After the deadly fire at the Ghost Ship arts warehouse in Oakland late last year and the City of Denver's subsequent crackdown on DIY spaces, the Denver Theatre District decided to explore turning a 700-square-foot, unrentable spot in the Colorado Convention Center into an experimental-arts incubator. Dubbed Understudy, the space will launch this weekend at 890 C Fourteenth Street.
The Denver Theatre District is the nonprofit beneficiary of 15 percent of the marketing revenue generated by advertising around the Convention Center and in a sixteen-block area downtown; those ads include LED screens, billboards and those gaudy Chick-fil-A cow sculptures. Over the past few years, the DTD has used that money to support arts installations, festivals and events highlighting both local creatives and those from around the world. For Understudy, the district worked with Denver Arts & Venues, the city agency that runs the Colorado Convention Center and will serve as landlord of the space; and two multinational corporations — SMG, the Pennsylvania-based company that operates the center for the city, and Centerplate, the Connecticut-based business that handles catering there.
A space with a DIY ethos built through a public-private-nonprofit collaboration is an oddball arrangement, yet it's one that's becoming more common in Colorado, where developing creative industries has become a shared goal of public and private sectors.
"This couldn’t happen without the support of a lot people with the city," observes the DTD's David Moke. Because of all the support behind the project, Understudy will be able to pay artists stipends of up to $5,000 to create in the new venue. And unlike government-funded arts projects that rely on tax revenue, Understudy will have a lower barrier of entry and fewer restrictions on the type of art it supports and funds than projects directly funded by the city, Moke explains.
The members of the curatorial team behind Understudy — Moke, Annie Geimer and Thadeaous Mighel — were all born and raised in Denver and come from the DIY art world, and their vision for Understudy is unabashedly rooted in hometown pride. "I love Denver and the local creative community," says Moke, who ran the DIY arts and music space Unit E. "My goal is to boost it."
Along with that core team, the corporate art curators at NINE dot ARTS have been commissioned to select some programming.
The programming starts with a project that runs from Sunday, October 8, through October 15, when DJ Cavem Moetavation and Thomas "Detour" Evans will collaborate on Sprout That Life: visual art, music and workshops at the nexus of hip-hop and the food-justice movement.
From November 1 through November 30, Mathias Svalina will house his dream-delivery project in the space, using it as a place to write poems that will be delivered to subscribers by bike and snail mail.
The band Rubedo, which will release the album Vaca on December 1, will host a pop-up record store in the space from December 1 to December 3.
Also in December, artist Jonathan Saiz will set up an art vending machine where passersby can purchase small oil paintings for $20. The catch: People will not be charged on the spot; instead, they will be sent an invoice. The whole project is an exercise in trust.
This will be the first time that the DTD has operated its own venue, and the goal is to "allow people to see something cool and artistic in a spot where they normally don’t think of that at all," says Moke. Rather than exercise a high degree of control over the exhibitions, the curators plan to hand the space over to artists, giving them as much creative control as city codes allow. In the process, the curator will learn more about what kinds of venues artists need in this city.
"It’s really up to the artists about how that space is used," says Moke. "We’re not a museum. We’re not a gallery. We’re this third type of space...that wants to make unique art accessible."
For more information about the space, visit Understudy online.
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