Building Our Own Safety Nets

By Paul Bindel

In keeping with the theme of this issue, I wanted to start with horror, but why invent a scary story when Denver designers, writers, filmmakers, architects and dancers have seen so many financial crises, from housing, to student debt, to low wages? There’s plenty of fear to go around. 

Creatives know that our work is risky. We feel it in the time it takes to create and innovate, hours that could be spent earning a paycheck elsewhere. We feel it in our bodies—from exposure to harsh chemicals, to the hours over a desk, at a wall, or on the rehearsal stage. 

As much as the market loves to talk about risk and reward, it doesn’t have much “reward” to offer here. Even Jordan Casteel, fresh off a successful exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, won’t see a penny of her resold works, now selling for hundreds of thousands. 

Meanwhile, in spite of campaign promises, the U.S. is unlikely to become a socialist European state that sponsors creative production. If no one is coming to save us, can we create our own safety nets? 

By safety nets, I’m talking what Richard Bartlett calls microsolidarity, small groups that support each other’s mutual survival and thriving. No permission needed. Groups use microsolidarity all the time to increase their resilience and security—strike funds, tool libraries, housing co-ops, and nanny shares. Creatives can too.  

I’m imagining artist-owned housing, studios and rehearsal spaces; emergency health funds, mental health networks and health shares; innovation and risk-taking grants that allow sabbaticals from other forms of work; and more resources we might imagine together. 

For shared imagination to even be possible, we have to build relationships with each other. We’ve listed a few groups below, but one prime example is “Talk With Your Mouth Full,” a brunch series hosted by Black Cube Nomadic Art Museum

Cortney Lane Stell, Executive Director and Chief Curator of Black Cube, created this series so that artists of every level could connect directly with each other.

“Often artists socialize at events like exhibition openings,” she says, ”where they have collectors and curators to impress, which can foster posturing and preening. The idea of “Talk With Your Mouth Full” was to create a regular, sacred space for artists to talk about whatever they felt they needed to talk about.”  

Each month centers on a potluck, and the main ingredient is selected by the hosting artist. Sometimes the food selection prompts bigger questions—Devon Dikeou chose butter and made a transparent pie to talk about how transparent artists are about their process. The mood is always casual and convivial to promote relationship building. 

Relationships, in turn, lead to collaborations. As Redline’s 2012 residency program was ending, Derrick Velasquez and other artists in the program began looking for studio space where they could continue to work together.  

“We ended up biking, walking and driving around Denver looking for buildings that were for lease. Weed had just been legalized, so it was hard to find space,” he explains. 

What started as larger meetings became a committed core of nine people “who started an LLC, found a space and built out the space.” With so much blood, sweat and drywall, Tank Studios was born.  

After nine months in their space, Tank’s landlord invited them to takeover more space, so they invited and rented out to other artists. While the original team could have charged additional rent to the newcomers, they chose to make it as affordable as possible. “It feels like the best thing I’ve been a part of, just because it supports so many people,” Derrick says, “As a group, we feel like family and treat each other like that.”    

Beyond collaborations between creatives, we could also imagine new resources and commons where networks of artists and their loved ones can thrive. 

When he was a theater critic for The Denver Post, John Moore encountered theater professionals whose health emergencies forced them to bow out of creative work. He couldn’t intervene as a journalist, but when he became an in-house critic at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, he had a plan. 

“When I covered the theater community, their stories became something I wanted to do something about,” he explains, “So I used whatever my place in the community was to send word out—’Hey, we’re starting this fund. We have $0 in the bank. We’re going to do a karaoke night and see where it goes.’” 

That’s how The Denver Actors Fund (DAF) was born in 2013, raising $9,000 in a single night of “Careaoke” (turns out, actors love to sing and put on a good show).  

In the six years since, Moore explains, DAF “has given back $378,000 in incremental grants to people with medical needs.” That number doesn’t include the volunteer hours the Action Team has logged—meal delivery, pet care, child care, etc.—or the free emergency dental care they’ve arranged with a dentist in Thornton, who donates his services to the nonprofit. 

To receive help, theater professionals must live in Colorado for at least six months and have participated in a Colorado theater production in the last five years. Their expenses, too, must be medically related. Thus, DAF can’t make your car payment or prevent eviction, but it might be able to help with rent if you can’t work while in recovery.

DAF money comes from a variety of sources—pitches at performances, Colorado Gives Day, the beneficence of high school theater programs. Moore has many stories to tell of the fund’s impact, but the most poignant are when the fund provides more than money. 

One local actor with health insurance went into Denver Health with stomach pain, only to find out she needed a hysterectomy. After her surgery, she got a bill for $33,000, since the hospital coded it as an emergency, not a scheduled surgery. DAF’s lawyers visited Denver Health’s billing team and successfully renegotiated the bill down to $7,000, which the fund helped with. As a result, she could continue acting, rather than have to take an extra job to pay medical debt.  

“Health care sucks for everybody,” Moore admits, “The difference is that the performing arts community brings so much joy and enrichment to audiences lives all over the world. They’re in a more vulnerable position because of the sacrifices they have to make to perform.” 

Could other artist communities develop mutual aid initiatives like The Denver Actors Fund? Moore thinks so, but the main challenges are getting them started and choosing which artists qualify to receive funds. 

If we want to push our creative careers and ourselves to be resilient, we’ll need each other’s support. What safety nets are you dreaming of? 

Have ideas about mutual aid or safety nets for creatives? Tell us about it at 

Fund Your Art: Safety Net Edition

Previous installments of these lists focused on specific pots of money, but being an artist is full of risks, and the trouble with risk is that it’s tough to predict how much it’ll cost. And even if we could predict all the bad things that could happen to us (a job reserved for the insurance industry) safety nets are preventative rather than retroactive. 

In addition to The Denver Actors Fund and “Talk With Your Mouth Full,” here are ways to get plugged in so that you feel less vulnerable in the world. Some of them you might be able to join right away; others might inspire a new idea for a program in Denver.


Safe Creative Spaces Fund
After Denver Fire Department cracked down on creative spaces in 2016, Denver Arts & Venues responded with a $300,000 fund to support building rennovation, recognizing that many creatives are vulnerable renters. The initial fund has been renewed, so if the lease for your art space is for 2+ years, and your landlord is willing to make your space more livable and safe, apply here.   

If you have 5+ years in the music industry and 6+ commercially released recordings or videos, you can seek funds from this Grammy-sponsored program, which specializes in financial assistance and addiction recovery for musicians.  

Haven Foundation
Inspired by his own experience of getting hit by a careless driver, Stephen King started this organization, which provides financial support to freelance artists who experience illness, injury or mishap. (Note that the money is paid to a third party, not directly to the freelancer). The site provides an extensive list of emergency funds for every art discipline.

Professional Services

Colorado Attorneys for the Arts (CAFTA) 
Did someone swipe your design? From copyright, to filing with the Secretary of State, CAFTA’s volunteer attorneys provide pro bono help to creative entities and artists of limited means. 

Fractured Atlas
This online hub for artists or creative entrepreneurs has an accessible toolkit. You can set up a patron database to organize the info of people who care about your work. You can find and list affordable workspaces (not yet in Denver). If you want to go after grant funding, you can even be fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, starting at $10/month.

This European cooperative, originally designed for independent creatives, provides 35,000 freelancers with the benefits of wage employees. Additionally, they offer backend support like a wage guarantee fund, 7-day payments and lines of credit. Good news—they’re exploring the feasibility of Smart Cooperative in the Americas, first in Quebec. 

Networks & Community

Mental Wellness Meetup / Music Minds Matter
Originally organized by Spencer Townsend Hughes of art-rock group The Hollow, this regular gathering provides a space for artists to meet each other and share mental health stories to support each other’s growth. 

A community and interlocking set of business rooted in New Zealand, Enspiral is an evolving organization that has led the way in defining new expressions of mutual aid and shared livelihoods. A portion of all revenue goes back into the central business, and members get to decide how to budget that money and run the business as a whole.

Collectives, Co-ops and Coworking Studios

When people come together with a shared goal, you’re cooking with gas. Denver still has affordable studio space (like PRISM or Art Gym), and co-op galleries (like Pirate or Spark), which help creatives reduce costs and provide a channel for wider audiences.

Originally from rural New Mexico, Paul Bindel spent five years teaching writing before transitioning full time into marketing at Doghead Creative, a digital marketing firm that specializes in content writing, strategy and social media.

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