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Nearly two weeks ago, Studio Aiello Gallery opened its doors with a juried exhibition straightforwardly titled the Grand Opening Group Show.
Studio Aiello is the first phase of an ambitious project called the Aiello Center for Contemporary Art. Located in a lightly rehabbed 1940s commercial building in a former industrial neighborhood a mile and a half north of Coors Field, the gallery -- along with several vacant lots and a couple of ancillary buildings -- will grow into the ACCA in the coming year if all goes well.
The ACCA is envisioned as a cross between the Arvada Center, Pirate and Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. When it's completed, it will include the gallery and a studio/workshop in an annex building with shop facilities, communal spaces and individual artists' studios. A sculpture garden, which will double as a space for performances and special events, is planned for those vacant lots (now filled with an unsightly collection of old pickup trucks and wrecked sports cars). A gathering place for artists, the Dialog Cafe, will occupy one of the other small buildings on the site. Finally, there will be a metal foundry available to the community.
The programs being contemplated by the ACCA are every bit as ambitious as the plans for the facility. Exhibitions will be presented in the already-open gallery and in the sculpture garden. Professional classes and workshops will be held in the annex and the foundry. There will be an artist-residency program, as well as a graduate-student program and a curatorial residency. Not only that, but the ACCA also wants to reach out to the community in the form of public art projects and classes and activities aimed at children and families.
The center was the brainchild of the late Karen Aiello and her artist-activist son, Tyler. Karen was a Denver realtor and developer who purchased the ACCA property in 1995. At the time, mother and son hatched the idea for the arts center. Fate intervened, however, and two years ago, Karen Aiello died suddenly of cancer.
With her death, the property passed to her three children, including Tyler, who is the force behind the ACCA.
That the property is family-owned -- outright, with no pesky mortgage -- means that the center is more than a mere pipe dream, even if it's hard to imagine that it could actually achieve all of its goals in a single year.
But it has already passed one significant milestone: It opened.
To say that the reception that marked the opening was a rousing success would be an understatement. (This, despite the fact that it was held on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.)
"We had over 700 people," says Aiello. "At times there were over 300 people in the gallery, and nearly as many out on the sidewalk." He notes that because of the crush of visitors, the cops checked out the place -- and the crowd -- periodically through the night.
But the party almost didn't happen. Just hours before it was set to start, Monica Petty Aiello, Aiello's wife and facility co-director, collapsed. "I fainted in the office," she says.
The problem, it seems, was a pair of shoes. "I was wearing these Betsey Johnson platform shoes -- six inches tall in purple velvet and carved walnut -- and I started to lose feeling in my feet right before I fell."
Luckily, Petty Aiello's mom, Marilyn Festa, was visiting from New York and was in the office at the time. Festa revived her daughter and then placed a frantic call to designer Johnson ("My mother's an old friend of Betsey's," says Petty Aiello). But Johnson was no help, so Petty Aiello took matters into her own hands -- or feet, as it were -- and self-prescribed a pair of black suede sandals, which kept her upright and conscious for the rest of the evening.
As it turns out, staying awake was no small accomplishment, because the reception went on until early the following morning. "We were open the next day," says Petty Aiello with a sigh, "and I kept saying to Tyler, 'Let's put up the "Closed for Special Event" sign,' but he wouldn't let me."
Aiello chimes in: "I spent that day lying on the floor and realizing that putting on a juried show was a lot more work than I thought it would be."
The first step in bringing the show together came early this past summer, when Aiello assembled a celebrity jury composed of himself and three other art professionals: Jerry Gilmore, acting director of the CU Galleries at the University of Colorado at Boulder; Clare Cornell, a computer-imaging coordinator at Metropolitan State College of Denver; and Kathy Andrews, longtime curator and director of fine-arts programs at the Arvada Center, who recently began her new gig as director of Metro's Center for the Visual Arts in LoDo.
A call for entries went out, and 85 artists responded, submitting more than 200 slides. Twenty artists were accepted for the show; interestingly, the chosen few were almost evenly split between artists with established reputations and new arrivals on the scene. In the latter group are a number of students from CU-Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins whose work has never been seen in Denver. And although most of the artists are from Colorado, there are a few from other states, including New Mexico and New York.
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