Arts and Culture

Democracy Now: History Colorado Votes for Public Participation

General Election Ballot Box, 1884, Costilla County Precinct 8.
General Election Ballot Box, 1884, Costilla County Precinct 8. Gift from Elizabeth A. Hall, History Colorado
On Thursday, February 27, a private event at History Colorado will reveal an art action in process, as four artists who reflect minority groups within the larger Denver community — David Ocelotl Garcia, Rochelle Johnson, Cori Redford and Carmen Richards — reimagine Norman Rockwell’s iconic "Four Freedoms" painting series for current conditions.

History Colorado COO Dawn DiPrince calls it the “giant kickoff” for a series of small exhibitions and participatory community events leading up to the arrival of the touring Smithsonian exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith. That show — which conveniently lands here in a major election year, a time when voters will be very engaged in the democratic process — will open on September 12 and run through January.

But the new hands-on programming also heralds changes in the way that History Colorado is working to capture the public imagination in a more direct, grassroots way. “We’re a museum. We have exhibits, but we’re also doing work that reaches out into the community,” DiPrince explains. "Our goal is to double our impact in the next five years through more human engagement."

"We want to make sure we have programs that engage people in the exhibits, so that’s part of our educational strategy,” she continues. “It’s a monumental election year, as you’re well aware, and a great time to take advantage of it.”

To that end, the museum will tie part of its 2020 exhibit and lecture schedule to the idea and practice of democracy on the people's level, with not just the Smithsonian show and its related programming, but the Bold Women. Change History lecture series that started last September and is linked to an exhibit of the same name that opens March 7 at the nearby Center for Colorado Women's History at the Byers-Evans House Museum.

“Democracy is us; we are all part of democracy,” DiPrince notes. “It’s not something that happens to us — it is us. Eventually, we want all four floors of the museum activated in some way through art or exhibits.” But planned activations will also spread beyond the History Colorado Center and the Byers-Evans satellite. “We want to use 360-degree ways to focus on democracy in the larger Denver community,” she adds.

In advance of American Democracy's arrival, History Colorado hired Chris Getzan for a new role — that of public programs manager. Getzan comes from Warm Cookies of the Revolution, Denver’s “civic health club” that encourages people to have fun — building with LEGOs or enjoying a comedy routine, for example — while learning about important public issues. At History Colorado, he'll reach out to the community and build similar programs that approach the principles of democracy in an appealing way, through off-site gatherings in unusual places.

“It’s a way to gather people together to explore the more complicated themes around democracy," explains DiPrince. "We hope to demystify the process on how to be a participant in your democracy.”

Getzan’s programs will roll out through the summer, prepping the public for a formal exhibition on democracy that will come complete with rare artifacts and this catchphrase: "Events that find the now in the then to help us move forward."

Those events will include a visit to SAME Cafe, which serves free or pay-what-you-can meals, on June 11; a study of democracy as practiced by bees, with beekeeper Greg McMahan and the Mile Hive Bee Club at the Riverside Cemetery Apiary, with a side-trip tour of the resting places of historic leaders on July 11; and a community meal and program on movement and migration at Four Mile Historic Park, once a rest stop along the Cherokee Trail, on August 13. Around Halloween, Getzan will also collaborate on a zombie action, but for now, those details are mum.

“Chris says, 'If everyone agrees, it’s not a coalition,’" DiPrince says. “A coalition is building something together with people who have different views from you. Sometimes it’s great to be reminded of the humanness of people around you.”

Smaller exhibitions will also pop up at History Colorado — one curated by Native artist Gregg Deal, which will focus on indigenous views of democracy, and another based on Denver artist Adri Norris’s "Women Behaving Badly" portrait series honoring women leaders of color who’ve taken chances and brought about change in the service of their communities.

History Colorado won’t abandon the idea of democracy after American Democracy opens and the election season ends. “We’ll also extend programming post-election and explore through exhibits how democracy is something you do 365 days a year, and voting is only one thing you do as a part of that,” DiPrince explains. “We’ll focus on ways to come together after you lose an election to find positive ways to move forward, thinking in comprehensive ways.”

The museum isn't waiting for the election's outcome to move forward in other areas, however. It recently announced an alliance with the Gill Foundation that brings new curator Aaron Marcus on board to oversee a dedicated Colorado LGBTQ+ collection project; History Colorado also just hired an assistant curator of Hispanic, Latino and Chicano history, Lucha Martinez de Luna.

And those Four Freedoms first outlined in a 1941 speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear — that are getting an update from local artists will be displayed as part of American Democracy, bringing the concept back home.

“This is the State of Colorado's collection,” DiPrince affirms. “We want to make sure it really reflects who is here, who is a Coloradan.”
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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd