AURORA | Just by looking inside, you wouldn’t know that the People’s Building has been open for almost two years now.
The gallery of the City of Aurora-owned arts and events space, on the corner of East Colfax Avenue and Florence Street, was conspicuously empty last Friday: little more than hardwood floors, a dusty bar and an old piano salvaged from a Denver home.
Several times a week, however, the space is completely transformed.
On a recent Saturday, a jazz trio hauled in a larger piano, a string bass and drums for a trio performance. Before then, actors employed floor-to-ceiling curtains for a performance of the Vagina Monologues. And this week, a local boutique will throw a pop-up shop of fashion and accessories.
It’s all in a day’s work for Aaron Vega, who was contracted by the city six months ago to bring in theater troupes, musicians and artists from around the Denver metro as the People’s Building curator and facilities coordinator.
Vega, 36, walked the empty space Friday and rattled off dozens of events — past and future — he’s booked to help put Aurora on the regional arts scene map. It’s been a successful four months, he said
“We’ve gotten some funky, cool bands,” Vega. “All these bands and promoters are starting to take notice of what we’re doing here.”
That’s the venue’s mission. The city’s Urban Renewal Authority brought in Vega to work with the Aurora Cultural Arts District and other institutions such as the Aurora Fox, which is also city owned, and the Vintage Theater, as well as Downtown Aurora Visual Arts, to help put northwest Aurora on the regional arts and entertainment map.
The idea is to employ art as a kind of gateway drug for metro Denverites discovering what Aurora has to offer — and investing in northwest Aurora as a result.
Even though Vega is new to northwest Aurora, he’s become familiar with the conversations surrounding the arts in the Denver metro, where a rising cost of living can price out artists from beloved galleries, music venues and studio spaces. The concepts of “development” and “art” can seem at odds with each other.
Vega originally hailed from rural Ohio but trekked to New York City, where he established an amateur acting career and earned experience running large-scale catering projects. After splitting time between Colorado and NYC, he settled here full-time.
He compared the differences between Denver and Aurora to those between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens: one is more centrally located, but another still has plenty of venues and events to offer visitors.
Vega admits bringing Denverites to Aurora can be a challenge. Florence Street is a long drive from downtown Denver, and the neighborhood is largely lower-income than its metro neighbors.
The People’s Building also shares a parking lot with homeless shelter Aurora Warms the Night. Last week, people crowded the lot waiting for services, ducking into an adjacent liquor store and pawn shop.
“We have people experiencing homelessness, experiencing poverty, experiencing drug addiction,” he said of the area. “There is a stigma we’re trying to buck here…. People walk in and say, ‘This is on East Colfax? This is so cool.’”
Vega has been bringing in artists from across the Denver metro, but he also intends to make valuable connections with artists already here.
The basement of the venue houses Nueva Escuela de Musica, a spanish-language music school for children. Vega Collegiate Academy, a local charter school, took kids to the venue for a field trip. And local businesses can book the space for corporate events — valuable money, Vega said, to help book artists.
Andrea Amonick, the city redevelopment official, said the space was built to be flexible and fit the needs of a variety of groups. In fact, a wing of the space is set aside for a restaurant, but remains vacant.
The city spent $1.8 million to renovate the space and budgeted $800,000 for upkeep, according to city spokesperson Julie Patterson.
But Vega credits the continued city ownership of the building for giving him the most operating flexibility. The People’s Building is not-for-profit, he said, and the city buttressing his bottom line enables him to book artists without worrying about next month’s rent.
Vega is cautiously optimistic that the arrangement will continue to give a foundation to the arts on Colfax.
“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We’ll find out in five, ten years.”