Arts and Culture / Magazine Feature

Denver art scene finds strength in numbers

Denver is generally known for its mountains and microbrews, but as the city grows, it is also commanding attention for its art.

Art districts are everywhere in metro Denver. While there isn’t one in University Park, concentrations of galleries and studios have cropped up within a short drive—on Santa Fe Drive, in the Golden Triangle south of the capitol and Denver Art Museum (DAM), and on the north end of downtown at the River North Arts District (RiNo), to name a few. Aurora, Littleton and other Denver neighbors are contributing to the art scene as well with their own districts.

While many American cities have single, concentrated art communities, Denver has managed to keep several districts thriving. People turn out by the thousands for Santa Fe’s First Friday events, and other districts are burgeoning, too. These creative communities didn’t pop up overnight, however.

According to Gwen Chanzit, DU modern art senior lecturer and DAM modern and contemporary art curator, one of the city’s first arts districts was on the west side of the Platte River, near downtown. It eventually moved to Broadway.

Art district on Santa Fe president Jack Pappalardo says that as Broadway gentrified, rents increased and artists moved to Lower Downtown. After Coors Field opened in 1995, rent in LoDo increased, sending artists to developing neighborhoods like Santa Fe. 

The dispersion of artists decentralized the art community and led to the development of multiple art districts in the city, Pappalardo says. In a grassroots fashion, art “grows where it grows,” he says. Creating an arts district from the top down is usually unsuccessful.

Art revitalizes cities and areas of cities, says Tracy Weil, an artist and owner of Weil Works gallery in RiNo. And he hopes history will repeat itself in his River North community.

Susan Jenson, MA ’98, is director of Downtown Aurora Visual Arts (DAVA). Her program offers free, after-school art classes in an area where there were no after-school programs before DAVA started 12 years ago. Jenson explains that as the program helped the students, they in turn improved the community by creating three public murals and two sculptures.

Pappalardo and his wife, Georgia Amar, a multimedia artist, own the Habitat Gallery. In the last three years, the couple has made a determined effort to clean up Santa Fe. Every night they put local residents to work sweeping the sidewalks and painting over graffiti. 

Now the area is undergoing its own gentrification as new condos, restaurants and coffee shops are built. But Pappalardo says the art is there to stay because most galleries own their space. So while property values increase, owners won’t have to fear rising rents.

With art all over the city, artists and gallery owners see approachability both in the art and the viewer. The pretentiousness that clings to many art scenes is absent in Denver, they say.

“The people in Denver are not judgmental,” Amar says. “They lack the cynicism you find in other large urban centers.”

The districts and museums aren’t competing against one another either, Chanzit says. In fact, they are working together.

“We’re not isolated in our own building, we want to be a vital part of the city,” Chanzit says of the museum. 

The DAM’s new Frederick C. Hamilton Building, the Contemporary Art Museum’s new building, and the Clyfford Still Museum to be built west of DAM will bring even more art-world attention to Denver, and these new buildings will provide opportunities for collaborative growth between public and private art organizations, Chanzit says.

According to Deanna Person, director of community relations at DAM, the museum expects a million visitors in the Hamilton building’s first year. To take advantage of those high attendance numbers, DAM is spearheading “Hot DAM: Arts at Altitude,” a program that invites other local art organizations to create programming based on themes including architecture, art spaces and design. Among the program’s goals is unifying Denver’s cultural groups and incorporating community partners at a time when DAM will receive national and international attention, Person says. 

“In any city, particularly one the size of Denver, everyone wins when we work together,” Chanzit says.

This article originally appeared in The Source, June 2006.

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