ART TANK: Interactive grant program helps fund community arts

Fast approaching its third consecutive iteration, Art Tank invites artistic outlets from across the metroplex to apply for a roughly $65,000 pot of funding, which is amassed by the various organizations that fund the Arts Affinity Group

AURORA | For most community arts organizations, applying for funding involves a lot of hard work, crossed fingers and waiting.

Preparing a grant application can take months of effort, while the only payoff is oftentimes a simple rejection letter received in the mail months later. It’s a painful, typically unilateral chore, but one that remains integral to the lifeblood of artistic ventures supported by private donations, cultural taxes and, of course, grants.

About three years ago, the Denver Foundation and its affiliated Arts Affinity Group set out to tweak that paradigm.

Their efforts yielded Art Tank, an interactive grant dispersement program that blends creative philanthropy and the ABC reality show “Shark Tank.”

Fast approaching its third consecutive iteration, Art Tank invites artistic outlets from across the metroplex to apply for a roughly $65,000 pot of funding, which is amassed by the various organizations that fund the Arts Affinity Group, including the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and Colorado Creative Industries, according to Kelly Purdy, philanthropic services director at the Denver Foundation.

Using the theme “business unusual,” the group asks interested groups to submit proposals for unconventional creative projects — not just to keep the lights on.

“It’s not general support for standard arts organizations,” Purdy said. “This is something new and different.”

After six finalists are chosen each November, the groups then make their pitches to a panel of judges and a live audience at a community event in February.

Last year, the big winner was the Denver-based nonprofit organization Lighthouse Writers Workshop, which has offered literary classes and tutorials for aspiring authors since 1997. The group walked away with $36,000 in 2016 after winning the first-place award for $25,000, the audience award for $1,000, and a separate pot of $10,000 from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

The group used those funds to launch a new project deemed “Write Denver,” which aims to construct three-dimensional public art pieces based on stories, poems or phrases penned by Lighthouse students.

“They’re short pieces that we thought were kind of interesting and reflect the unique voices of the city,” said Mike Henry, executive director of Lighthouse.

And even though the bulk of the Art Tank funds went to the Denver group last year, the dollars have had a significant impact on the arts in Aurora thanks to the city’s outgoing poet laureate Jovan Mays. In coordination with Aurora’s Art in Public Places Commission as well as several other city entities, Mays has helped facilitate a series of writing workshops around Aurora this year, known broadly as “Write Aurora.”

Held at locations around the city, including Morrison Nature Center, the Aurora History Museum and the Aurora Cultural Arts District, Mays walks aspiring writers through a series of prompts and themes.

The series is continuing through December, with workshops scheduled in collaboration with the Aurora Fox Arts Center’s winter production of “Porgy and Bess,” as well as a staging of “The Nutcracker” at Aurora Central High School. The next walking tour led by Mays is slated for Oct. 30, from 1-3 p.m. at the Aurora Municipal Center.

“What Write Aurora and Write Denver basically does is it helps people become aware of spaces in their cities,” he said. “For me, the best part of it is to partner with an expert on those spaces to give them a much deeper knowledge.”

Tabbed to become Aurora’s first-ever poet laureate in 2014, Mays has also served as a community engagement coordinator with Lighthouse since February.

Henry said that in addition to funding the “Write” series in both Aurora and Denver, the proceeds allowed the outfit to hire Mays full time.

“We probably wouldn’t have run the Write Denver program anywhere near to the extent we have without the funding we got from Art Tank, and I think the first thing we were able to do was hire Jovan as an employee,” he said.

Other Aurora-based groups that have received Arts Affinity Group funds include Downtown Aurora Visual Arts — which used an $8,000 grant in 2014 to fund a popular robotics exhibit at the group’s gallery on Florence Street — and Phamaly Theatre Company, which often stages performances at the Aurora Fox.

Applications for this year’s Art Tank program are due Nov. 2. Finalists will be notified around Dec. 12, and the final presentations will take place at the University of Denver on Feb. 7.

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