While Denver has been known for its proximity to the mountains, the Broncos and an overwhelming amount of bearded men, the past year has shifted that status so the Mile High City might just become one of the cultural and artistic icons of the entire western US. Due to the collective efforts of many different arts advocates and organizations, Denver experienced world-class artistic experiences in 2018 that only foreshadow what will come in the future. Chances are, even if you didn’t make it a priority to take part in those experiences, you likely still participated in one. Art was pervasive this year. It infiltrated the music scene, government and public projects, private businesses and even the mountains outside of Denver. And looking back on 2018 in the last few weeks of the year, we can assure all of Denver’s lucky residents and visitors that they are at least a little more cultured than they were in 2017. From major, internationally recognized museum exhibits to large-scale public art projects to the expansive street art scene to the fusion of music and art, Denver will now be known as a destination for creative expressionists from all over the world.

Galleries Made a Splash

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As I personally discovered when writing an article at the beginning of this year, The Definitive Guide to Denver Art Galleries, this city is teeming with art galleries. They come in all shapes, sizes and genres of art — including one that specializes in Disney and Marvel fan art — and there are more than 75 just within Denver city limits (there are more in the suburbs and surrounding cities, too). Although some opened this year and some closed for good, there were some outstanding exhibitions that either brought well-known artists or created opportunities for local ones. The Crown Collection on West 29th Avenue in the Highlands increased its influence by bringing artist Crystal Wagner for a solo exhibition that dwarfed the gallery space. Wagner has made customized pieces for Wayne Coyne (the frontman of The Flaming Lips), as well as NIKE, but her more recent work uses repurposed tablecloths and other plastic products to build huge installations. Her room-engulfing, colorful sculptures have started taking over the world, with an enormous one forecasted in France for 2019.

Another gallery that upped the ante in Denver this year is Mirus — a sister gallery to the original one located in San Francisco. When it opened in April 2018, Mirus attracted so many interested art lovers they had to throw a second grand opening to accommodate everyone. One of the featured artists in their first opening reception was Okuda San Miguel — the painter behind the psychedelic interior of the International Church of Cannabis. To finish the year, Mirus brought the celebrated Spanish artist back to Denver for a solo exhibition, which opened on November 24.

Meow Wolf Announced Their Denver Location

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the first week of 2018, as if to forecast how big the rest of the year would be in the art world, the wildly popular artist collective from Santa Fe — Meow Wolf  — announced their plans to open a sister exhibition in Denver. Not only did they announce that Denver would have its own psychedelic playhouse, but they also delivered the news that this location would be three times the size of the Santa Fe one. The excitement in the Denver artist community was palpable, with artists wondering impatiently how they could be involved. As the year progressed, Meow Wolf continued to pump up the Denver art scene by providing sponsorship money to many small organizations and groups, from vinyl toy shows at Spectra Art Space to entire block parties and many things in between.

In August, Meow Wolf announced another plan for Denver — a ride at Elitch Gardens. At first, this might seem unusual, but the location for the Meow Wolf exhibition was purchased with the help of Revesco Properties, a real estate firm that is part-owners of Elitch Gardens. The ride, called Kaleidoscape, will have “other-worldly motion, deep sound, wild color and interactive challenges that if well-played may just save the day,” according to the artist collective. It’s on schedule to open in 2019.

But those announcements, although received with gusto from many in Denver’s art community, also were countered with some criticisms. In order to address those and to prove that Meow Wolf would be a boon for the entire city, but especially for local artists, the founding members held a corporate social responsibility meeting in October. With a passionate speech from Meow Wolf’s CEO and co-founder Vince Kadlubek, Denver was offered a plan where Meow Wolf’s integration would combat gentrification and help bolster artists. Only time will tell if those plans will come to fruition, as the Denver Meow Wolf is set to open in 2020.

READ: How Meow Wolf Plans to Support Denver’s Community and Combat Gentrification

Museums Made Grand Statements

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Denver museums radiated attention into the city this year through a series of bold, groundbreaking and premier exhibitions. To start the momentum for the rest of the cultural institutions, Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art re-opened in a new location with approximately 2,000 more works of art bringing their full collection to roughly 6,000 pieces. With 65 percent more gallery exhibition space and close proximity to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) and the Clyfford Still Museum, Kirkland inflated the reputation and prestige of the Golden Triangle Creative District with the move. The DAM started undergoing renovations (on January 10, 2018) before Kirkland moved for the new North Building and as a result, all activities, programming and exhibitions were moved into the Hamilton Building. Even though the square footage was lessened, the DAM delivered one hell of a prestigious lineup, including a special exhibition of Degas and another of Rembrandt. Denver was the only place in the world to see the Rembrandt show, which featured rare prints, etchings and information from the leading scholar on Rembrandt. Of course, the momentous year at the DAM was completed when it opened Dior: From Paris to the Worlda retrospective of the iconic fashion house. With over 200 pieces of stylish clothing and accessories, the DAM is the first place in the US to showcase Dior like this. 

READ: Kirkland Museum Opens at a Bigger, Better Location 

At the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), several exhibitions transformed the space in monumental ways. First, Los Angeles-based artist Cleon Peterson (a mentee of the famous street artist Shepard Fairey) wrapped the entire outside of the building in a vinyl black-and-white design that matched the theme of his third-floor exhibit, Shadow of Men. The band Portugal. The Man was so impressed with Peterson’s MCA exhibit that they threw a free, intimate show inside the gallery. A few months later, the MCA announced the Octopus Initiative, which allows Denver metro residents to borrow original art from the museum on a lending program for up to one year. All of the art in the Octopus Initiative is created by local Denver artists, like Diego Rodriguez Warner — an artist whose deeply impressive show at the MCA during Peterson’s takeover distracted me from Peterson altogether. The final exhibition for the year brought New York artist Tara Donovan for an expansive show that took over all three galleries titled Fieldwork. Some of the pieces were created specifically for the MCA, making the exhibit more exclusive than Donovan’s other displayed work at the moment, which includes a large sculpture in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Public and Outdoor Art Thrived

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One thing that helps to create an elevated art scene is the accessibility of art. Although the museum and gallery exhibitions that Denver hosted this past year were top-notch, some people just simply don’t like going to museum and galleries. Public art can be an answer to that. And this year, Denver was the host to a handful of public art projects that did more than beautify a public space — they were pieces of art that sought to educate, inspire or in the case of Happy City, to incite happiness.

Happy City was imagined by British artist Stuart Semple and made possible in Denver through the collaboration of many different organizations, including the Denver Theatre District and Black Cube Nomadic Museum. Over the span of six weeks, different areas of Denver were creatively activated, including Union Station, Red Rocks and the alleys of 16th Street Mall. Residents and visitors to the city were given a moment or two to feel wonder, to feel like a kid again or to simply smile. During the city-wide “intervention,” Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery conducted a few social experiments to measure the effectiveness of the project, wondering if public art could make people in a city happier. The results of that came in just before the year is ending, and it turns out that “…art can break down personal, emotional and social barriers. Art really can help build the happy city” — as reported by Montgomery.

READ: Everything You Need To Know About Happy City Transforming Denver

Another acquisition and accomplishment for public art this year was the opening of the 40 West ArtLine in Lakewood. Fusing fitness and art, the 40 West Art District implemented the four-mile walkable, bikeable and skatable (see our video below) path between three Lakewood parks that showcases local, national and international artists. With ground murals, sculptures, fence art and other installations, the ArtLine became one of the most accessible avenues into the art scene. And it’s accessible to anyone in Denver since a good portion of the path abuts the RTD Light Rail’s W Line.

In May, Denver Arts & Venues announced a new website for their public art collection. The new site allows interested art lovers to peruse the entire collection, curate self-guided tours, find out information on the artists and find out about funding opportunities. Denver Arts & Venues has been a major asset to the public art scene for 30 years and the launch of the much-upgraded site is a foreshadowing to the continuing success and growth of their collection. If nothing else, it shows the desire to invest in public art in Denver and that is a significant step for Denver’s cultural reputation at-large.

Although technically outside of Denver, both Breckenridge and Vail accomplished massive public art installations during the summer months of this year. The organization Breckenridge Creative Arts (or BreckCreate) was awarded a $100,000 grant for three site-specific public art installations from the National Endowment for the Arts and also managed to commission Danish artist Thomas Dambo for a giant wooden troll during their annual International Festival of Arts (BIFA). Unfortunately, the troll was removed after only three months, due to a vote by the city council in Breckenridge that named it as a severe problem (apparently the bus stop closest to the troll went from an average of three riders to 3,000 each day and neighbors were tired of the onslaught of Instagrammers). In Vail, nationally-recognized installation artist Patrick Dougherty spent the better part of a month shaping and weaving sticks into house-like sculptures with the help of local volunteers and his son. Fortunately, the “Stickwork” (as he calls his installations) remains in place and is likely to endure for at least another year or two.

Street Artists Grew Their Influence

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Denver street art scene may have been the most explosive this year, touching nearly every neighborhood in the city. It garnered so much attention the Travel Channel published a video on it, The New York Times mentioned guided walking tours of it, Denver’s public art program funded more than 60 murals and the annual festival in RiNo, CRUSH Walls, had more visitors than ever before. From spray paint to permanent markers to fabric textiles, the street art popping up all around Denver isn’t your typical tagger’s territorial marks — it’s truly world-class art.

Of course, the most saturated area for street art scavengers is RiNo, where CRUSH has paved the way for all businesses and some residences to commission murals and piecework graffiti writing on their walls and in their alleys. When CRUSH started in 2010, there were only a handful of participating artists, and though last year saw nearly 100, 2018’s festival was scaled down in number (of artists participating) but pumped up in influence and impact. That transformation was partly due to the festival coming under new management — a mixture of the RiNo Arts District and Station 16 in Montreal — partly due to the roster of invited artists including Shepard Fairey and partly because local artists have been especially prolific at spreading their art around the city in the last year.

READ: Review – Growing Pains at CRUSH Could Signify More Successes Than Failures 

The momentum of CRUSH from previous years also aided in the growth of live-painting events featuring street artists. Starting with a warehouse party in April at the Lumenati headquarters, local street artists had some of their work featured or were painting in real time as visitors watched — like DINKC. More events like that continued throughout the year, including one at The Urban Cyclist, called RiNo Arts Fest which featured the works of some of Denver’s most prominent street artists like Tuke, Ladies Fancywork Society, Chris Haven, Casey Kawaguchi, Markham Maes and others.

Other events propped up the local street art scene by combining live painting or showcased street art with music, block parties or other major events in the city. For the first annual Grandoozy music festival, local street artists DINKC, Anthony Garcia Sr., Anna Charney, RUMTUM, Thomas “Detour” Evans, Jason Garcia, Hollis + Lana and Esic painted moveable walls over the three-days of live music. In October, Meow Wolf sponsored an event called Far Out Factory, where amidst the other immersive installations and DJ sets, street artists like Grow Love, Mpek and Casey Kawaguchi were given a few walls to paint. And over the course of the Denver Nuggets basketball season, Thomas “Detour” Evans has been painting tribute pieces to alumni Nuggets players and presenting them during games at The Pepsi Center.  These collaborative events show Denver’s easing acceptance of street art — and sometimes graffiti — after decades of low tolerance for the art form.

With all of the accomplishments in the art and culture scene in Denver this year, it is with great excitement that many in the city will greet 2019. And as we all watch and participate in the burgeoning creativity, we will become a little happier — according to Montgomery’s study. At the very least, we’ll have a lot of pretty things to look at and experience.