By Mariah Taylor, Westword
They say that 80 percent of success is showing up, but what if you can’t afford a ticket? The cost of entertainment today can be high, and sometimes seeing live music — especially big-ticket national touring acts — can seem like a pastime for the wealthy only. In Denver, a nonprofit is seeking to remedy that disparity with the opening of a large new venue. On Thursday, November 10, Levitt Pavilion will celebrate the groundbreaking of its newest concert venue in Denver’s Ruby Hill Park — one that will showcase fifty free concerts a year, as well as local beer and food trucks in a custom-made, open-seating facility. The venue will be operational sometime after July 15, 2017.
Levitt Pavilions are sprinkled throughout the country, from Westport, Connecticut, and Arlington, Texas, to Los Angeles, totaling seven venues with the Denver addition. These are city-owned, nonprofit venues funded by a number of foundations along with donations from the general public. Levitt boasts a mission of creating venues tailored to the city where they reside. In Denver, that means highlighting emerging local talent.
“All the Levitts are kind of signature to their city in what they do,” says Chris Zacher, executive director of Levitt Pavilion Denver. “This particular Levitt is really the first one that is focusing on the emerging-artists’ market. We’ve also got a strong presence within our local artistic community. We’re the only Levitt that will have an opening series for all of our shows that features local artists. We’re really engaged in trying to be a major component in our music industry.”
With regard to how the new venue will be integrated into the largely Hispanic neighborhood that surrounds the park, Zacher says that is being considered within a larger context.
“The greater community is the Denver community,” Zacher says. “The Ruby Hill community is very important to us, but our mission really is to increase access to the arts across the region, and Ruby Hill Park does happen to be a regional festival park, not a local community park.”
In order to fund all of this planned activity, Levitt Denver will have another aspect, unique to its location: a liquor license. The venue is partnering with Great Divide Brewing Company to support a local business while boosting the pavilion’s income, thus increasing its sustainability.
“Even if it’s a free concert, if we have a good night of alcohol sales, that’s really going to allow us to have a lot more artistic freedom and bring a lot more vigor and A-list talent simply because we have that extra revenue source helping drive us,” says Chase Wessel, production manager and talent buyer at Levitt Denver.
The challenge of how to sustain a nonprofit music venue is something that Wessel knows well. Having served as production manager for both Levitt Pasadena and Levitt Los Angeles for the past four years, he’s familiar with the challenges of booking talent on a nonprofit’s budget. For example, both of those venues were pre-existing structures — historical landmarks built years ago without the intention of holding concerts and without the freedom to be modified, adding a level of complication to booking artists and getting them to return. “[The bands] would come for load-in at three o’clock for an eight o’clock show and then would get banished to a walk-in closet that’s supposed to be a green room,” Wessel says. “Even if they have a great performance, they don’t always want to come back, because those venues are so restricting.”
Levitt Denver, however, will be built from the ground up as a venue made to avoid all of the problems that Wessel was confronting. “This venue in Denver will be state-of-the-art everything,” Wessel says. “We’re going to have a phenomenal green room, star dressing rooms, showers, a giant loading area big enough for semis to get in and turn around — [it’s] super-exciting. All of the things that I’ve wanted and have been asking for, I finally get.”
But while Wessel’s dreams of the perfect venue seem to be coming true, he understands that there are still obstacles to overcome in order for Levitt’s model to be successful. One of those challenges lies in simply booking acts. National touring bands are harder to come by in Denver, and it requires some careful planning to get what Wessel calls an “A List” group to play a show on a budget. Wessel plans to catch artists as they travel near Denver with pre-established tours because, if it’s convenient for the band, it’s likely to cost less to book them. It’s tricky, but not impossible.
That’s not to say that Levitt won’t be paying its artists well. In fact, Zacher and Wessel say that their rates for paying local musicians will be the best in town.
“One thing that we’re really priding ourselves on is setting a standard of how we pay local artists,” Wessel explains. “What we’re offering is a standard flat rate for local musicians which is higher than what they would get from any club in town by quite a bit. We have to help build our artistic community, and the only way we can do that is by paying our musicians a fair rate, and a lot of what they get around here is not fair. So we have built into our budget a way to give all of our emerging talent a fair rate for what they’re doing.”
Levitt’s attention to preserving the local arts community is what drew Amanda Gonulsen, lead singer and guitarist in the Denver band Automatic Iris, to the project. “Denver’s growing so big,” Gonulsen says. “So many people, especially artists, feel like it’s going to change for the worse, and we see evidence of that. But the one thing that you can do, because you don’t have a lot of control over it, is spend your time and money in the arts if that’s what you care about.”
And this is exactly what Gonulsen does, contributing to MCA Denver, Swallow Hill Music and Girls Rock Denver and donating to Levitt Denver’s GoFundMe page in hopes of supporting her fellow Denver artists. She sees the possibility of both local musicians and local communities benefiting from Levitt’s model. “For the artist, it’s awesome, because Levitt’s committed to paying fairly and bringing the arts community together,” Gonulsen explains. “But it’s great for the community, too, because a lot of folks don’t have access to go see music. Maybe they don’t have money for the price of the ticket or don’t know what to go see or they don’t feel a part of the arts community. Hopefully, this will help all of those things get stronger.”
This seems to be the basic underlying goal of the Levitt Foundation, too. Zacher and Wessel describe Levitt Denver as being a boisterous community gathering place, full of local food trucks, beer and music.
It’s meant to be a place that takes care of emerging artists, communities and small businesses, and asks only for support from those who can afford to give it. Levitt Denver’s continuance greatly depends on that.
As Gonulsen puts it, “You don’t have to have deep pockets to contribute to what you love in this city. You just have to show up!”