Is Denver a Good Place to Be an Artist?


As the city struggles with growth and affordability, creatives are feeling the pinch. But they say there are reasons to be optimistic, too.

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Edgar Dumas’ studio feels alive. Light spills through high windows onto wood tables covered in a vibrant array of paints and tins, overflowing with brushes of varying shapes. Most people know Dumas as Sonny, but Sunny would perhaps be more fitting. The self-taught painter—a small gold hoop earring in his left ear and a red baseball cap perched backward on his head—radiates so much energy he can’t sit still as he talks about his work, scooting back and forth on a Rollator and hopping up intermittently to skip past a song on his Spotify playlist. The Denverite’s art similarly appears to glow with life, as the bright colors and odd but familiar characters stare out from among his canvases’ geometric patterns.     

Dumas is one of nearly 80 creatives who have set up shop at the Globeville Riverfront Arts Center (GRACe), a 24/7 workspace for artists and creative businesses that sits at the end of dead-end road lined with brick warehouses. He relocated to GRACe from RiNo three-and-a-half years ago when Wazee Union, the artists’ studio space he previously worked in, was being redeveloped into Zeppelin Station. (Wazee owners Mickey Zeppelin and Neil Adam also developed GRACe, and about half of Wazee’s artists moved to the new venue.) Although he only started making art full-time about six years ago, Dumas lived in New York City in the 1960s and San Francisco in the ’70s, which is to say he’s familiar with the inevitable pricing out of artists from neighborhoods on the rise—a trend that Denver is in the midst of right now. “People will speak of the injustice of the whole thing, but my attitude is: This is what always happens,” Dumas says. “It’s unfair, but it’s inevitable.” 

As the cost of living in the Mile High City continues to rise—the average home price in Denver “peaked at $502,460” last summer, according to the Denver Business Journal—creatives, among many other groups, are feeling the squeeze. Warehouse studio space they once rented for cheap has been taken over by cannabis companies with more money to burn. Galleries where they once hung and sold their work are shuttering, unable to keep up with skyrocketing rents and the digitization of retail. Makers’ markets and boozy First Friday Art Walks have taken the place of more traditional art collecting. 

At 67 years old, Dumas is more focused on making art—the joy of it, the necessity of putting brush to canvas—than exhibiting or finding gallery representation. He understands that change is unavoidable, vital even, and he’s satisfied with his current situation. His studio is bigger and funkier than the one before, and GRACe connects him with a community of fellow imaginers. But he’s also watched firsthand as Denver has transformed from a cowtown to a place where the skyline is synonymous with construction cranes. “I imagine a lot of artists are having a hard time,” he says, acknowledging that without GRACe he’s not sure where he would have landed. “It’d be cool if there were more places for people to hang their work and more people buying their work. If we keep making art, maybe [Denverites] will change.”

“We know we’re short-term wherever we are.”

Affordability—when it comes to both living and working—has long been a major gripe of the local creative community. Colorado is the seventh fastest-growing state in the country, and for artists who live in Denver, the inherent difficulties of the profession are being compounded by the consequences of the city’s explosive growth. “Denver’s creative scene is a mirror of the larger community,” says Cortney Lane Stell, executive director and chief curator of Black Cube, a nomadic contemporary art museum.  

Artists, like many residents, are being asked to put more of their paychecks toward rent, and artistic venues are having a harder time keeping their doors open. According to 5280’s count, more than a dozen Denver galleries have closed or relocated in the last five or so years. The nonprofit Colorado Photographic Arts Center, for example, had to move three times in four years, finally settling into its Golden Triangle Creative District location in 2017. In the aftermath of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 people in Oakland, California, in 2016, local alternative art spaces such as Rhinoceropolis and Glob were shut down by the Denver Fire Department over safety concerns. (Both were granted permission to reopen earlier in January 2019 with help from the city’s Safe Occupancy Program.) And this past spring, Artspace announced that its highly anticipated plan to build 85 units of affordable housing, plus workshop and performance space, in RiNo had fallen through. (The nonprofit still operates one project in Loveland and has two more in the works in Ridgway and Trinidad.) “After the Ghost Ship fire, the conversation never happened about what could incentivize property owners to make affordable art spaces,” says Susan Dillon, a fiber and mixed-media artist and manager of GRACe. “It’s just a given now. We know we’re short-term wherever we are.” 

It’s a troubling situation with consequences that extend well beyond the artists themselves. The metro area’s cultural scene has a $573 million economic impact, according to the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts’ 2018 Economic Activity Study of Metro Denver Culture. The same report found that “cultural attendance reached 15 million” people and there was a 13 percent increase in individual donations to arts organizations. What’s more, metro Denver’s unique Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), the one-cent-for-every-$10 sales and use tax, distributes more than $60 million to close to 300 organizations across the seven-county area. In other words: People are invested in the city’s cultural offerings. 

Inside Kelly Berger’s studio. Courtesy of Kelly Berger

“A person visiting Denver would think we have nothing but a supportive arts community here—and in many ways they’d be right,” says Kelly Berger, a 58-year-old contemporary artist who operates out of Brushstrokes Studio, a work/showroom inside Prism Workspaces, a creative-minded community in Lincoln Park. But, she adds, “The pro-development mantra of the city has pushed out affordable art spaces. For me and for a lot of people, having that space [outside of their homes] helps them commit to their work and be more creative and innovative.”

Louise Martorano, executive director of nonprofit arts center Redline, agrees: “If you can own your space, you can own your future. You can’t build on your inventory, nor create greater visibility of your practice, if you’re constantly having to move…or there’s no stability.” That also applies to arts organizations; Redline owns its building but still has to raise funds for operations, programming, and more. “It’s hard to think about growth or sustainability when you’re just thinking about survival—that is something that translates between both the artists and the arts organizations,” Martorano says.

On the other side of the crane, development and a booming population mean Denver’s creatives have access to an ever-expanding audience. And art—visual or otherwise—doesn’t just add beauty to a city: It draws tourists and factors into that intangible quality of life metric that businesses consider when deciding where to set up shop. “Our artists have contributed exponentially to Denver being recognized nationally as a premier cultural tourism destination, a city where people want to live, and where corporations want to move their headquarters,” says Bobbi Walker, owner of Walker Fine Art.

Every artist has his or her own perspective on how receptive the city is to their work, but of the two dozen artists, gallery owners, and members of the creative community we spoke with for this story, most agreed that Denver’s arts scene is thriving. They applauded the community’s collaborative spirit and said they felt support, from the city and its citizens, for what they do—that people in Denver really do like art. Yet many of them are still struggling, and their challenges extend well beyond the ever-important, still-ongoing conversations about affordable places to live and work that are vexing the city at large. 

Beyond the Gallery

“Legilimens” by artist BirdCap, one of the most popular murals in 40 West Arts District, can be found on the west-facing wall of Arc Thrift Stores. Photo courtesy of 40 West Arts District / Lauren Poore Photography

In order to be successful, artists need exposure. That means infrastructure that allows them to showcase their work, whether it’s a museum or a neighborhood gallery or the brick façade of a building or Instagram (“a great little billboard,” said one gallery director). “Artists everywhere are having to retool how they get the world to see their work and buy their work,” Berger says. “It used to be you had to go to a brick-and-mortar gallery to see art.”

Not anymore. The commercial gallery model is fading thanks to a combination of real estate prices and technology. Though venerable venues such as Robischon Gallery and Rule Gallery continue to draw people in the door—and the city is home to globally recognized institutions like the Denver Art Museum and MCA Denver—e-commerce nabs a larger share of the retail pie every year, and the public is beginning to encounter art through their devices more than they do in person. “There are more artists here and it’s making the market more competitive. If galleries are your definition of success, it’s becoming more constrained,” says Kevin Yoshida, an architect and board member for the 40 West Arts District.

(Read our guide to Denver’s art museums)

As well-respected galleries (Plus Gallery, Gildar Gallery, Goodwin Fine Art) close their doors, others are trying to rethink their business models to better respond to 21st-century preferences. Local contemporary artist Doug Kacena opened K Contemporary two years ago as part of the 1412 Gallery Collective, which also includes Abend Gallery and Gallery 1261. The trio share one exhibition space in downtown Denver, as well as expenses, offsetting some of the fears and pressures that come with sole ownership.

Leon Gallery in Denver’s Uptown area officially became a nonprofit last year. Instead of relying on artwork sales, the business model now offers space and time for artists to create the pieces they want to make. “We were seeing artists not being able to show their most daring work,” says founder and artistic director Eric Dallimore about the decision. “We want to be the place where artists get their first chances.” He and co-owner Eric Gustaf Nord are also intent on making Leon an approachable venue so even those unfamiliar with the art world feel welcome. They host supper clubs and performances that help pull art neophytes through the door. “What we’re trying to do is connect artists to people,” Dallimore says. When works are purchased, artists receive an 80 percent commission (rates vary by gallery, but 50 percent is common in the industry).

Organic Subtleties by Cara Enteles and Brian Comber at Walker Fine Arts Gallery. Courtesy of Walker Fine Arts

Other stalwarts are similarly tweaking how they do business in response to the current arts economy. Seventeen-year-old Walker Fine Art has transitioned from hosting solo exhibitions to five-artist showcases; Walker is also diversifying the gallery’s arts programming by adding events like tours of artists’ studios and collectors’ homes to engage more people in the art process beyond staid opening nights. As a result, 2019 was the gallery’s most profitable year. 

Creative approaches are popping up all over town, from Temple’s unique studio and community space to Art Gym’s shared workspace membership model to the tenant-funded Union Hall in the Coloradan condo building near Union Station. Nontraditional venues—coffee shops, bars, co-working spaces—have opened their wall space to artists as well, providing access to more eyes and thus more opportunities.

More businesses moving to Denver also creates a greater need for corporate art. “As we buy more and more artwork for projects, hopefully more of that money is going into the pockets of local galleries and local artists,” says Chris Roth, curator for Nine Dot Arts, a Denver-based art advisory firm.

For their part, artists hope these new or renewed venues will be open to showcasing a broader array of mediums and more experimental approaches and that the city will support art forms beyond the super-hot street art scene. “Denver is a great place right now for traditional 2-D artists and people interested in immersive and new media arts,” says Black Cube’s Stell. “Denver is a challenging place for artists operating outside of those parameters.” 

The city has stepped up with monetary aid: There’s the Urban Arts Fund for murals. The Imagine 2020 Fund. P.S. You Are Here. Plus, myriad grants from various other organizations and foundations are available. Some would say it’s not enough, or that it doesn’t reach the individual artists who need the most help, but the money is out there if one knows where to look.

(Read our guide to buying (local, original) artwork)

Artists as Entrepreneurs

In response to this new world order, creatives are discovering that they must alter their perceptions of themselves as simply artists and view themselves as artists and businesspeople. They need to forget the ill-fated idea that making money for their art somehow lessens its worth and instead focus on new ways to add value to what they do. Local community members say artists need to think about ways to expand their opportunities: Can they host a class? Can they make prints from one-off, large-scale works? Could they showcase their work on different products, like magnets? “How many different ways can you manifest your art in ways that can ring the cash register—recognizing that some will be more fulfilling than others?” asks Bill Marino, 40 West’s board chair and executive director of the Lakewood-West Colfax Business Improvement District. “There’s a balance between what art you want to make and what art will sell.”

Another question many people are asking themselves: Does it make sense to balance my art with a day job that helps fund my creative pursuits? Fiber artist Dillon works out of GRACe, but she also manages the 75-studio venue, handling bookkeeping and events, and even watching over the resident chickens. Wondering whether anyone would want to buy what she was creating left her drained. “It held me back from making what I wanted to make,” she says. A full-time job allows Dillon to be more creative and pursue her craft in the ways she wants. 

Joel Swanson is a practicing artist (find his “T/here” installation outside of the Kimpton Hotel Born) and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s ATLAS Institute. He says none of the artists he knows in Denver are surviving on art sales alone. “There is always some other kind of income that has to be supplemented,” he says. Swanson considers himself lucky: His course load is limited to two classes per semester, and he has summers off to produce work, plus the ability to access facilities and tools on campus that help him in his practice. The university also provides Swanson with studio space. He counters the misconception that not floundering—having solid ground to stand on—negatively impacts his artistic output. “I want to believe that artists who are not struggling can make just as effective work, that we don’t need this myth of the tormented artist,” he says. 

While some worry that secondary occupations take time away from an artist’s craft or that it’s unfair for creatives to have to juggle more than one job, it’s a reality that’s not unique to the arts community. The gig economy continues to grow, both out of a desire to have control over one’s work–life balance and out of necessity.

Art Without Borders

“Untitled” by Diego Rodriguez-Warner

Just west of Denver proper, about a block away from the neon motel signs and apartment-building cranes that are fixtures of West Colfax Avenue, sits 40 West Studios, a collaborative space that could be considered the heart of 40 West Arts District. Established in 2011, the nonprofit, now-state-certified creative district is a robust collection of more than 150 creatives that has seen its membership and event attendance grow every year. Over the past two years, familiar and longstanding Denver galleries such as Core New Art Space, Edge, and Pirate: Contemporary Art have moved their businesses to Lakewood, taking advantage of lower rents and a strong artistic community that has been building for nearly a decade. 40West also offers incentives, such as money to help galleries build out spaces, lease negotiation help, and three-year leases to provide some predictability in a notoriously unpredictable industry. “We’re a beneficiary of some of the displacement,” Marino admits.

Moving just beyond Denver’s borders has become a common theme for Mile High City residents who are being priced out, and it’s no different for artists. Official and unofficial arts hubs are popping up all around the metro area, welcoming creatives who can no longer afford the capital’s steep prices. “It’s the surrounding cities where all the excitement is—Westminster, Aurora, Englewood,” says arts programming consultant David Moke. He’s speaking of areas like the Derby Art District in Commerce City, the Aurora Cultural Arts District, Longmont, and Englewood’s Museum of Outdoor Arts.

“With the success of a booming metropolis, you need to be really careful you don’t squeeze out culture,” Swanson advises. “The people who make culture, they’re not the wealthy people but they’re the people who enrich a city. I’m worried Denver is eking in that direction.” 

We, the public, have a role to play in all of this, too. We can’t just expect artists to create for nothing. We need to consider how we’re treating and supporting the creative community. We need to buy art, share art, view art. “The main missing component is the collectors, the broader audience… With this many artists, this many galleries in Denver, we do need more engagement,” says Leon Gallery’s Dallimore. That engagement, he adds, needs to span the city’s entire arts ecosystem, from the Denver Art Museum to smaller galleries, from world-renowned artists to new voices. It has to include both art for entertainment and art for education—both art that reflects and comments on our world and immersive art that’s designed as an escape from the everyday. 

It can often feel like we’re encountering art all the time—the street art decorating RiNo, interactive pieces in the alley at Dairy Block, public sculptures. But seeing art by accident isn’t what keeps artists in business. “In other cities, there seems to be an appreciation for what art does and how art can benefit a person’s life. Here in Denver, art is what you do on your way to dinner or as you’re walking by,” says Diego Rodriguez-Warner, a 33-year-old painter who grew up in the Mile High City and had his first solo museum exhibition at the MCA in early 2018. “It’s strange to me that with all the money coming in [to Denver] my friends and myself are playing the same old game.”

Daliah Singer, 5280 Contributor

Daliah Singer is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denver. You can find more of her work at daliahsinger.com.



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