A Case Study
The Rocky Mountain Arts Association (RMAA), home to the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus, the Denver Women’s Chorus, as well as smaller vocal ensembles, is Colorado’s oldest and largest LGBTQ+ arts nonprofit. The organization also represents one of the larger LGBTQ+ choruses in the U.S., among hundreds of musical groups that comprise a substantial portion of LGBTQ+ arts nonprofits. Arts organizations such as RMAA play numerous roles in their communities: from being a safe, supportive, and affirming outlet for creative expression, to educating the broader public, and engaging in advocacy for justice and equality.
With more than 300 members, RMAA produces five to six concerts and conducts another eight to 12 outreach performances each year, according to Executive Director Michael Sattler. With a mission of “building community through music,” the choruses not only offer LGBTQ+ individuals a musical community, but also emphasize equity and inclusion through their performances, Sattler explained. This includes having ASL interpreters at concerts, producing programs in Braille for people with vision impairment, and making sure venues are wheelchair accessible.
Sattler explained that the first gay chorus was the San Francisco Gay Men’s chorus, which debuted the night Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus subsequently went on tour, leading to the establishment of a half dozen or so gay choruses over the next five years. The Denver Gay Men’s Chorus started in 1982, with the Denver Women’s Chorus starting two years later. “The chorus is really a foundation for the gay community, the LGBTQ community,” Sattler said. “And in the 80s, a lot of that activity was raising awareness about AIDS at a time that few people outside of the gay community were paying attention.”
That mix of activism and art has continued to the present day, Sattler said. In 2022, the first concert of the Denver Women’s Chorus, “My Body, My Voice,” was a direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, he said. The choirs have also performed at large-scale public events, like the inauguration of Colorado Governor Jared Polis—the first openly gay governor in the nation—and at vigils following mass shootings at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and Club Q in Colorado Springs.
While the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person events for more than a year, RMAA’s concert attendance has bounced back, with record attendance in 2023. Earned income from ticket sales and choral membership fees comprise about half of the organization’s $700,000 budget, with foundation grants and individual giving making up another 30%. RMAA also receives a grant from the Denver metro area’s cultural facility district tax, providing another 15% to 20% of its funding. Since taking the helm as executive director in 2016, Sattler estimates that RMAA has doubled its budget, attributing that growth to both artistic excellence and administrative stability.
“The reason I became passionate about being Executive Director of the choruses was that the chorus has saved lives. I know people who have told me they would have committed suicide had it not been for the chorus,” Sattler said. “I never know what effects the choruses’ music will have. It’s like throwing a stone in a pond and watching the ripples. And those ripples can be pretty significant. And that’s why I do what I do.”