Denver's art scene has witnessed momentous changes over the last twenty years, including the establishment of a contemporary-art department at the Denver Art Museum and the tremendous expansion of both public and commercial gallery scenes. But the most important development was the rise of the alternative spaces, which grew into hothouses where some of the best contemporary artists in the city have been nurtured--a happy circumstance that continues to this day.
Although Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis was not the first artists' co-operative in Denver, over the years it has been the most important and influential. And no one has been more responsible for Pirate's ongoing success than conceptual artist Phil Bender, its founder, president and co-director. Like Pirate, Bender has become a Denver institution--despite the thick Texas drawl he displayed during the following interview.
Westword: What first brought you to Denver?
Bender: I moved to Denver in '75 from Dallas. We [Bender and first wife Jennifer Melton] came up on a ski trip to Monarch. Jennifer had a job offer here, which didn't pan out. I figured that I could meet new friends at school, so I enrolled at Metro. Pirate kind of evolved out of the people I met there.
Westword: When did Pirate open?
Bender: We opened on January 1, 1980.
Westword: Who were the original members?
Bender: Including me, and I am definitely the founder and instigator, there were seven of us--Jennifer, Paul Schrsder, Rene Silverberg, Marie Foster, Georgianne Scholz and Jack Jensen. Jennifer was the only non-art student...no other founding members are still involved. Paul left and then came back and left again. Jack applied a few years ago but was rejected. He's an abstract artist, and except for Tree [Laurita], we don't have any abstract artists. It's just our group taste that's evolved.
Westword: Why was Pirate created?
Bender: It was just to have a place to show our work, because at the time, there were few galleries in town, and we were nobodies. I graduated from school in '79. When I was in school, there were opportunities to show my work in student shows, but when I graduated, I thought, "What am I going to do?" Years before, I had tried to open an alternative space in Dallas, so it was still on my mind. Then a guy had a studio in that piano building that used to be at 13th and Broadway, and he was moving out. This was about the time that Spark opened, but I hadn't even heard about it. The rent was $70 a month, so for only $10 apiece, we could put on our own shows. It really was just like the Little Rascals--"I know a place, let's put on a show." But the guy wound up keeping the studio, and it took us six months to find another place. So that's how it started--some guy was giving up his studio.
Westword: Where did you eventually open?
Bender: We rented a couple of rooms above the Kabuki Lounge at 16th and Market. This was before the mall, but we knew it was coming; we were only there a year, and then we were forced out by developers. Then we moved across from Ken Peterson's gallery, the 15th Street Gallery, at 15th and Central. There are condos there on the corner now; the original building burned down. At the time , there were several galleries on 15th Street between Central and Boulder: Core 317, the River Gallery, which was run by Carol Keller, the Colorado Graphic Arts Center, Peterson's place, us. People called it the Greenwich Village of Denver. There were shlock galleries in Denver then, but there were few contemporary galleries. Speculators ran everyone off, the buildings were vacant, and then they burned down. We opened in our current location in February of 1982.
Westword: Why the name Pirate?
Bender: The idea of the logo, the skull and crossbones, was very appealing. Before Pirate, I had the Denver Dada Club, and we set up a booth at the old Bonanza flea market. I found a plastic pirate flag and put it on the table--plus, when I was four or five, I had a photo taken of me in a pirate costume. We kept the membership level at thirteen for a long time because it was interesting with the logo. This was eventually dropped, because financially, we needed more members--at some point it went to eighteen. It really pisses me off when artists don't use the logo on their invitations.
Westword: When did Pirate take off?
Bender: I think it took off the day it opened. I was glad when the first person came to an opening. Glad when the first person saw something they liked.
Westword: But when did it become the place to be?
Bender: Almost immediately, in March of 1980, Westword did a good-sized article about us. We've gotten more press from Westword over the years than from anywhere else, which has got to have helped. Nancy [Clegg, now called Renna Shesso] wrote about us all the time. Also, I remember Max Price [former Denver Post art critic], one of the big guys, coming down the hall and felt we'd made it. I don't remember when the DAM people found us. Also, we had fun with parties, events, concerts. The non-art things we did raised our visibility.
Westword: Was Pirate an "anything-goes" kind of place when it started?
Bender: Some may think so, but we had an idea about taste and quality. Though when I think back to some of our early shows--some of these artists couldn't be in Pirate now.
Westword: When was Pirate's heyday?
Bender: That's hard to say--probably '81, when we were surrounded by all those other galleries.
Westword: That's interesting, because most of us first found Pirate when it moved to its current location, where it is also surrounded by other galleries. How did you find the place?
Bender: Ron Carter, a former Pirate member, found it. It wasn't an art neighborhood when we moved there. I don't even know how Ron found it. At first there were some rowdy neighbors upstairs. They'd throw things from the windows at people and they hassled the artists. Several years after we were there, Reed [Weimer] and Chandler [Romeo] bought the building while they were Pirates. And later they bought other properties in the neighborhood. I like the way the corner (37th and Navajo) developed owing to Reed and Chandler and their being so art-friendly. [In addition to the Pirate building, the couple owns nearby buildings that house the Edge gallery, the Bug theater and Zip 37.]
Westword: Artists are known as a free-thinking bunch; has it been hard to keep Pirate together at times?
Bender: Surprisingly, there have been few disagreements over the years. Right after we started, Jack Jensen and Paul Schrsder quit to form Mutiny, and they took our logo. Mutiny did a few things and then fizzled out. Several years ago I objected to charging fees for the Treasure Chest [a now-departed gift shop in the back], but I was outvoted. At the time, I was treasurer, so sometimes I just didn't collect the fees.
Westword: How is Pirate different in the '90s than it was in the '80s?
Bender: Several years ago we got rid of the Outsiders shows (open-entry exhibits for non-members) because we weren't getting the response. At first works stacked up and filled the room, but eventually the only work submitted was by people who weren't good enough for other shows. Plus, the other spaces--Edge, Core, Spark--were doing them at the same time of year. And now shows run for three weeks; we used to do two-week shows.
Westword: Are Pirate and the alternative scene faltering now?
Bender: Certain ones of us keep on plugging.
Westword: Has success spoiled it?
Bender: Yes, we've been so successful that people take it for granted. The audience is faltering, but quality-wise or art-wise, it's not faltering.
Westword: What effect has Pirate had on Denver's art scene?
Bender: Art has been made because of Pirate, and I like that responsibility. Artists made things because they had an outlet to show them. They joined Pirate, and then their work took off. But mostly Pirate's been a place for people like me to show their art. It's helped a lot of careers, but most of us still have our day jobs.
Westword: How has Pirate affected your career?
Bender: I like to have a big show once a year. It's gotten my name out, made my reputation. This has led to other shows, getting on panels, press coverage. It could have been better, could have been worse.
Westword: Has there been an antagonism between Pirate and the commercial galleries?
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Bender: Some dealers have complained that at Pirate, artists would sell their work for half-price. That's because we never charge commissions. From when we first opened, we wanted Pirate to treat us the way we wanted to be treated, so no commissions. We're pleasantly surprised when we have sales, but sales are never used to pay for Pirate.
Westword: What about Pirate's relationship to the DAM?
Bender: It's been pretty good. A lot of our members have been collected by them. The people who worked there, Dianne [Vanderlip, Modern and Contemporary curator] and Deborah [Jordy, former assistant curator], bought first, and then we were being collected by the institution. In one DAM show a few years ago, there were five or six members. In the current AFCA [Alliance for Contemporary Art] auction catalogue, there are several current and former Pirates.
Westword: Summing up, what's been Pirate's secret for success?
Bender: We've gotten a lot of attention because the alternative scene is the most interesting and important thing going on. The most deserving, the most noble. We're doing it for the love factor, and not for commerce. That's why it's true to a certain degree that Pirate has been a feeding ground, a launching pad for art in Denver.