The Fox Theatre is among mid-sized performance venues in Boulder whose rental fees exceed what many local artists and nonprofit arts organizations can afford. A new push for an affordable arts center is underway. Credit: Kvng/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In the arts community in Boulder, it is a known problem that has seen little momentum for a solution: The city has almost no mid-sized performance spaces that seat between 250 and a thousand people and are affordable for local artists.

“We have a lot of organizations that can’t grow because they don’t have venues to perform in,” said Jan Burton, board member of Create Boulder, a nonprofit that provides opportunities for local arts organizations to connect and grow their communities. Artists who can’t afford to perform live, she said, often don’t get as much community support or funding.

Though the Boulder Theater and the Fox Theatre are mid-sized, their rental fees exceed what many local artists and nonprofit arts organizations can afford. The Fox Theatre charges $6,500 for a night.

Now, a new push has emerged to build the city’s first performing arts center to solve that and other related challenges at a time when local arts are still struggling from the pandemic. 

“Many arts organizations are at 60 to 70% of pre-Covid attendance and donations,” said Burton, a former Boulder City Councilmember. “They’re still just hanging on by their fingernails.” 

This is not the first time arts advocates have raised this issue — a performing arts center for local artists has been a conversation in Boulder for decades, said Nick Forster, a Create Boulder board member. Forster was part of a 1994 campaign committee that helped draft a ballot measure to increase the Boulder hotel room tax and use some of the proceeds to buy the Boulder Theater, restore it, and convert its parking lot into a conference center and meeting space.

“It was going to be a community-minded facility, rather than a for-profit enterprise,” Forster said. The measure failed. “Boulder has not supported the arts in a way that is commensurate with its capability and its reputation,” he added.

In 2014, community members independently funded an analysis on how to finance and develop a performance venue in Boulder. But it never gained traction, or someone to begin fundraising and championing the project, Burton said. “Nothing has really come of that, and many of us are asking why.”

So this fall, Create Boulder launched a different public process to try again to bring this project to fruition. 

As a first step, the group hired five Denver-based performing arts experts, architects and realtors, who then interviewed about 40 Boulder elected officials, business representatives and arts organization members. They sought their thoughts about the ideal size and location for a community performing arts center in Boulder, who should run such a facility, and how to make it affordable and accessible for artists. 

On Dec. 1, those five experts presented what they learned to an eTown Hall auditorium (which Forster opened in 2012) full of Boulder community members and arts organization leaders. The panelists said they heard a clear directive: While people expressed a need for mid-sized performance venues in Boulder, they also wanted more from such a facility. 

“What became obvious was, it was not this big, performing arts center that we needed,” Burton said. Interviewees wanted the venue. But they also expressed a desire for a space that provides affordable rehearsal areas, art gallery and studio options, and classrooms and educational programming. Most Front Range communities have such arts community facilities. Take, for instance, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities or Lone Tree Arts Center. 

“They came back with the determination that we don’t need a performing arts center,” Forster said about the expert panel. “We need an arts hub.”

Panel findings, from location to funding 

Michael Leccese, a consultant to Create Boulder, said “the community’s not ready for a large, expensive facility” to house an arts hub. Credit: Jessica Mordacq

Among the biggest hurdles to overcome in making such a center happen is building costs. To build, maintain and operate a community arts building would be prohibitively expensive, and much more than leasing an empty building, panelists said in their Dec. 1 presentation.

“The community’s not ready for a large, expensive facility,” said Michael Leccese, a consultant to Create Boulder who organized the panel, and the former executive director of the Urban Land Institute Colorado. A brand-new facility, the panel estimated, would cost around $1,000 per square foot, and likely be 60,000 to 100,000 square feet — so $60 to $100 million. The panel suggested leasing existing buildings — what they called “opportunity sites.”

Potential sites include the Atrium Building at 13th Street and Canyon Boulevard and the West Arapahoe Senior Center, both owned by the city. Others embraced the possibility of Alfalfa Market’s previous space on Broadway, New Vista High School on Baseline (if the school moves buildings), and 13th Street’s BMoCA building, if the museum relocates to North Boulder’s art district

Or, Burton said, private developers could donate land, like Trammell Crow, Allison Management and Thistle did to help Studio Arts expand into a new building

Before securing a location, though, Create Boulder proposed first ensuring what the community-organized charge lacked in 2014: someone to champion this project. 

Though a government, private or non-profit entity could own a community arts building, the panel’s interviewees preferred management by a non-profit or cultural trust. 

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, for example, manages several venues and their overhead efforts, like ticketing and marketing, plus helps venues with real estate management. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts was built with help from philanthropist and Denver Post owner Helen Bonfils, plus Broadway producer Donald Seawell. Since the center opened in 1972, it has been led by a group of executive leaders and a board of trustees.

“Let’s say the city magically says, ‘there are three facilities that we’ll put in your hands,’ Burton said. “There’s no organization in this town that can manage that.”  

Panelists also outlined financing options, including funding from the city, grants, philanthropy and corporate sponsorship. However the leased facility is financed, it won’t be finished for 15 years, according to a potential timeline the panelists presented. The initial planning and fundraising, then venue design and renovations, and later staffing and more fundraising would take years.  

 Gena Buhler, associate principal at Denver’s Theatre Projects, presented the timeline on Dec. 1, 2022 for a potential community arts center in Boulder. Credit: Jessica Mordacq

As the City of Boulder prepares to write its next Community Cultural Plan in 2023 — which presents community priorities and how to implement them to help local artists — arts organizations need to band together in support of this center, Burton said. (The last cultural plan was approved in 2016.)

“One of Create Boulder’s real missions is to try to get the arts community to speak as one voice,” Burton said. “We have an opportunity, as a community, to really get behind the arts and take it to the next step.”

Leccese and the panelists will write a summary codifying the panel’s outcome and release it early next year. At that point, Leccese said, people will either respond, “‘that’s a great idea, let’s form a committee and figure out how to do it.’ Or say, ‘we don’t care, go away.’”

“This is not intended to be anything that gets anybody riled up,” Leccese said. “No one should feel threatened by this exercise. It’s a conversation and an opportunity to be creative.”

Jessica Mordacq

I’m a contributor to the Boulder Reporting Lab focused on food, restaurants, local business and more. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, I graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and have previously written for various trade and lifestyle magazines.

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