How Coronavirus Has Changed the Denver Art Scene

For more than a month, the arts scene in Denver has been devastated by the shutdown of all gatherings and non-essential businesses. The creative community has rallied from the beginning, from a host of resources designed to assist people employed in the arts to plywood coverings on businesses receiving custom-painted murals to uplifting and inspiring activities made by artists for people at home. But the fact that the overall arts and culture landscape has changed drastically cannot be overlooked.

READ: A Guide to Resources for Artists and Creatives Affected by the Coronavirus

As Denver’s stay-at-home orders slowly phase out starting May 8, Denver’s artists and creatives will be trying to figure out how to return to work. Already, there are signs of a new cultural awakening. This new culture is born out of a response to a global sickness, bigger than coronavirus. It’s born out of empathy from outsiders who suddenly understand the meaning of leading a financially insecure lifestyle. So what does this art scene look like and how are Denver’s artists and creatives shaping it?

Art From A Distance

Art by Shawn Huckins on the #ArtFindsUs truck. Photo by Cori Anderson

How does one experience art without standing in its presence? That’s the question the art community is asking since doors were shuttered to visitors more than a month ago. And it’s still the question they must ask, moving forward in an uncertain future where visitors may not want to stand inside with strangers in close proximity.

Doug Kacena, founder of the downtown art gallery K Contemporary, took a leap of faith with a project to bring art to people called #ArtFindsUs in the last week of April. Instead of asking people to come to his gallery, he hired a billboard truck to drive around displaying photographic reproductions of paintings from two of the artists he represents. His inspiration stemmed from a desire to disrupt people’s routines with art and to spread beauty in a time of chaos, but it also grew out of fatigue from scanning through online content for weeks on end.

Many of the artists we spoke with shared a similar sentiment — an overwhelmed feeling brought on by the sheer amount of online content. Just how many virtual art shows can one peruse before boredom sets in? Julie Jablonski, an artist and member of Pirate Contemporary Art said “just as people like to telework so that they can hang out in their PJs, maybe people will like the at-my-fingertips art viewing that the pandemic has forced upon us in great volume. However, art goers are a small and close-knit community. I believe and hope that they will always love the act of getting out, seeing art in person, and visiting with kindred spirits. But perhaps to that, will be added some novel ways to digest art too.”

After all, the trend toward experiencing art first-hand, by literally touching everything in an immersive setting, has been on the up-and-up for a few years now. Before this coronavirus outbreak, immersive and experiential art was bringing more people into the art scene as artists but also as fans, collectors and paying participants.

Drew Austin is an artist and curator who installed a printmaking exhibition with Jessica Kooiman-Parker at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder before the stay-at-home orders went into place. They quickly made the exhibition available online. Austin had a different take on virtual content when he said, “the way we experience work will be changed forever, definitely. I just chatted with an artist the other day about virtual reality, and how this medium was slated for a meteoric rise as an art-form, and yet, how do we now safely experience this work in a large public context without constant VR goggle cleaning, fear of spreading/catching anything at any moment? Because it might be years until this type of art interaction exists again.”

Redefining Immersive

A scene inside Shiki Dreams. Photo by Barbara Urzua

Immersive art beyond the technological realm poses similar problems in a post-pandemic world. Large-scale installations that encourage physical interaction — like the work of Denver-based Prismajic and the Meow Wolf worlds — may have to dramatically change their operating procedures.

Eric Jaenike and Jennifer Mosquera, founders of Prismajic, are planning on re-opening their newest immersive installation, Shiki Dreams on May 14. When it originally opened, 20 visitors at most were allowed in for a predetermined time period. Now, the limit will be six people. The 1,500 square feet space contains six themed rooms that can be virtually explored via an app on your phone as well as with a UV flashlight, with limited physical touch required. Jaenike and Mosquera believe the installation was already designed to inspire people’s meditative sides and offer room to be alone or nearly alone. “That’s always been at the heart of what we do — transforming how people look at themselves and the world. Meditative experiences instill a sense of calm, inner reflection… [they] even have been shown to fortify a person’s immune system,” the duo said.

But even with the assurance that limiting the number of visitors to less than half of their previous maximum, adding safety procedures like more frequent wipe downs of equipment and shorter hours of operation, Jaenike and Mosquera said that “everything is up in the air” when it comes to immersive experiences in the art world. “For work that is designed for large groups, it could be devastating. We believe in general we will see a move toward smaller, more intimate experiences with less physical contact and touching until people are confident they’re safe.”

The Gift Economy

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One of the most uplifting bits of news to come from the Denver art community during this time has been the triumphant success of fundraising campaigns. From the beginning, when Denver artist Merhia Wiese and her team started a GoFundMe for artists, the idea that asking the fans directly for donations blossomed. Perhaps this global crisis has allowed artists to lean into their vulnerability and ask for help with less hesitancy. Perhaps it was also that most people were stuck at home, without the typical distractions to prevent them from donating money.

The most successful crowdfunding campaign during the stay-at-home order is undoubtedly Babe Walls — Colorado’s first all womxn and non-binary mural festival. With the intent to pay more than 20 artists a fair stipend, buy materials, rent equipment and run a large-scale event, founder of Babe Walls Alex Pangburn asked for $53,800 from community donors via an all-or-nothing Kickstarter. On the last day of the campaign, the goal was met and then exceeded thanks to almost 200 individuals.

“Artists are taking things into their own hands and reaching the people even more directly. I see so many artists rising to the calls, shifting their work and being adaptable. The culture of giving is rising, we’re helping each other, we’re offering our gifts to each other. This is super powerful and inspiring,” said Leah Brenner Clack, the founder of Boulder’s mural festival Street Wise. She called out the success of Babe Walls as a hallmark of this new “gift economy.”

The signs of this are all around. Leon Gallery on 17th Avenue offered three artists the opportunity to showcase whatever they wanted in the windows of the gallery so that passers-by could enjoy the beauty “on the way to or from picking up essentials or taking your daily walk” called Please Stand By. Venmo accounts are displayed so that people can donate directly to the artists.

Five organizations with Denver connections — CherryArts, Understudy, La Napoule Art Foundation, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and Food For Thought — have partnered to provide art kits for students in the Denver Public School District. Food For Thought is already providing meals to DPS students and families and has now started including with those meals art kits for at-home creative activities with materials and tutorials provided by the art organizations. Where art education was floundering before, there is a glimmer of hope that well-respected art institutions now have the power to offer help and guidance to the public school system.

Muralist Patrick Kane McGregor is another example. After being asked to paint a mural on the plywood covering the windows of the restaurant Pony Up, he decided to help out even more. He created a campaign to raise money by selling photographic prints of his murals and offering the proceeds to the service-industry community.

READ: These Plywood Murals Are Turning Closed Storefronts Into Open-Air Galleries

Working Together While Apart

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Even before COVID-19 hit, the trend of collaboration between artists or the formation of an artist collective was gaining ground. Some of Denver’s oldest art galleries have operated as artist-run spaces for decades and the wildly popular Meow Wolf collective has made the idea mainstream. But collaborating under stay-at-home orders has offered a new set of opportunities and challenges that may forever alter the way some artists approach these group projects.

Moe Gram, a Denver-based artist and advocate, had already been working with fellow Denver artist Robyn Frances on a collaboration called The Nest for the series called Pink Progression when coronavirus concerns placed new constraints on the progress. Gram and Frances have collaborated on many projects over the last three years — “enough for an exhibition” Frances remarked — but The Nest may change their process in the future. First, the artists created the panels for the artwork together in person, but since then each one has added to the artwork in her own studio, one after the other, alone.

Gram said, “this new challenge has encouraged us to trust each other on a greater level because we are not able to communicate as frequently or in person. We have been forced to be more concise with our communication and rely more so on our intuition. That to me has been very beautiful because it has allowed me to work from a more spiritual space in this collaborative realm. I have found myself reviewing our notes from previous conversations more frequently, doing research based on what I am seeing [Frances] post on social media or brief text messages, which have all lead us to what I believe is a very successful outcome.”

In the theatrical and performance community, the lack of large gatherings or the ability to be in close physical contact with other performers has led to virtual collaboration. Denver-based performance troupe Rainbow Militia recently ended a run of “Rainbow Ruckus” — a live Zoom show of more than 80 performers and musicians co-creating acts while still in their own homes.

Virtual collaborations are especially popular among the more musical creatives, through the live streaming platform Twitch. For the last month, muralist Pat Milbery has partnered with different DJs to produce a Sunday live stream where the audio is from a live performing DJ and Milbery paints along to it with added visuals provided by Milbery’s friend and co-creator OZWVLD. Both Milbery and the featured DJ can be seen performing, which is the closest thing we have right now to going to a show at The Ogden.

As much as it can feel limiting, this kind of creative problem-solving to foster collaboration in a time when people are discouraged from coming together might sprout new ideas for projects in the future, and quite possibly, a new way of interacting with art and artists.

What almost every artist and creative that we talked to agreed upon was that this time has changed their practice, output and creative process in some way. It might not be forever, but it certainly alters the Denver art scene for the foreseeable future. There are no clear cut answers or directories to point everyone in the right direction, but at least we can count on the greatest virtue of the artistic community to help us find our way back to enjoying life to the fullest — creativity.

Eric Nord, of Leon Gallery, added insight to the steps ahead: “I personally hope that this situation will create a renaissance of art that is created upon and filled with emotion, deep reflection, soul searching, fearlessly addressing complex and controversial issues, an earnest and brave curiosity to understand the unknown and a rejuvenated desire to find personal meaning.”