The Ten Biggest Denver Arts Stories in 2019

Denver Film Festival Artistic Director Michael Brittin Withey died in a one-car crash on March 31.
Denver Film Festival Artistic Director Michael Brittin Withey died in a one-car crash on March 31. From the Hip Photo
Between leadership shifts, political clashes and endless selfies, this city's culture is changing so rapidly that it can be hard to keep up. But keep up we have. Here are ten of the biggest arts stories in Denver in 2019:

Meow Wolf Rising

Drive by Colfax Avenue and I-25, and you’ll see the often-tagged Meow Wolf Denver building rising. It’s huge and intriguing — but not as huge and intriguing as the moves that the Santa Fe-based, nationally focused art-and-entertainment collective-turned-corporation has been making. In 2019, Meow Wolf took Denver for a roller-coaster ride. With a crew of local artists, the company built Kaleidoscape, a surrealist, futurist dark ride that took over the tracks (and some of the equipment) of the old Ghost Blasters 2 at Elitch Gardens. The company also threw Dark Palace — a three-day electronic dance party at the National Western Complex — and has poured tens of thousands of dollars into Denver cultural groups.

But the Meow Wolf ride has been bumpy. This year, CEO Vince Kadlubek stepped aside and was replaced by an executive team with former staff members of Goldman Sachs, Walt Disney Imagineering and LucasArts. While naysayers said it was a sign that Meow Wolf had finally cut ties with its DIY roots, Kadlubek endorsed the new leaders as some of the most creative and forward-thinking people he’d ever met. Still, there are a few hurdles before it's full steam ahead for the company: Since summer, Meow Wolf has been plagued by lawsuits, including some filed by early investors, as well as one from two Denver plaintiffs that accuses Meow Wolf leaders of gender discrimination and harassment, among other misdeeds. Meow Wolf denies all charges.

click to enlarge Nora Burnett Abrams is the new director of the MCA Denver. - FROM THE HIP PHOTO
Nora Burnett Abrams is the new director of the MCA Denver.
From the Hip Photo

MCA Elevates Nora Abrams

Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, which has been an innovative force in the city’s cultural scene for over a decade, had a big vacancy to fill after Adam Lerner announced that he would be stepping down as director. The museum's board had to decide whether to veer off in some new direction or affirm Lerner’s legacy with a pick who would keep things going in a similar direction. Choosing longtime chief curator Nora Burnett Abrams as Lerner’s successor was a strong endorsement of the MCA’s current trajectory by the board.

Abrams is a talented curator, passionate about the fate of local artists and the city’s cultural life. She’s particularly interested in exploring how art can intersect with current events and politics, and has plans to expand MCA’s outreach into the community. Under her direction, assistant curator Zoe Larkins is planning a big exhibition in 2020 looking at the idea of art as an act of citizenship.

Denver Film Society Survives

This year proved to be challenging for the Denver Film Society, which quietly rebranded itself as Denver Film. The Denver Film Festival’s artistic director, Brit Withey, died in a one-car crash on March 31; weeks later, Andrew Rodgers, the DFS executive director of less than three years who'd followed another short-lived director, stepped down.

After that, longtime festival director Britta Erickson took the helm as interim executive director, leading her grieving staff through a stunning 2019 season and film festival, while going through her own mourning process. Matthew Campbell filled his late mentor’s shoes as artistic director of the festival, and Denver Film programmer Keith Garcia took the helm as the Sie FilmCenter’s artistic director. This crew, along with Denver Film’s entire team, has kept the ship sailing despite all the storms. Kudos.

click to enlarge On Sunday, September 29, families celebrated LGBTQ youth at Drag for All Ages inside Mile High Comics while protesters feuded outside. - MICHAEL EMERY HECKER
On Sunday, September 29, families celebrated LGBTQ youth at Drag for All Ages inside Mile High Comics while protesters feuded outside.
Michael Emery Hecker

Dragging Drag for All Ages

Earlier this year, we were thrilled to report that Chuck Rozanski, the founder and head of Mile High Comics, had launched a new, all-ages drag show as alter ego Bettie Pages. It was a heartwarming story of the queen of geek culture opening up a safe space for LGBTQ youth to explore drag. Before long, though, a strange mix of Proud Boys, Nazis, a founding Occupy Denver member (who is no longer with that group) and anti-transgender activists began picketing outside Mile High Comics, demanding an end to the shows. To combat the hatred, a handful of activists formed the Parasol Patrol, which hands out headphones to children going inside the store so they don't have to hear the hateful rhetoric, and protects the kids from the hate-mongers with a wall of rainbow umbrellas.

Then antifa began to show up at the weekend events, clashing with the anti-trans protesters, and ultimately all sides began to spit venom. But through it all, the children kept on dancing, singing and performing in style for their families.

Selfie Culture Takeover

There was a lot of talk in 2019 about immersive experiences coming to Denver, but the real story about art —here and beyond — is how institutions are taking advantage of selfie culture. People are looking for stylish backgrounds for self-portraits, and the arts community is dishing them up. Crush Walls once again brought selfie-friendly street art to the RiNo Art District, while the City of Denver and businesses hired artists to put up murals all over town. Meow Wolf’s Kaleidoscape at Elitch Gardens was a ride-through selfie mecca; Natura Obscura, the Jungian immersive art installation at the Museum of Outdoor Arts, and the Children’s Museum- commissioned Adventure Forest also provided plenty of selfie fodder.

But no business took on the selfie mantle as honestly as the Denver Selfie Museum, which branded itself as Colorado’s first Instagram Art Pop-Up. While owner Alex Kurylin has wrangled with destructive customers and threats of legal action from a selfie museum in Los Angeles, he also finds joy in running the gallery at 1525 Market Street, where influencers pose in front of flashy backdrops and optical illusions.

Artspace Scuttled

Denver’s housing crisis impacts everybody. But artists, who are dependent on cheap living and studio space, have been particularly hurt by the boom. Denver Arts + Venues and Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration have long touted a collaboration with Artspace, a Minneapolis nonprofit artist-housing developer, as a solution to the problem. But after the nonprofit struck a deal with developer Westfield to open an 85-unit housing and studio project in the North Wynkoop development, where AEG’s new Mission Ballroom is located, Artspace could not secure funding on the developer’s timeline. So the project was scuttled, and the nonprofit is back to square one, looking for a space in the Denver area.

Tracy Weil, head of the RiNo Art District, says the fight for affordable housing in the district isn’t over yet. “We have to have live-work spaces in the district to make sure the art district is relevant for years to come. That kind of project is super-important, and it would be a tragedy to not make it happen,” he says.

click to enlarge Cabal Gallery closed in 2019. - CABAL GALLERY
Cabal Gallery closed in 2019.
Cabal Gallery

Galleries Closed in 2019

The gallery scene experienced some significant losses in 2019. In May, after a five-year run, Cabal Gallery closed its doors on South Broadway, after the collective behind it struggled to make rent. Adam Gildar closed Gildar Gallery in April after his brick-and-mortar space, too, couldn't keep up with skyrocketing rents. And Helikon Gallery & Studios, an arts space in the RiNo Art District, was forced to close its gallery in December after the family-owned business incurred a 300 percent property-tax hike. Other galleries warned that they might have to close, too, in the wake of rising rents and property taxes.

Northside and the Year of Bobby LeFebre

Every year, our Best of Denver nomination process is bogged down by Bobby LeFebre suggestions. Bobby LeFebre: Best Slam Poet. Bobby LeFebre: Best Art Activist. On and on. No doubt, LeFebre has accomplished a lot: He’s a national slam poetry champion, founder of Cafe Cultura and a TEDx speaker. But this year was really LeFebre’s year. First, he wrote the show Northside, a look at gentrification in north Denver that dominated the main stage at Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center this past summer.

But he truly made his mark when Governor Jared Polis appointed him as Colorado’s latest poet laureate. “Bobby LeFebre has an amazing ability to empower and connect communities through the wisdom of his words; that is why we are confident he will make a fantastic poet laureate,” said Polis. “He embodies the spirit of a ‘Colorado for All,’ where everyone is included. I know he will be a strong advocate for the arts and art education as a way to bring us together."

click to enlarge Claude Monet's "The Doge's Palace," 1908. - COURTESY THE DENVER ART MUSEUM
Claude Monet's "The Doge's Palace," 1908.
Courtesy the Denver Art Museum

Monet Mania

Over the past few years, the Denver Art Museum has hosted stunning blockbuster shows. This year saw two of the best: The jaw-dropping Dior: From Paris to the World, which opened in 2018, was extended through March 17, 2019; and the current exhibit, Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature, one of the most comprehensive North American retrospectives of the impressionist in decades, will run through February 2.

The Monet show has been selling out weeks in advance, and the special exhibit shop has seen such a surge in sales that staff has scrambled to keep up with the demand. Even the museum’s director and exhibit co-curator, Christoph Heinrich, along with his family, has been staying after hours to help with pricing and stocking the store.

Denver's Storytelling

Back in March, in the middle of a heated election season, Mayor Michael Hancock announced that he would be launching an Office of Storytelling, headed by the city’s new Chief Storyteller, Rowena Alegría,  former Denver Post reporter and Hancock communications director. The office would host storytelling labs with the Denver Public Library, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, History Colorado and others, chronicling the real histories of Denver's residents.

But when Alegría and the mayor rolled out the project, they created an event that looked more like a Hancock campaign stop than a celebration of the city’s underrepresented residents. That's a story that will continue into 2020.

Update, January 2, 2019: Occupy Denver clarified none of its current members protested the Mile High All-Ages Drag Show. The person associated with Occupy, who identifies as a founding member, is no longer with that organization. We have updated the story accordingly.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris