to find applicable funding, she says: "It is frustrating because I feel like it's just not flexible."

The theater eventually received $9,000 from the Energize Colorado Gap Fund. The grant is helping to cover expenses and a small stipend for Harrison; some of the money is being saved for upcoming projects. A second grant, from the Network of Ensemble Theaters, has allowed the core ensemble to dive more deeply into the research and planning for a regional premiere that's been in the works since 2019. In the meantime, Harrison is working at Whole Foods Market to make ends meet.

Of course, money isn't the only help creatives need -- nor is it the only help available -- but everyone interviewed for this story said it was the No. 1 priority. "Colorado has been faster than many on getting relief efforts rolling," says Louise Martorano, executive director of RedLine, the Denver arts organization administering many of these grants, but "there's a massive gap between the reality that COVID-19 has meant for the creative sector and the funds available to respond."

Denver-based singer Drabkin applied for 20 to 30 grants and was approved for five. The largest was for $1,000 -- the max award available through many of the programs. Over the summer, he managed to make up for some of his lost income by hosting small, private backyard concerts and finding two weekly outdoor gigs, but "then the cold weather hit and all these things went away really fast," he says. He ended 2020 making about two-thirds less than he did in 2019. The grant money won't make a big dent in that loss, but he's thankful something was available. "Every dollar's been helpful," he says. "It's survival money."

Daliah Singer is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Denver. Follow her work at www.daliahsinger.com.