Happy Birthday, Havu

On the frigid night of November first, hundreds of art enthusiasts made their way to the opening of the Four Year Anniversary Show at the William Havu Gallery. The occasion, of course, was a celebration of the gallery's fourth year in business. "We've never had an opening like it," says gallery director Bill Havu. "There were over 400 people who came that night."

The gallery is housed in its own, freestanding building, but it is part of the Grand Cherokee Lofts, which was designed by the award-winning Denver architectural firm of Humphries Poli and also includes a loft building and a row of townhouses. While most of the new buildings in the Golden Triangle are downright awful -- like the Prado, a bombastic and scale-less high rise across the street -- the design of the Grand Cherokee Lofts is intelligent and handsome.

The Havu gallery is a sleek, flat-roofed, neo-modernist building. Located mid-block, it lines up with the new and rehabbed storefronts to the south but pulls back from the sidewalk to the north. The three-part formal arrangement of this stepped setback provides room for an open-air courtyard at the front entrance that's just big enough for a sculpture or two. (Right now there's a Lucy Congdon on display.)

The three masses, each marked by its own unique fenestration pattern outlined in aluminum, are unified by the radial-steel canopy that connects them; the canopy also sets off the double front door. Behind the gallery is a sculpture garden, which is accessed through an inside door.

"To my knowledge, it's the only building constructed from the ground up as a contemporary gallery anywhere in the state," says Havu -- and I can't disagree with him. To put an even sharper point on it, the Havu Gallery is one of only a handful of buildings specifically dedicated to the fine arts -- artist studios, print shops, museums, art centers, etc. -- to have ever risen in Colorado.

A celebration of the fourth birthday of the William Havu Gallery may be somewhat misleading, since Havu himself has been in the art business in Colorado for nearly thirty years. It was 1973 when he opened his first art enterprise: a frame shop and gallery in Aspen, where Havu lived for many years.

Havu, who hails from the Midwest, moved to Aspen in 1968. "I came on a dare," he says. "A friend of mine said, 'Let's go to Aspen.' I said, 'Okay, but where's Aspen?'" He had plans to become a ski bum, and he had all the qualifications: an interest in skiing and no money.

"We lived in an abandoned cabin outside of old Snowmass," he recalls. "It got to be November, and it started getting really cold. When the well froze over, I thought it was time to leave," he says with a laugh.

"Then I did all the stuff people did in Aspen in those days. I was a busboy, a waiter; I worked construction. Soon I got to be a pretty good carpenter and was building saunas for a small Aspen builder." Those skills came in handy when he bought the Aspen Frame Shop for back taxes five years after moving to town.

"The Aspen Frame Shop had been open since the 1940s, and it was the oldest gallery in Aspen," says Havu. "I bought the business, but the former owner kept the original name, so I came up with a new one: The Gallery and Frame Shop of Aspen."

Havu's Aspen gallery showed the work of local Aspenites such as the late Jonathan Wright, a nationally known photographer, and Father Benedict, a sculpting monk from a monastery in Snowmass. Havu also featured limited-edition prints from New York printmaker HMK Fine Art. While running the gallery, he became a sales rep for HMK and traveled throughout the western U.S. and Canada hawking their prints.

Bad ski seasons in '76, '77 and '78 took their toll on Aspen, which was not the enclave of the super-rich that it is now, and Havu was forced to close his gallery in 1979. He moved to Evergreen and continued to work for HMK until they went out of business in the early 1980s. "My last several commission checks bounced," says Havu.

In 1983, he opened his first Denver gallery, which specialized in the sale of prints to the trade. Called Art Group Partners, it was located on the second floor of a Victorian building at 17th and Park avenues. In addition to selling art, the company published fine prints with printmakers Meg Ingraham and Bud Shark. Among the artists whose works were published by Art Group Partners were Sandra Kaplan, Michael Brangoccio and Tony Ortega.

In 1991, Havu shut down his wholesale business and opened the 1/1 Gallery in the 1700 block of Wazee Street in LoDo. As indicated by its unusual name, 1/1 specialized in the sale of monotypes; however, it soon expanded to include paintings, sculptures and even ceramics. At the time, 17th and Wazee was ground zero for the Denver art world. Within a block of 1/1 was the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts, the Sandy Carson Gallery, Hassel-Haeseler, Payton-Rule and Robischon.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia