But the MCA is about more than star-powered shows; it's also driven to lift up local artists and connect Denver residents with their creative communities. And while it isn't often that an upscale arts institution dedicates its space to local artists, that's exactly what's happening with the MCA's spring exhibition, Breakthroughs: A Celebration of RedLine at 15, which opens Friday, February 24, and runs through May 28.
Because RedLine Contemporary Art Center is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this year, MCA director Nora Burnett Abrams and MCA senior curator Miranda Lash decided this would be the right moment to celebrate the nonprofit, which champions Denver artists through its residency programs, art shows and community-oriented classes and workshops. In turn, many of its resident alums have become nationally recognized names as well as integral leaders in Denver's arts communities, including Thomas "Detour" Evans, who uses his incredibly popular murals to raise awareness for myriad causes, and Anthony Garcia, who co-founded the arts nonprofit Birdseed Collective, which implements arts-based community outreach programs as well as food programs.
"Nora and I were talking about meaningful ways that we could do a showcase of strong work coming out of the Denver community, and knowing that we have this longstanding line of communication with RedLine, and RedLine had its anniversary on the horizon — it just felt like the perfect moment," Lash recalls. "So we reached out to [RedLine executive director] Louise Martorano to see if she would be open to a presentation that highlighted a selection of alumni resident artists to come through the program, and Louise was so generous in agreeing to it."
"The first conversation I had with Nora and Miranda was just like, 'We'd like to give RedLine the building,'" Martorano recalls. "And that means so much. Oftentimes, that is not always the relationship that happens between such institutions and arts communities. It's something that I always value in Denver; it's really fantastic to see how we can work together to present the talent and creativity of our communities. And this was just such a great opportunity for the artists to be able to still have a benefit that is a legacy from the residency process and program."
This isn't the first time that RedLine residents have been seen at the MCA. "There's been this longstanding track record of RedLine supporting artists in incredible and deep ways through these residency programs, and then MCA picking up these artists and bringing them into our exhibition program," Lash says, noting that three artists in the upcoming exhibition have shown work at the museum before.
Eighteen artists who'd completed residencies at RedLine were selected for Breakthroughs; there were eighty applicants — a hefty response, considering that RedLine has had about 120 residents from the start through today. The jury process was overseen by Martorano, Lash, MCA director of programming Sarah Kate Baie, MCA associate curator Leilani Lynch and RedLine alumni artist Jaime Carrejo, who mounted an immersive installation at the MCA in 2021.
All of the artwork shown will be new or made within the past two years. "We really wanted to reflect the current moment and what was happening in the studio right now," Lash explains. "And we also put a preference on artwork that has not yet been shown anywhere, so that not all the work but the vast majority is being debuted for the first time in the show. These are artists who are very active in their communities, so we were like, 'Let's make it fresh for your audience.'"
Although none of the artists were given a prompt, some thematic throughlines emerged. "There are some artists that are very deeply interested in historical research, how different identities and communities are represented," Lash explains. "So for example, an artist like Daisy Patton uses archival photographs of women, and Suchitra Mattai is very interested in investigating colonial histories, and Tony Ortega is very invested in the histories of the Chicano communities here in the Denver area."
Environmental themes of climate change and its connection to humanity are found in both the multi-media, performance-based video work of artist Gretchen Marie Schaefer and in the wellness videos by Jeff Page. Schaefer has been waiting for just the right location to debut her new video work, and Martorano is especially excited to see it — although every piece is a highlight, she says.
Eileen [Roscina], whose new videos and films are so deeply informed by her family and her own role as a new mother, and we're pairing those with [Juntae TeeJay Hwang's] wedding families series, because those two works deal with what it means to navigate your identity within the context of a family or within a context of a group," Lash adds.
Even with the variety of themes and mediums, viewers should be able to identify with something in every work. "I just innately believe that the arts touch every issue," says Martorano. "It's very hard to walk into an exhibition like this and not see yourself reflected in some way through what the artists are talking about, what they're wrestling with or considering. This exhibition represents the experiences of many, through these different practices and voices and ideas and values."
Not only is Breakthroughs an impressive way to showcase local creatives; it also provides the former RedLine residents with a monumental moment in their careers. "I was so excited, because it is so important to have on one's CV the opportunity to show at a museum," Martorano explains. "It just brings a level into the artist's presenting experience that is so meaningful, so I was excited that this was going to provide this opportunity for the artists."
The MCA also provides ample space for the work.
Ben Coleman, who is really loving our eighteen-foot ceilings and really taking advantage of the fact that we're giving him this corridor where he's going to have these cables for this installation piece that's going to go up eighteen feet," Lash enthuses. "And so I love that there are artists responding to our architecture. Ana María Hernando is presenting a beautiful tulle installation that is taking advantage of, again, the height and scale of the building in the presentation. And her work is so bright and so colorful. It just feels like everyone is like bringing their best."
This isn't the only celebration connected to RedLine's anniversary. The center kicked off the festivities with a show of original resident artists, Beau Carey and Ian Fisher, which closed in January; it was followed by its current resident exhibition, on view through March 1. And starting March 11, RedLine will honor the Month of Photography and its founder with Typed Live, Excuse Errors: A Mark Sink Retrospective.
Martorano is proud of RedLine's residency program, and the proof of its success is displayed not just on the walls at the MCA, but in the careers of its alums. There's not just the commercial success of alums like Mario Zoots or Suchrita Mattai, who joined the program in 2014 and now has works that sell for six figures, but the community engagement of artists like Tony Ortega, whose murals honor the community and who has led art workshops through Think360 Arts.
"A little bit of our success story of the residency is that our artists can live and work in Denver and be supported as artists," Martorano says. "It would be a most depressing wasteland if no artists were living in Denver. ... [They] also desire to kind of work as a collective and maintain the community that they have built through the program. Because beyond financial resources, these relationships really are what artists thrive from. I think that is also part of the success story, that this is absolutely a family."
Let's hope the Washington Post catches this show! Here are the participating artists and their RedLine residency years:
Tya Anthony, 2018-2020
Amber Cobb, 2012-2014
Ben Coleman, 2020-2022
Trey Duvall, 2018-2020
Ana María Hernando, 2021-2022
Juntae TeeJay Hwang, 2018-2020
Sammy Lee, 2016-2018
Marsha Mack, 2018-2020
Suchitra Mattai, 2014-2016
Alicia Ordal, 2008-2010
Tony Ortega, 2018-2020
Jeff Page, 2008-2010
Daisy Patton, 2014-2016
Eileen Roscina, 2018-2020
Gretchen Marie Schaefer, 2009-2012
Rebecca Vaughan, 2011-2013
Ashley Eliza Williams, 2015-2016
Mario Zoots, 2016-2018
Breakthroughs: A Celebration of RedLine at 15, Friday, February 24, through May 28, Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1485 Delgany Street. Tickets, $25, are available now. Learn more about RedLine and its upcoming shows at redlineart.org.