The city’s underground venues and galleries have had a rough go of it over the past few years. Across Denver, property values have skyrocketed, and at the few relatively inexpensive spaces out there, the city has flexed its safety-code enforcement in the wake of the 2016 Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 artists at a warehouse party in Oakland. Evicted or priced out, cash-starved artists have been forced to find cheaper cities to live in or shift how they work altogether. Some groups have opened new venues in garages; others have become entirely nomadic, hosting pop-ups in bars, galleries and elsewhere; a few have ventured online or shut down for good.
Founded half a decade ago by a group of nine Denver DIY creatives, including Westword MasterMind Mar Williams, Josh Finley and Mutiny Information Cafe owner Jim Norris, Cabal has been a hotbed of artistic experimentation at 1875 South Broadway, showcasing work by such multi-disciplinary artists as Corrina Espinosa, Bonnie Finley, Tameca Coleman, Fanny Fitztightlee, Jesse Frazier and dozens more. Throughout that time, Cabal, which has been funded largely by its members, has struggled to pay rent and threatened to close, yet somehow floated along. But now that model has sunk.
Westword recently caught up with Williams to discuss Cabal’s history, the collective’s reasons for closing the physical space earlier this month, and what’s next for the group.
Westword: Walk us through the history of Cabal.
Mar Williams: Five years ago, I was closing down Concoctory Hackerspace. I had previously had some passing conversations with Jim Norris down at Mutiny about art spaces and hackery things, and he had expressed an interest in starting something on the art end. I had this great space I was renting, so I asked if he wanted it. He gathered up the creative humans, and Cabal was born. There were nine of us to start. We lost and added members along the way. Josh Finley and I were the remaining original founding members. When we started, what we were about was pretty simple: DIY, music, art and Denver. That’s been the heart of it, and it didn’t really change much.
What were some of your favorite shows at the space?
There have been so many; it’s so hard to choose. Any of our gross and spooky shows: Afterbirth, Creepshow, Josh Finley’s re-arted thrift-store paintings, Cabalidays With the Krampus. We’ve had 3-D art viewable with red and blue 3-D glasses, painted VHS tapes, skate decks, video games and robots.
Utopia of the Neutral was a trans and non-binary art show in response to a ridiculous comment made by the Pope. The Satanic Temple of Colorado has thrown a couple shows. We’ve made valentines out of old porn and wrestling magazines, construction paper and glitter. I’ve never seen so many giggly grown-ass adults. My recent favorite is Frank Kwiatkowski’s relief prints made from carved traffic cones, alongside Logan Rainard’s bicycle contraptions. I’m sure I’m forgetting something amazing, and there are too many artists and bands deserving of a mention.
Cabal is closing. Why?
Cabal Gallery — the physical space — is closing for a handful of reasons. We had a hard enough time hitting rent every month, let alone finding the time to really pursue funding. To me, Cabal existed as a space for a handful of more underground Denver artists to create alongside each other, and to prop up other underrepresented artists. The gallery had its own particular feel to it. It kept going pretty organically with different members over time and was really incredible to be a part of. I think spaces like ours exist for a period of time, and that’s okay. Five years is a hell of a run. I don’t believe in squeezing the life out of something to make it cash flow-positive. I didn’t want to sell out so much that it would undermine our collective values or the spirit of the space.
What have been the struggles of running a gallery?
To me, we were running a collective art space that had a bonus gallery in it. Keeping the doors open regular hours was a challenge. We were volunteering time and paying out of pocket for the place to exist.
How does the collective model impact your decision to close?
As a collective, we just don’t need the space anymore to function. Art exists online and around town at other spaces: galleries, coffee shops, bars, etc. Everyone is involved in other projects, so closing the space isn’t really going to affect anyone’s career negatively. If anything, it frees us up to do bigger, more interesting things together and support our friends running other local spaces.
Cabal had received Meow Wolf funding. How has that impacted your survival — and perhaps also the end of the project?
I asked Meow Wolf for funding when things were dire sometime last year. I had literally handed the keys back to the landlord when I got an “Okay, we can help.” We got some help, but nothing huge. There were some problems with the way that was handled that put a wrench in our plans for getting ahead. So we rode a few months and went back to out-of-pocket.
What other funding did you lean on?
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We didn’t have other funding, really. We pooled our resources. When one of us was making more money or had more time, we kicked it in.
More Cabal, less Gallery. We still exist. Mutiny Information Cafe will be hosting our monthly figure-drawing group, Sketchy Humans. Queer Fashion Hack will continue there, as well. Murals are being planned. Our shows will continue at different spaces around town. Keep an eye out. We have no intention of slowing down. If you want to get involved, reach out.
Cabal’s Sketchy Humans figure-drawing class meets at 6 p.m. Sunday, June 16, at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway, free, cabalgallery.com.
Correction: Jim Norris's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.