2012 Mayor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts: Denver's Art District on Santa Fe

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Every year since 1986, Denver has recognized creative individuals and organizations that make an artful impact on the community with the Mayor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts. The 2012 winners were just announced, and for the first time, they were split into three new categories: Youth Arts, Entrepreneurial Arts and Impact Arts.

The winners will get their official awards at the Mayor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts reception on November 15 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. But in the meantime, Westword is profiling the winners. First up: Art District on Santa Fe, winner of the Entrepreneurial Arts Award.

See also: - 2012 Mayor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts announced - Renegade Brewing opens Sunday in the Art District on Santa Fe - Santa Fe Drive: The Street of Blue Lights

A couple of decades ago, there were just a few galleries along Santa Fe Drive. But then many artists were priced out of their studios in LoDo and nearby NoDough, where a new stadium dedicated to beers, bratwursts and baseballs was being built. Rent was still cheap on Santa Fe, though, and many of these artists moved there, setting up studios and, soon, establishing more galleries.

In 2003, seventeen galleries, museums and theaters joined together to form the official Art District on Santa Fe.

It was around this time that current ADSF president Jack Pappalardo took up residency on Santa Fe. He remembers how, even after his street was dubbed an official arts district, the business-to-homeless ratio was still relatively even. "Ten years ago, I may have seen people sleeping in my front door at any time of the day," he says. "If I hadn't lived in New York City at one point in my life, I may not have moved to Santa Fe Drive."

But instead of turning a cold shoulder to the loitering horde, Pappalardo embraced all members of his new neighborbood. He talked with the homeless and offered them jobs. He helped incorporate art into lives of adolescent youth. He "wants everybody to understand the fabric of the neighborhood and elevate it," he says, and that policy has helped guide the growth of the ADSF.

One constant in the ADSF's efforts to improve the community is keeping art inside the galleries -- and off their facades. "You don't see graffiti anymore," Pappalardo promises. "It's painted over by 8 a.m. that next morning."

That's not the only improvement. In 2011, over 100 energy-efficient LED lightbulbs were installed along a four-block stretch of Santa Fe, which will save enough energy annually to power seven households for an entire year.

Next up on the ADSF's to-do list is accessibility, both to and from Santa Fe Drive as well as along the street itself. Hangar 41, an architectural firm headquartered in the ADSF, has already teamed up with Mayor Michael Hancock and the Denver Housing Authority to design a promenade from the Tenth and Osage light-rail station to Santa Fe.

At the same time, Pappalardo says, "Widening the sidewalks on Santa Fe Drive is something we've been dreaming about for years." This would require converting the street from three to two lanes and removing parking from one side, but Pappalardo suggests that it "would make the ADSF a more enjoyable atmosphere every day of the month and not just on First Friday."

But at the ADSF, First Friday always comes first.

First Friday has been celebrated through various sites in the city over the past few decades, and there are still several versions around town. But in 2002 First Friday found a home on Santa Fe -- and the event snowballed. In the beginning, Santa Fe's First Friday "had two galleries and about twenty people who showed up," Pappalardo remembers, but "within two to three years it was already up to about 2,500 people. Now, in the summer, we typically get anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000 people who show up."

Rain or shine -- and knowing Colorado, probably a little bit of both mixed with some snow to boot -- the ADSF's First Friday takes place on the first Friday of every month throughout the year. Truth be told, Pappalardo admits, "First Friday is probably what initially put the District on the map."

And when cities such as Cleveland, Sacramento and Glendale, Arizona, call to ask how to grown an arts district as successful as the ADSF, Pappalardo advises them one thing above all else: attitude.

"We're extremely welcoming," Pappalardo says. "We're friendly. We're not pretentious. We genuinely like each other. I think people who come down here feel that. A lot of people who are generally very intimidated by traditional galleries feel more welcome down here."

This amiable attitude paid off in 2012. Earlier in the year, Governor John Hickenlooper awarded the ADSF a $15,000 grant when it was named one of the initial Colorado Creative Districts (the other was Downtown Salida), "one of the most affordable, efficient ways to promote art from all over Colorado," Pappalardo says.

Now the ADSF has collected another prestigious title. The 2012 Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts is an honor that Pappalardo says he and the rest of the ADSF are "thrilled to be recognized for," especially after "being in the trenches and working on creating something every day for ten years."

Here's to ten very good years, and many more to come for the ADSF.

Now, about those sidewalks....

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