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Study: Denver-area arts and culture organizations lost a decade of growth in 2020

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Denver Art Museum's renovated campus opened in October 2021, but the pandemic's impact on arts institutions show just how difficult 2020 was.
Denver Art Museum's renovated campus opened in October 2021, but the pandemic's impact on arts institutions show just how difficult 2020 was.
Photo: James Florio Photography

DENVER — This week, the nonprofit Colorado Business Committee for the Arts (CBCA) released a study detailing the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on art and cultural institutions and many of the findings paint a bleak image.

The data for the study were self-reported by close to 300 arts, culture and science organizations that receive funding from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). The CBCA study concluded that the Denver area’s arts sector “lost a decade of growth in 2020.”

“Arts, culture and scientific organizations are the backbone of a vibrant, resilient and inclusive society. CBCA’s 2021 Economic Activity Study of Metro Denver Culture 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,” CBCA’s executive director Christin Crampton Day said in a news release.

2019 was a banner year for the arts, with $2.3 billion in economic activity (defined by the CBCA as “direct and indirect spending from operations, audiences and capital projects”). That figure is an all-time high.

But of course, the COVID-19 pandemic was right around the corner in 2020, and with the combination of the deadly virus and pandemic-related closures of places like museums and concert venues, economic activity decreased by 34% compared to 2019. The CBCA said the economic activity in 2020 was comparable to the levels of the “Great Recession” in 2008.

Not surprisingly, attendance to arts events was nearly halved.

Job loss was another problem. In 2019, the cultural sector had a record number of full-time, part-time and contract workers at 13,392 according to the CBCA’s study. “If the entire cultural nonprofit sector was one single employer in 2019, it would have been the largest private employer in the metro region,” the CBCA wrote.

But in 2020, the number of workers plummeted nearly 30%, down to just 9,688.

That summer, Rocky Mountain PBS spoke with three different workers in Colorado’s entertainment industry, including Philip Hiester. A stagehand who works at places like Boettcher Concert Hall, Hiester had to file for unemployment benefits for the first time in his decades-long career during the pandemic.

The hardest part for Hiester during the pandemic was the uncertainty of when steady work would return. Some of that anxiety was eased in 2021 when indoor performances returned to the Colorado Symphony, but rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Colorado are proof that the pandemic is not very close to being over.

There were, however, some success stories. The Denver-based dance company Wonderbound, for example, was able to keep all its dancers on payroll despite performance cancellations.

[Related: Wonderbound's Henry McCall: 'Our bodies are our art']

And the Denver Art Museum, meanwhile, was able to open its renovated campus earlier this year. After the renovations, the museum added 65 full-time jobs.

The lone bright spot in the CBCA study was in donations and government support for the arts sector. It was the only key metric in the study that increased between 2019 to 2020. In 2019, the organizations surveyed received $38 million in individual donations and $25 million in government funding. In 2020, individual donations jumped to $43 million and government funding increased to $41 million.

“These sources helped to cover major losses in earned revenue and corporate event sponsorships as a result of the pandemic,” the CBCA wrote.

For a detailed breakdown of the CBCA study, click here.

Kyle Cooke is the digital media manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at

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