I felt like Ed McMahon.

Only alive.

On Friday, I contacted five local artists to let them know they'd been chosen as 2010 MasterMinds — an honor that comes not just with a title, but with cold, hard cash. Money with no strings attached, money they can use for anything — to make art, to pay rent. Whatever will buy them some creative breathing space.

Although sports stars get all the attention, Denver's artists are the real hometown heroes. They score big wins for the metro area — but all too often, they are compensated in inverse proportion to what they contribute. Westword celebrates the local arts scene every year in the Best of Denver, explores it every week in the pages of this paper, supports it every day on the web, where we list thousands of events. But we also know that artists cannot survive on attention alone. So in 2005, Westword started the MasterMind awards as a way to not just recognize the aesthetic adventurers who are changing the cultural landscape of this town, but encourage them to continue their work.

And now, with the announcement of the sixth class of MasterMinds (meet them on page 48) — we will have honored thirty artists and arts organizations, giving grants that total well over $100,000. (This year, for the first time, the MasterMinds are sponsored by a specific Westword project: The Chronic-le, our quarterly medical marijuana guide. "It's pot luck!" said one thrilled 2010 recipient.) And as thanks for our efforts, Westword won our own award last year: a very respectable, and appreciated, honor from the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, which will mark its 25th anniversary in March.

But what's been most gratifying about the MasterMind program is that the award-winners, too, share the wealth — often taking much of their unexpected cash award, if not all of it, and spreading it around the community. And they're just as generous with their time and praise of other artists when they gather every year to help choose the next class of MasterMinds, sharing news of graffiti artists who are making murals with incarcerated teens, musicians who are trying to save classical music by serving it up in coffeehouses, organizations that are using art to empower the homeless, the helpless, the hopeless.

On Friday, at the same time I was telling disbelieving artists they would each be getting checks for $2,000, I was getting a priceless gift from previous MasterMinds: answers to a very brief survey I'd sent them about the state of the arts in Denver. The first question? What winning a MasterMind had meant to them.

"It made a huge difference both personally and for our organization," replied Tracy Weil, a 2008 co-winner with Jill Hadley Hooper. "We have dedicated countless volunteer hours to RiNo, and the money helped us sustain both an artful lifestyle and to keep the organization moving forward with gusto!"

"By providing an award that acknowledges and validates the unique work that we do in the Denver community, Art From Ashes gained recognition and creditability," offered Cathleen O'Neill, another 2008 winner. "The award also highlighted the needs of Denver's urban youth, their incredible talent and energy, and the creative ways in which they deal with life."

"The MasterMind award, plainly and simply, gave our program hope because it provided the four contributing artists with a financial shot in the arm to keep going with an underfunded program," said Jessica Robblee, a winner in 2007. "I received the award in our second year, and I shared the proceeds of the award with my collaborators, who had all given so much time and energy to the program. We have a growing audience base, and we are in our fifth year now. The MasterMind award served as a mark of the community's belief in the value of our program, and that belief has meant a great deal."

"I was really honored when I heard that I had won the MasterMind award," wrote Jason Bosch, a 2008 MasterMind. "I felt appreciated for the work I'm trying to do with ArgusFest. Also, being a full-time activist means that not a lot of money passes through my hands, so the check from Westword was direly needed. It gave me a huge boost."

And this from indefatigable fashion maven Brandi Shigley, a member of the first class: "Winning the MasterMind meant that I didn't have to bus tables and I could completely focus on Fashion Denver and B.23 Productions. It allowed me to get my first world headquarters outside of my bedroom. It allowed me to take the time I needed to develop my business of helping others grow their businesses."

As artists out and about in the community, these MasterMinds appreciate the opportunities that already exist in Denver — including the opportunity to "contribute to the growth and quality of art in this amazing city," said Deb Henriksen, class of 2006.

Her enthusiasm was echoed by other MasterMinds as they answered my second question, regarding the best thing about being an artist in Denver. "The best thing is that there's room to grow and be a leader. There's a lot of support from other artists and creative people here," said one. "I've met so many amazing and passionate artists in Denver. It's a close-knit community, it's approachable and supportive. This also extends to the collectors and patrons," said another. "I love collaborating with people, and I'm inspired by how people give their time and ideas to each other's projects," offered a third. "The best thing about being part of Denver's arts community is the sense that something is brewing," concluded a fourth. "There's energy and growth in this community, and we all have the sense that anyone can make an impact."

Not surprisingly, though, since these artists are MasterMinds, they've given a lot of thought to how the local environment for the arts can be improved.

"The thing we need to build...is permanence. We've seen too many local artists leave for larger markets with more support for their arts community. Small organizations have been squeezed out by rent increases from the communities they themselves helped to revitalize. The city needs to help organizations plant roots in Denver. We need to own (or co-own) our facilities, and collaborate more in cooperative arts programs across the metro area."

"Provide education to promote the power of art to elicit health and healing, to change lives and to create a safe way in which struggling young people can find acceptance, connection and transformation."

"Hands down, the general public has to put their money where their mouth is and buy the work."

"Cross-pollination and more collaboration. Too often, people are working on their own projects and do not know about other projects that could provide symbiosis, strengthening the entire arts community."

"Provide funding to achieve those ends, so that artists, activists and nonprofits can offer that transformation to the community without the ongoing struggle to survive financially."

"We need to make sure the creative community has a voice in the community. We need to make sure this city is aware of the people and organizations who make this town so special."

"More citywide programs that focus on and support local art and artists. Initiatives like Denver Arts Week, Westword's MasterMinds and Create Denver are great examples of programs that help bring public attention to the thriving arts community in Denver. These types of programs also help bring more national exposure to Denver's art scene as an art destination. There is great talent here, amazing talent, in fact; we need to be proud of what we have in our own back yard."

There's a garden of good art growing in Denver's back yard. All it needs is some cultivation — and, when possible, some cold, hard cash.

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