Two decades ago, Denver’s arts scene became a lot more vibrant when the Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts launched Newman Center Presents, a series that introduces audiences to a diverse array of artists and performances rarely seen in Denver.
The series brings an eclectic mix of talent to town, from award-winning composers to acclaimed vocalists, drum ensembles to jazz pianists, comedians to puppeteers. It is the one place in Denver where patrons can regularly enjoy nationally and internationally renowned work, work unlikely to be offered anywhere else in the Mile High City, says Aisha Ahmad-Post, executive director of the Newman Center for the Performing Arts.
“We really have sort of built this niche for touring and presenting folks that [is] totally outside the realm of what is normally available in Denver,” she says. “I’m really proud of that.”
Audiences have grown accustomed to surprises from the series, and the fall 2022 launch was no exception. To kick off its 20th season, Newman Center Presents invited BANDALOOP to perform at a campus-wide event in September. The vertical performance group used climbing technology to glide, dance and fly on the outside walls of the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science and the Anna & John J. Sie International Relations Complex, all to the delight of a mesmerized audience.
The event was free and open to the community, a nod to the Newman Center’s vision to keep the community engaged, inspired and connected through the performing arts.
“We’re really leaning into our community-based mission, and also our artistic-vibrancy mission, and trying to find ways to expand the relevance of performing arts programming for a wider swath of our community,” Ahmad-Post says.
Since launching in 2002, Newman Center Presents has hosted more than 400 performances tailored to a cross-section of arts patrons: dance lovers, jazz aficionados, world music fans and musical theater buffs. Stephen Seifert, the former executive director who started the series, was looking to emulate this country’s long-standing collegiate tradition of providing cultural programming to the community.
It’s a uniquely American way of engaging with the performing arts, says Ahmad-Post, who recently presented on this topic at a conference with 16 countries represented.
“The reason it works is because so many colleges and universities like the University of Denver understand that the arts are critical to a well-lived [life] and a wide-ranging and comprehensive education for their students and for their communities,” she adds.
Since joining the Newman Center in August 2020, Ahmad-Post and her team have been reimagining the future of DU’s performing arts series. This includes creating opportunities for engagement between the artists and the community.
For example, her team has revamped a K-12 education initiative at the request of Denver Public Schools. They’ve built a classroom curriculum to make arts available not only to music teachers but to classroom teachers, ensuring that the performing arts can be part of every student’s education. The initiative also puts world-class talent in front of Denver students. For example, artists coming through town who have a teaching background will be invited into the classroom to build workshops around civil rights freedom songs, say, or classical dance. The students will then go to a Newman Center Presents matinee and see the work they’ve been learning about illuminated on the stage.
In addition, Ahmad-Post has had conversations with artists about the need to invest in the creative process, which can be very time- and money-intensive.
“[We’re] thinking through how we can make our spaces available for the creative process to support the creation of new work, especially by people of color who are working within their own cultural processes and traditions,” she says.
She is also thinking of ways to give DU students more opportunities to learn from visiting artists. Not just music students, but all students. Ahmad-Post sees many connections between performing arts and other disciplines across campus, such as science, lighting design, entrepreneurship, innovation technology and cultural diplomacy.
“Artists are inherently absorbing and reflecting everything that they see in their surroundings, and that is not limited to the things within a music school or an art school,” she says. “And so, one of my missions at DU is to really make that as abundantly clear as possible, and to elevate and amplify those connections across disciplines.”
With the right mix of programming, community engagement and leadership, the next 20 years are sure to be bright for Newman Center Presents.
“I’m excited for the Newman Center to make its mark in Denver as really more of a collaborator, an incubator, an instigator for all things performing arts in this town,” Ahmad-Post says. “There’s a lot of different ways we can do that, but I think that’s where we’re headed.”
Photos courtesy of Newman Center Presents