Colorado arts organizations get cozy with marijuana industry

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Photo: 'Reefer Madness'
Andrew Wilkes plays Jimmy Harper in Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's production of “Reefer Madness.”

"Reefer Madness" has arrived in Colorado Springs -- the 1998 satirical musical, that is.

The show, a parody on the 1936 propaganda film of the same name, runs through Sunday at the Fine Arts Center.

Typically, the arts center seeks out sponsorships from businesses like hotels or media outlets for each production. But when looking for underwriters for "Reefer Madness," Fine Arts Center performing arts director Scott Levy says he targeted a new kind of partner.

"In this particular instance, I immediately said, you know it would be foolish of us to not reach out to the marijuana industry," Levy says.

The center struck up a deal with Strawberry Fields, a medical dispensary in Colorado Springs. In exchange for $2,000 in financial support, the pot shop gets its logo printed on the show’s promotional materials.

The Fine Arts Center is the latest in a fast-growing list of Colorado cultural institutions trying out pot industry partnerships since the first recreational marijuana store opened just over a year ago.

Arts/pot experiments

Photo: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director Paul Thomas Anderson flew into Denver for a pot party bus organized by the Alamo Drafthouse for the opening of his film "Inherent Vice" on Jan. 9, 2015.

“I like to smoke pot, but it wasn’t like the major factor," says 23-year-old University of Colorado Boulder film graduate Rebecca Oliver, one of the 25 contest winners. "For me, it was definitely more about the film and more about the director."

Oliver might not have been interested in the event's pot aspect. But the media was.

The event attracted attention from the likes The Denver Post and The Daily Beast.

Coley Walsh of The Health Center, the Denver dispensary that partnered with Alamo Drafthouse for the event, deemed the evening a success.

"We definitely get more exposure to a lot of people coming in," Walsh says, "Also, through the press, hopefully a little more exposure for us."

Levitt Pavilions is also establishing relationships with cannabis enterprises.

The amphitheater, which is expected to open in Denver's Ruby Hill Park in 2016, accepted a $200,000 capital campaign donation from Colorado Harvest Company. The Denver dispensary will get name recognition on the Levitt Pavilion website and mailers in return. But CEO Tim Cullen says investing in the amphitheater now will have a larger return in the future.

"There's not much immediate benefit for us," Cullen says. "But we are part of this neighborhood and feel it's time we pony up and get involved in this community project."

Colorado Symphony blazing the trail

Photo: Clone of Classically Cannabis 08
The Colorado Symphony's first Classically Cannabis program featured classical music inside and marijuana smoking outside on the gallery's enclosed patio.

The Colorado Symphony was the first major arts organization to partner with the marijuana industry.

In 2014, the organization hosted three chamber-music concerts at a Denver art gallery and a final concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The series, called "Classically Cannabis," raised about $250,000 for the symphony through donations, ticket sales and sponsorships.

Jane West, founder of the pot-oriented event-planning company Edible Events Co., helped organize the series. She says these types of events help dispel stereotypes associated with smoking pot.

“The more we can keep producing high-end events that showcase arts groups that aren’t anything like you would picture at a marijuana event, the more we can keep normalizing cannabis use and changing the face of the user," West says.

Not everyone a fan

When Denver arts patron and mother of two Kirsten Barnard heard about the symphony’s pot concerts, she immediately sent the organization an angry email.

“It’s normalizing marijuana to a whole new audience, especially of young people," Barnard says. "The arts are just such a beautiful and amazing sort of natural high. So they really don’t need to do that.”

Barnard says she never received a response to her email.

Other states, like Washington and most recently Alaska, have also legalized recreational pot. But some arts businesses there are not as eager to collaborate with the industry. In an email, the Seattle Symphony said it is "agnostic on the issue," and it may or may not create pot industry-related or sponsored programming in the future. The Anchorage Symphony returned a similar response.

For its part, the Colorado Symphony reported that roughly 60 percent of the people who attended the Red Rocks show were first-time ticket buyers. However, fewer than 2 percent of those patrons have since bought tickets to other concerts.

The orchestra currently has no plans to continue its "Classically Cannabis" concert series. But it says it would consider revisiting similar programming in the future if the right partner comes along.

Follow all of CPR's in-depth coverage of Colorado's legalization of marijuana.