Twenty years ago if you had walked down the Denver byway that’s become the Art District on Santa Fe, you’d see a barrio in flux. Between Tenth and Sixth avenues along Santa Fe Drive, there was Dragon Lowriders, a gathering place for neighborhood kids dreaming of glittery bikes with all the bells and whistles; Bota de Oro, which sold butter-soft Mexican leather cowboy boots, some with exotic origins; and on the same block, Botanica Oschun, a variety shop up front that dealt herbal remedies in back. You could order up a Mexican hamburger at Joe’s Buffet, or purchase a custom zoot suit at Suavecitos. Those spots are all gone.
There were early signs of change, news of the coming onslaught of galleries – but for the most part, Chicano culture still ruled the retail drag back then. The Chicano Humanities and Arts Council was part of that mix, lured from the Northside to Santa Fe Drive by cheap rents and sympatico neighbors, like the fledgling Museo de las Americas. CHAC was at home there, nestled in bedrock, and a linchpin in Santa Fe Drive’s awakening as a cultural center.
Not that it wasn’t a struggle. The locals might have embraced CHAC’s commitment to preserving and teaching cultural traditions and shedding light on Denver’s tight Chicano artists’ community, but there wasn’t ever much money in it. Always in survival mode, CHAC’s stalwarts did the best they could to keep it going. And perhaps it was always written on the wall that the gallery would one day have to move.
That day has come: Executive director Lucille Ruibal Rivera announced last week that the gallery would be vacating its current location at 772/774 Santa Fe Drive, and was presumably ready to move about six blocks south, to a location with less visibility but more space. After CHAC’s long-term landlord Ted Gill told Rivera of his plans to sell the property, she says moving felt more proactive than fighting for survival, though new challenges come with a venue that’s off the beaten path of Santa Fe’s First Friday artwalks and other events.
Should CHAC’s administration have worked to purchase the building long ago, following the Museo’s example (and later, Su Teatro’s hard-fought campaign to purchase the Denver Civic Theatre building at Seventh Avenue and Santa Fe Drive)? Perhaps. But as former CHAC director and volunteer Crystal O’Brien – who was integral to the center’s existence for nearly as long as the gallery’s been there – notes, there was never a time in CHAC’s history when owning seemed viable.
“We never did buy the building,” O’Brien says. “I didn't think we had the money, and the building was not in the best condition. As it was, if the AC broke down or the roof was leaking, the landlord had to fix it. We would have had to raise money for those types of repairs.
“We had two buildings! How do you buy two buildings?” she adds. “And to then have a big mortgage – more than our rent – hanging over our heads? That would have been financially detrimental. Some months, it was tough just to pull the rent together.”
Some friends of the gallery from the neighborhood are heartbroken about the move, possibly the biggest domino to fall yet as Santa Fe Drive gentrifies. Native Westsider Esteban Peralta, who came back to the neighborhood as an adult, thinks CHAC’s leadership should fight harder and look for solutions to the situation, rather than slinking away from it.
Peralta, who recently polled his neighbors before opening a new independent gallery in his Lincoln Park/La Alma garage, has sent out a public petition over the internet, asking for more help from the city. While the buildings are still up for sale at this time, there’s little doubt that they’d be redeveloped, but Peralta thinks the new owner should also be drawn into negotiations that would allow a cultural treasure to stay put in the arts district.
“In a perfect world, the new building owner works with CHAC directly and sympathetically to offer them a long-term solution that will not choke the organization financially,” he says. “I think CHAC has enough community support to make that happen. City support, I don’t know. Maybe someone from the city will step up and offer CHAC a large grant.
“Realistically, I think it would benefit CHAC to do an honest evaluation on what a move would really mean to the organization, short- and long-term, and balance that with the virtual guarantee that they would have to downsize, probably drastically, if they chose to stay in the current location.
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“They reportedly pay $2,000 a month in the space they have now,” he continues. “That’s a hell of a deal right now in this neighborhood. Back in the day, that was robbery. They also reportedly would have to pay double that to move. If it was me, paying the double for a smaller space in its current location is worth it if the lease is long-term. The organizational and community psychology around moving a struggling arts organization is devastating, in my experience.”
At the moment, Rivera stands by her decision: “This way, if a decision comes down the pipe about the building tomorrow, we won’t have to start asking, ‘Where are we going to go?'” She’s looking only forward, though other CHAC members might be divided. “I see this as an opportunity for us to elevate CHAC to a higher level. Of course, there’s always risk involved in any endeavor. But I see it as an opportunity to step through a door, and I'm up for the challenge.
“You'll find people who are not so positive about going there to a new space,” Rivera passionately acknowledges. “They need reinforcement. They need to know that we are still CHAC. We are still CHAC. People will come because we are CHAC. We’re very unique. We’re very diverse. We are going to be successful, but we need support from people in the community. You don't know if you're going to succeed if you don't try.”
Peralta’s not so sure. He sees CHAC as a beacon for the community that deserves to – and should – stay where it is. “In my experience, the relocation of a struggling arts organization is basically a death sentence,” he stresses. “I don't know that I've seen a struggling organization survive past five years after being forced to move. I really don't know that CHAC would be able to sustain itself if it has to move. I hope I’m wrong. I hope they prove me wrong.”