Alumni Spotlight: Tariana Navas-Nieves, Denver Arts & Venues

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Tariana Navas-Nieves is the Deputy Director of Denver Arts & Venues (DAV), the City & County of Denver agency responsible for operating some of the region’s most renowned facilities, including Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, Colorado Convention Center, Denver Coliseum, Loretto Heights and McNichols Civic Center Building. Funds generated by the agency through venue bookings, ticket sales, concessions, sponsorships and more, are put back into the community through grants, cultural investments, free and low-cost events, arts in public spaces, and more. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Tariana about her background as a leader at the intersection of government and philanthropy, and her experience in the Center’s Executive Certificate in Philanthropic Leadership Program.

Could you share what inspired you to pursue a career in philanthropy, particularly in your current role?

I was inspired to work in philanthropy through my work in government in the City & County of Denver’s arts and cultural agency – Denver Arts & Venues. As funders, we are part of our city’s philanthropic landscape and as public servants, we have a responsibility to our communities and the cultural sector. Early on I recognized that our agency is very unique, there’s no other agency in the country, that I am aware of, that operates like we do. We are a special revenue fund that operates as a social-cultural enterprise. We have tremendous physical assets, like our venues, that generate revenue that supports our cultural sector and communities. Our role as an arts and cultural agency is to operate the best venues in the region and to play a key role as a philanthropic entity. Furthermore, while there is a strong philanthropic sector in Denver, it’s not focused on arts and culture– not like in Minneapolis or New York, for example. I wanted to connect with our regional philanthropic entities, which are focused on health, education, and other social benefit areas, and bring the message that arts and culture are central to healthy, educated, and thriving communities, and encourage them to support the arts.

What are some of the current challenges or emerging trends you’ve observed in the field, and how is your organization adapting to address these evolving needs?

In terms of arts philanthropy, a current local challenge is not having a robust arts and culture foundation sector. We are very lucky to have the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District, a seven-county tax district that supports close to 300 organizations, yet aside from the district, some corporate funders, and individual contributors, there are only three main funders in our city: the state, one small foundation, and us. We’ve addressed this challenge by building relationships within the philanthropic sector and developing a collective funding model. This collaborative approach has been successful, but we still need to bring additional partners into the fold. I’m the board chair for Philanthropy Colorado and Grantmakers in the Arts, the national arts funders membership organization, so I am constantly thinking about how we can best use our philanthropic relationships to come together to address our common causes. Arts and culture can play a significant role in addressing social challenges, and we all wish to do what is best for our communities. I believe that through partnerships and collaboration, we will be most successful.

As an alum of the Executive Certificate in Philanthropic Leadership, what motivated you to enroll, and what were some key insights or skills you gained that have influenced your approach to philanthropy and community engagement? What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

I consider myself a lifelong learner, and I’ve been committed to reimagining philanthropy to ensure the most inclusive and equitable practices. Even after doing equity-focused work for over 30 years, I’m still learning, growing, evolving, and interested in sharing tools and learnings with others. When I saw the Executive Certificate in Philanthropic Leadership program, especially knowing that it’s through Georgetown which is well respected for its other leadership programs, I saw a great opportunity to come together with peers and philanthropic leaders with shared values. I was not disappointed. I was able to re-evaluate our work and see what challenges others in the sector were facing. I also made great connections with like-minded colleagues, which is key to moving philanthropy forward.

If you had any additional advice, what would you give to professionals considering participating in the program?

I think the program is a great opportunity for anyone in the sector, no matter what philanthropic entity you represent or the role you play in your organization. I am a public funder and I’m in a leadership position, and met others from family and private foundations, CEOs and grant managers, and everyone had much to contribute. Being exposed to a diversity of perspectives, different levels of decision-making, and various philanthropic entities made the experience rich and worthwhile. Don’t let your particular funder type determine whether you should do this program or not. Everyone, no matter where you are within the philanthropic sector will find tremendous value in this program. I certainly did. Even when we shared common practices or challenges, the insights from colleagues in different cities or different environments brought to light tools that could be replicated back home.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for the future of philanthropy, particularly within the context of your work at Denver Arts & Venues?

I’ve witnessed an evolution of philanthropy that fills me with hope; philanthropy is becoming more transparent and equitable. I’ve also seen the pendulum swing in a different direction unfortunately, especially after the boldness we saw in 2020 of bringing equity into funding systems. So, I aspire to hold strong to the belief that we must continue to use our positions of privilege as funders to shape the philanthropy of the future. I don’t take the access to funding and decision-making position I have for granted. I honor this responsibility every day. And I am especially talking about the work that happens behind the scenes, not the loud statements of commitment. The work I am talking about is rigorously designed through values, and meticulously translated into operational and process changes. This is how I spend a lot of my time – in the work where long-lasting change and true transformation happens, and sharing a vision that is deeply rooted in imagining the future of philanthropy that we want to be a part of.

How do you plan to leverage your experience and expertise to drive a positive impact within the communities you serve?

The arts and cultural sector, and the communities I work with inspire me and drive my work, so my plan is to continue to use my experience and expertise to support them. I’m committed to elevating my voice and using the platforms I have access to, to advocate for the communities I serve and engage. Programs like the Executive Certificate in Philanthropic Leadership have allowed me to share those learnings and experiences that I hope, in some way, inspire others to go back to their organizations and spaces and do good work. An example I value is the opportunity I had when the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) invited representatives from local art agencies to discuss what the NEA could do better. I advocated for the NEA to prioritize building relationships with local government agencies, as we have the trust and proximity of our communities. Our partners at the NEA listened and a grant program was launched that connects them to local agencies as re-grantors. I believe the conversation turned into action because we came together with much generosity, and shared values and purpose, to drive positive impact within the communities we serve throughout the nation.