At Unit E, Denver Arts Week was almost over before it got started
It was the first Friday of the month, which meant that arts districts around Denver were gearing up to greet hordes of art lovers...and those who also love a good party. And since November 2 was also the start of Denver Arts Week, they were anticipating even bigger hordes than usual.
Especially up on Tennyson Street and down at the Art District on Santa Fe, the starting and ending points for Mayor Michael B. Hancock's Denver Arts Week bus tour that saw the mayor both make a tile at Lapis Gallery and view the new exhibit at the Museo de Las Américas.
But the mayor had left Santa Fe Drive by the time the cops arrived.
In fact, most of the grown-up galleries — the ones that charge respectable amounts for their art and also pay respectable amounts for rent and accounting fees and legal advice — had closed by then.
A few of the bars and restaurants along Santa Fe were still buzzing with business, though. So were some of the smaller art spaces, the studios and storefronts more reminiscent of the cutting-edge spots that started cropping up along this strip decades ago, when artists priced out of LoDo began exploring other parts of town.
At Unit E, the spot that Westword named Best DIY Gallery in the Best of Denver 2012, local rapper Grizz, a student at the University of Colorado Denver, was just beginning his set celebrating the release of his new CD. Unit E got its start about eighteen months ago, when members of the band Rubedo and friends rented out part of a building at 1201 Santa Fe so that they could have a place to hold performances, hang shows — and help grow the community they'd grown up in.
For this First Friday event, Gregg Ziemba, a three-year member of Rubedo who booked bands for the city's recent Blacktop Festival, had lined up the music, and his Unit E colleagues, Thadeaous Mighell and Kaela Marin, had selected artwork from students at Metro State University of Denver to showcase; the proceeds of anything sold would benefit Primed, a student group there. They were checking IDs at the door — "We wristband people," Ziemba explains. "We don't serve underage kids; that's not what we're about." But anyone who was old enough could get a beer or another adult beverage — even if they didn't drop money in the donation jar. That's how Ziemba had always seen it done.
He'd grown up in the nearby Baker neighborhood and played in the band ADD when he was in high school, and he and his friends would go to parties at the rundown warehouses and lofts along Santa Fe to see art and listen to music. "It was cool to be able to hang out and be a part of something and grow as an artist," he recalls.
That's how it was done then, but as Ziemba now knows all too well, that's not how it's done legally.
Around 11:30 p.m., he "saw two ladies in their fifties come in, acting a little strange," he says (since he's 26, they might have been anywhere over thirty). "But I don't want to judge...we let everybody in. I don't want adults to think we think they're cops."
Turns out these women were cops: liquor-law enforcement agents. And when they saw the donation jar — "a really teeny jar," Ziemba says — and didn't see any liquor permit, they put Ziemba in the back of their unmarked car while they ran his ID.
As they waited for the results, Ziemba listened as they chatted "about how they should do the undercover busts on places like this more often because it works so well," he remembers. They called for backup from the Denver Police Department to help break up the party, and even suggested that Ziemba tell them where they might find other sites to bust. After he came out clean — but didn't come clean about other parties — he was cited for selling liquor without a license.
The party was over. On their way out the door, the officers took the donation jar as evidence. It contained about $800, donations that would have covered the rent on Unit E this past Monday. But instead, they had some explaining to do.
This was not an auspicious start for Denver Arts Week.
"We're all young college graduates with zero money," Ziemba explains. "We moved in and live there and do art...it's not a money-making establishment. The bummer of this is, they took all our money. We were barely scraping by."
But the law does not have a loophole for those who are long on altruism and short on cash. In fact, the state law that allows galleries to serve alcohol was a compromise devised six years ago, after art openings across the metro area — and especially in some of Denver's up-and-coming arts districts — were busted for similar free-liquor arrangements, arrangements that the events' organizers didn't realize were illegal. After all, free wine and cheese (or beer and pretzels) are often as much of a draw as the art hanging on the walls. But unlike the art, these amenities violated the law, and so in 2008 the Colorado Legislature passed a law that allows these cultural assets to serve liquid assets. A gallery in Colorado can now apply for a permit that allows it to serve (not sell) alcohol for four hours a day, fifteen days a year — as long as it pays a $50 fee to the state and a $25 fee to the municipality in which its located, and generally behaves itself.
That's how most of the galleries in Denver pour liquor legally today. Ironically, the Art District on Santa Fe does not encourage its members to offer alcohol during First Friday openings. The crowds are crazy enough those nights. "It's just too crowded to do that, and we're also trying to encourage people to go to our restaurants and brewpubs, to keep them open and active thirty days a month," says Jack Pappalardo, the current president of the Art District on Santa Fe, which will be honored with the Entrepreneurial Arts Award at the 2012 Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts ceremony on November 15, and earlier this year was named one of the state's first two official cultural districts. (The other is downtown Salida.)
Unit E is so DIY, it hasn't yet become a member of the Art District on Santa Fe, much less done any paperwork establishing itself as a business. And for the first few days after Ziemba got that very official piece of paper from the cops that told him to be in court on December 6, he and his crew thought they might have to shut down. But then they did what they do best: They got creative. Ziemba posted an alert on Facebook, telling supporters, "On the plus side, I've made a ton of friends, my band has got to play some amazing shows, I've admired beautiful paintings, I've heard amazing bands (and have seen them grow), read wonderful poetry, and I have learned how our system trumps the entrepreneur." But not the law, so now they've also set up an account where they can raise funds to keep Unit E going, and people are offering to donate money, to donate paintings. (Find out more at www.unit-edenver.com.)
When Ziemba was booking bands for the Blacktop Festival, he followed all of the city's licensing and sales tax rules. He just didn't know there were rules for making and supporting DIY art, too. "I thought it was more of a community thing, that it would help our community to grow, to make connections — not to make money," he says. "It's turning into quite an art town."
Denver is the top destination in the country for 25- to 34-year-olds who are relocating, a desirable demographic touted by the governor, by the mayor, by Ziemba himself. "We're the people they've been looking to," he says. "Denver is a growing city, full of creative people."
He'd like to remain one of them. "We want this city to grow," he says. "I love this city; we all love this city. But we have to let artists try new things without too many restrictions." When he heard about the legal loophole created to accommodate galleries that want to permit their parties, though, he decided that was a restriction they could handle.
So at the same time they're raising funds, they're hoping to raise awareness with other groups — and with the city itself — that some artful explanation of the rules might come in very handy during Denver Arts Week.
And every other week. Maybe next time, they can give the mayor a beer.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.