Year in Review

The Ten Biggest Arts and Culture Stories of 2020

A mural of Elijah McClain at 30th and Walnut streets.
A mural of Elijah McClain at 30th and Walnut streets. Mural by Detour, Hiero and Tukes
The pandemic hit Denver’s arts and culture scene hard, forcing many businesses, performance spaces, museums and galleries to close, at least temporarily, at the end of March. In the months since, artists and curators have rallied to keep culture alive, to comment on social injustice, and to inspire us all to appreciate essential workers and health-care providers.

Along the way, the scene has shown its grit and ability to stay relevant through the toughest of times, though some longstanding cultural institutions have been wrangling with their own inner demons.

Here are the ten biggest arts and culture stories in Denver in 2020: 

COVID Closures

From the Denver Museum of Nature & Science to the smallest artist co-op, cultural outlets hustled to put their in-person programming online as physical spaces shuttered. But some shows couldn't be saved: The Denver Center for the Performing Arts canceled or postponed nearly all of its major productions, including Hamilton and Life of the Mind, an immersive arts installation from David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar that would have been the must-attend event of the summer. After they were allowed to reopen with strict social distancing, institutions like MCA Denver, the Clyfford Still Museum and the Kirkland were closed again as Denver tried to get its case count under control; by December, they were back to allowing limited admission. Even so, by the end of 2020, 70 percent of cultural groups in the Denver area reported that they were unsure whether they would survive.

Out of Work

With the shutdowns came layoffs and furloughs. Santa Fe-based immersive arts giant Meow Wolf, which is opening a Denver installation in late 2021, got rid of more than half of its staff; the Denver Center for the Performing Arts also made devastating cuts. Even Denver Arts & Venues, the city’s cultural agency funded by revenue from Red Rocks and other spaces, found itself having to furlough most of its staffers, whether full- or part-time; many were redeployed to work with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, notifying people about their COVID-19 test results. While some positions across the cultural sector have been permanently eliminated, there's optimism that most jobs will return when live entertainment does.
click to enlarge Karlee Mariel on her ladder. - ARMINA JUSUFAGIC
Karlee Mariel on her ladder.
Armina Jusufagic

The Art of Justice

Artists throughout Colorado responded swiftly to both the COVID-19 crisis and the summer uptick in Black Lives Matter protests. Thomas “Detour” Evans seemingly worked around the clock, painting massive portraits on buildings honoring victims of police violence, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, through his Spray Their Name project with Hiero Veiga. Pat Milbery and Adri Norris painted the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in massive text on Broadway in front of the State Capitol, and lesser-known artists like Austin Zucchini-Fowler, Karlee Mariel and Armina Jusufagic painted portraits of health-care workers around town. Lucha Martinez de Luna honored her father, Emanuel Martinez, and his contemporaries through the [email protected] Murals of Colorado Project, and Denver Health doctor Sarah Rowan organized a massive portrait series of women doctors of color. But the activist art wasn't all two-dimensional: Through From Allies to Abolitionists, Jeff Campbell has used theater to tell the story of Raverro Stinnett, an artist who was beaten by Union Station security.

Trinidad Bound

Some of Denver’s most socially engaged and culturally critical small-business owners are staking a claim in  Trinidad, an old mining and manufacturing town near the New Mexico border, where Fishers Peak State Park just opened. Punk stalwart Jim Norris and his crew will be opening a second Mutiny Information Cafe in Trinidad, and hi-dive co-owner Curtis Wallach headed south to start a new music venue there. Comedian Nathan Lund is joining upstanding standup Wally Wallace to energize the small town’s comedy scene, and Kayvan Khalatbari, of Sexy Pizza acclaim, and developer and preservationist Dana Crawford are working on revamping downtown Trinidad. The goal, Khalatbari says, is to create a culturally rich, affordable spot full of worker-owned businesses.
click to enlarge The Tattered Cover hosts readings and book signings all season. - BRANDON MARSHALL
The Tattered Cover hosts readings and book signings all season.
Brandon Marshall

Tattered Times

The Tattered Cover was nearly shredded by 2020. First came the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered the stores and moved all commerce online; then in May, the store announced that its days on the 16th Street Mall were numbered, and that the downtown location would be moving to McGregor Square opposite Coors Field. And as cultural organizations rallied for Black Lives Matter in June, the bookstore released a statement about why it would not be taking a stance. After threats of boycotts and lost business, owners Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan — who'd purchased the independent chain from Joyce Meskis five years ago — reversed their non-stance. In early December, they sold the chain to Kwame Spearman and David Back, two lifelong Denverites with no bookselling experience who immediately declared that Tattered would be the country's largest Black-owned bookstore, because CEO Spearman, who is Black, had the largest stake in the company. That claim raised the ire of national Black booksellers, and after Publisher’s Weekly wrote about their frustrations, the Tattered Cover was once again defending its public positions on race.

Exchanges Allowed

Colorado fashion-forward secondhand resale chain Buffalo Exchange was shut down by its corporate office after dozens of women came forward with devastating stories about how co-owner Patrick Todd Colletti had sexually assaulted, harassed and abused them. The accusations led to a Denver Police Department investigation, but District Attorney Beth McCann’s office ultimately decided not to pursue the case. In the meantime, Kelly Valentine, owner of Scout in Omaha, has announced that she will open a Denver resale store fashioned in the image of Buffalo Exchange — minus the drug-fueled abuse — and take over the Broadway space that houses the infamous basement where Colletti once partied. The shop, which will be owned in part by Colletti’s former co-owners, plans to hire Buffalo Exchange staff and keep the best of the chain intact. Here's hoping. 
click to enlarge The RiNo Art District and Crush Walls have severed ties. - KYLE HARRIS
The RiNo Art District and Crush Walls have severed ties.
Kyle Harris

Crush Crushed

While muralists were busy addressing social ills, Crush Walls, Denver’s premier street-art festival, was facing some challenges of its own. First, the event had to change plans for the pandemic, and social distancing guidelines forced the organizers to cancel most of the fest's in-person programming. Even before it started in September, however, critics were blasting Crush Walls for ignoring longstanding Denver artists and aiding gentrification. Then, days after the festival ended, prominent street artist Grow Love and others accused founder Robin Munro of sexual assault (a claim he denies). The RiNo Art District, which contracted with Munro on the annual festival, launched an investigation, and weeks later, the festival and the district parted ways. Both Munro and the district plan to move forward with murals in 2021, even as women and non-binary artists launch critiques of the scene, which they say is full of toxic masculinity and bullying.

Movie Moves

Movie theaters, largely dark because of COVID-19 shutdowns, had a hard year — and it's not like things were rosy before the pandemic. Although Alamo Drafthouse and Landmark theaters have been mostly silent, Denver Film managed to pivot quickly to offering virtual screenings of new films; the Drafthouse eventually followed suit nationally. The annual Film on the Rocks series offered drive-in movies at Red Rocks, as old-fashioned drive-in theaters suddenly became relevant again across the country. Smaller micro-cinemas like Collective Misnomer also went online, and experimental film, video and media saw a small renaissance as people looked for free and interesting things to do from their homes. Even massive film festivals migrated toward virtual platforms, and Denver Film has announced a partnership with Sundance that will begin in early 2021. That’s under the direction of new executive director James Mejia, a longtime Denver pol and activist; Mejia aspires to make the longtime nonprofit relevant to more communities through social justice programming that can be taken on the road.
click to enlarge Shawn Huckins's piece for #ArtFindsUs. - JORDAN SPENCER
Shawn Huckins's piece for #ArtFindsUs.
Jordan Spencer

Keep On Keepin’ On

While staging traditional shows was tough in 2020, artists found plenty of ways to keep busy. K Contemporary and the Athena Project organized Art Finds Us, a series of traveling galleries and performances showcasing some of the area’s best painters, arts organizations and musical groups. Rainbow Militia put on safe, immersive events in soon-to-be-demolished houses, theater companies experimented with parking-lot shows and live Zoom productions, and some galleries reported having blockbuster sales. Contemporary dance troupe Wonderbound released more than 120 videos, despite suffering a devastating break-in and being forced to move (again), and Stanley Marketplace hosted Carne y Arena, Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s virtual-reality installation about the experience of refugees crossing into the United States. Foundations like Bonfils-Stanton, organizations like RedLine Contemporary, and city and state cultural agencies worked together to ensure that artists and cultural organizations had access to emergency funding throughout the year.

Small-Business Blues

After the shutdown, many small businesses were forced to limit their offerings to online sales, delivery or curbside pick-up, drastically cutting into business. With the arts-minded Hope Tank closed, owner Erika Righter launched a board-up beautification project, commissioning artists to paint murals on the plywood that was now covering storefronts around town. Capitol Hill Books found itself on the brink of closure, but Westword readers rallied to save the longtime shop; other independents, including BookBar, say they're struggling to keep up with all the new business from loyal customers. Meanwhile, the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, Denver Arts & Venues, the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and Colorado Creative Industries have all championed local shopping and giving tied to arts and culture groups.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris