When CORE New Art Space formed 35 years ago, Denver's art scene looked very different — artists found that in banding together and creating a cooperative environment, they could thrive. This Thursday, December 31, the gallery celebrates three and a half decades of surviving the city — a tale of a transient art space that reflects much of the growth and change Denver itself has experienced. In advance of CORE's milestone, Westword chatted with painter and early member of CORE Bruce Clark about how a gallery that has fostered the careers of hundreds of artists today.
Westword: What was the climate like for artists in Denver in 1981 when CORE New Art Space started?
Bruce Clark: Oh, wow. Well, there wasn't very many opportunities for artists, so that's kind of why the artists pulled together to create their own venue. There were a handful of galleries in Cherry Creek and maybe a couple of other galleries around Denver and Boulder and a few in other places, but there wasn't much. CORE came together about a year after Pirate (Contemporary Art) did. Pirate was on upper 15th Street on the corner and up the street was Muddy Waters (on the Platte,) a coffee house which was open from like, four in the afternoon until four in the morning or something crazy like that. It just so happened that there was a space that became available right behind Pirate there and CORE opened up there. We did not have heat, we didn't have a functioning restroom and we didn't really have any water. But we had dirt-cheap space — it was incredible. That was the beginnings of CORE.
I think that somewhere along the line, someone came along and told us that everyone had to evacuate the building. Pirate had to leave, CORE had to leave. They were going to do something with the building and eventually they did — but they didn't do much with it right away. That's when Pirate went over to 37th and Navajo Street where they still are today. CORE went to 32nd and Tejon. There was discussion at the time about working out a space we could share again, but it didn't work out. I actually helped Pirate strip their floor on Navajo Street and they rewarded me with a show — I had one of the first one-person shows at Pirate there. That must have been 1982. (CORE) rented a small space and we completely gutted it and put in new drywall and stayed there for a while, but there wasn't much traffic over on 32nd and Tejon. It didn't last too long and about that time is when I dropped out of CORE for seventeen years. I came back around 2000 and have been a part of the Core group show they would do every five years or so where they invite all of the members from the past to be a part of the show.
I've shown at all of CORE's different locations on their major anniversaries — CORE just kept going. Later they were on 37th and Larimer Street in a kind of questionable neighborhood for a while. Then they moved down to Wazee Street, which was a great location for them. Then they moved to 20th and Larimer and that was a nice location — that's when I rejoined. There was a loft area of that space that I helped create — we did quite a lot of construction work to make that happen, including putting in a staircase and knock out bricks add joists to support it. CORE was right next to Herb's, so we would party over there. We'd have an opening and then we'd go hang out there. It was cool.
I don't remember why we made the decision to move to Santa Fe Drive, but I think it was just that a bunch of different galleries were going to come together over there. We wanted to have an arty neighborhood; when we were on 20th and Larimer, Space Gallery was across the street and that was it and a couple of blocks up from there was the Contemporary Art Museum (MCA Denver) that was in the Sakura Square, but that was it. The neighborhood was starting to change — we were in the neighborhood before the Ballpark neighborhood existed. Once Coors Field came in, it change a lot and that was part of why we left there.
From downtown to the Northside to Five Points to Santa Fe, CORE's movement has definitely mirrored or has been — as artists often can be — ahead of the changes Denver eventually sees as a city.
I mean, we have to have cheap space. We wanted to have something we could afford where the overhead wasn't going to kill us. I can kind of sense that we're going to end up getting pushed out of the Santa Fe area as well. When we started there, there weren’t lofts. Even at this time, CORE has a pretty hefty overhead, with rent and everything else. There are 22 member artists right now and our member's fees don't cover much — our open shows and collecting fees for that is what really saves us. Selling work can be very unpredictable — sometimes we do very well.
What brought you back to CORE after seventeen years away?
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I left because there were a lot of other opportunities for me at the time — I had a gallery in Chicago and a gallery in Dallas and Alpha gallery here as well as other galleries here in Denver. Participating in CORE takes a lot of time. You sit on committees and you take your turn babysitting the gallery. Those other galleries that I was working with eventually went by the wayside over the years and I wanted to be a part of the art scene again. I wanted to associate with artists and have a place to show — I came down to CORE and talked to a few of the artists there at the time and it seemed like a good fit for me again.
What is about the co-op gallery model that you think works well for artists?
You can pretty much do whatever you want to do. First of all, there are no art dealers saying, "this something we can sell, so do this." A lot of artists can do that — they can develop something that they know is going to sell. They have a format or formula that works for them and they repeat themselves over and over again. For me, I want to do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it. Maybe it will be successful; maybe it won't, as far as the marketing of it. That's what's key for me — that I have total autonomy and freedom to experiment. If it works and I see my work, great. But it's really hard for me to repeat myself. I think that a lot of other artists that participate in a coop situation are in a similar mindset — they have the freedom to do what they want. When their show time comes up, if they want to show paintings, great. If they want to put in an installation, that's fine. They have the flexibility and freedom to do what they want.
CORE New Art Space's 35th Anniversary party and new show opening runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. this Thursday, December 31 at the gallery in the Santa Fe Arts District; for more information on the evening and a full list of participating artists, visit CORE's website.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies