In a town where critical voices are far and few between, Michael Paglia has been reviewing art in Denver for decades, more than twenty of them right here at Westword, though his written reach over the years also extends to a number of national periodicals, monographs, books on art and architecture, and documentary films. At this point, Paglia is deeply entrenched in Denver’s art and architecture communities, telling it like it is from his own historically informed, highly descriptive and sometimes testy point of view. An expert and always a student, he covers it all, from staunch museum shows and public art to commercial galleries and co-ops.
As the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art and the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities roll out Colorado Abstract +10: A History and a Survey, a series of exhibitions celebrating Colorado Abstract: Paintings and Sculpture, a tome he co-authored with Mary Voelz Chandler ten years ago, Paglia is right in the moment with his answers to the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Michael Paglia: I don’t think I have a creative muse. I am motivated to write based on my lifelong love and interest in art. But what keeps me writing is the importance of art writing to artists and to the art community as a whole.
Also, I firmly believe that Colorado art is undervalued and lacking in local institutional support, so I want to do all I can to right those wrongs to the best of my ability. Taking on as many projects as I do, not just for my column in Westword, but for the books, monographs, surveys and videos that I work on, I rely on my “eye,” and then I tap into my understanding of the craft of writing.
When I first became a professional writer, around 1990 — since 1995 for Westword — my interest was sparked by the realization that though my friends from school had learned skills that led them to become doctors and lawyers, the only thing that I knew how to do after a BA and an MA was how to write.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
So many of my friends died from AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s that just starting to think about answering this question is bumming me out, so I’m going to skip it.
What’s the best thing about the local creative community — and the worst?
The best thing about the local creative community is the art scene itself, made up of hundreds of committed artists and many others. I am especially interested in what’s going on in the galleries, including both the commercial venues and the alternative spaces. Not to shortchange the museums, but these smaller places are always labors of love, and there’s something wonderful about that. Collectively, they make an enormous contribution to the cultural life of the city, and they’re free!
The worst thing in terms of the creative community is gentrification, which has caused artists to lose their studios and several galleries to close or, in the case of a number of the alternative spaces, has forced them to move outside the city limits.
How about globally?
The global art world is in big trouble, as far as I’m concerned, since it’s dominated by the sensibilities of the 1 percent. This influence manifests itself in the kinds of shows museums mount, the books that are published and in the stratospheric prices seen in the auction world. The super-rich are very trendy, picking up artists as quickly as they drop others, yet exerting a lasting influence on art, as these artists always get ensconced in the canon.
Also, a generation ago, the most significant artists played a big role in the pop culture. A number were practically as famous as movie stars, achieving the status of household names. Andy Warhol, for instance. Now even the most important and most talked-about artists in the world are little known outside of experts. This even further marginalization of art within the broader public really worries me.
As a veteran critic, how would you size up the current climate in the local art world?
There are obviously problems for both artists and galleries in the new Denver, having mostly to do with higher rents. This is not only about gentrification, but also about legalized pot, with the former impacting the galleries, which are being replaced by bars and yoga studios, and the latter affecting the artists, by taking up all the warehouse spaces that were formerly studios.
RiNo is the case in point, with the announcement that Helikon is closing early in 2020 being the latest affront. It makes me wish those art district signs with the rhino profile would be removed and recycled. Make no mistake: Denver has only one art district left — Santa Fe Drive between Fourth and Tenth avenues — with all the rest, not just RiNo, gone and likely never to return.
On the other hand, regardless of this increasingly difficult real estate situation, artists and gallery owners are apparently undeterred, with a constant flow of new young talent coming out of the art schools, colleges and universities, and people opening new enterprises like Space Annex, Union Hall Denver, Urban Mud and D’Art Gallery, all of which debuted in just the past couple of months.
What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts?
Gosh, there are so many things the city could be doing to help visual art in Denver, I’m going to mention three instead of one.
First, a special property-tax reduction needs to be instated for studio complexes, galleries and alternative spaces. This whole highest and best-use tax assessment idea favors large projects like multi-family buildings and chain restaurants, and disadvantages the mostly modest facilities of the visual-art infrastructure.
Second, the city needs to do a much better job in the public-art selection process. Forty million dollars plus in public art, and it doesn’t hold together as a collection? For a quarter of that money, there could have been a competent survey of contemporary Colorado artists. Hell, for the $2 million spent on the dreadful Dennis Oppenheim at the courthouse and jail complex, there could have been an entire sculpture garden with works by a dozen of the best Colorado artists around.
And this shortcoming in the process would be so easy to fix, since it has to do with the makeup of the selection committees. These committees are always dominated by the politically well-connected, and they invariably outnumber those with any art expertise there might be at the table. And what they pick shows off their ignorance.
Finally, we have a lot of pot and high-tech money in town, and they ought to be throwing it around the art world a little more than they do.
Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
Since I’ve been deeply committed to art in Colorado for pretty much all my life, it wouldn’t make sense for me to live anywhere out of state, and in-state, there are only two options: Boulder (too expensive) or Colorado Springs (too Republican). And anyway, all my friends are here, so there’s that.
But there are things that make me want to leave, too. There’s been a steep decline in the quality of everyday life for Denverites. It’s objectively worse. Traffic’s a nightmare, there’s litter, which we never had, but worst of all is the relentless demolition of so many of the old characterful buildings and their replacement by characterless ones.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
I don’t think I can answer this question since I’m still out on the streets of the art world, so to speak, and I don’t want to show that level of favoritism. I’ll just say that there are probably around 300 to 400 people, including artists, curators, directors, collectors and others, that make the art world work here. I admire all but about three or four of them. And I won’t mention their names, either.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
It’s considered bad luck to talk about things that are not done yet, so I’ll just say that I am nearing completion of a documentary on a conceptual artist, a catalogue on a mid-career artist, and a history of a 100-year old business.
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As to my chief pastime of going to shows, there are some things coming up this fall in town that are of keen interest to me. I’m really looking forward to Claude Monet at the Denver Art Museum. A lot of the impressionists have aged badly, their paintings taking on a greeting-card sappiness, but not his. Though I hate driving down to the Springs, the exhibition The Legacy of the Broadmoor Art Academy at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center looks like it will be worth the drive. Colorado’s art world was dominated by artists in Colorado Springs for much of the twentieth century, and it will be great to see examples of their pieces on view together.
Of course, on a personal note, there are the three shows based on the book Colorado Abstract: Paintings and Sculpture that I co-authored with Mary Voelz Chandler, two at the Arvada Center and one at the Kirkland Museum. I’m very proud of the fact that the book has held up so well and has achieved the goal I had for it when I first conceived of it, which was to document the efforts of as many Colorado artists working in abstraction as possible in a single project.
Colorado Abstract +10: A History, an exhibition celebrating the tenth anniversary of the book Colorado Abstract: Paintings and Sculpture, by Mary Voelz Chandler and Michael Paglia, runs through January 12, 2020, at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, 1201 Bannock Street.
The companion exhibit, Colorado Abstract +10: A Survey, opens on Thursday, September 12, with a free reception from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard in Arvada, and runs through November 17. Learn more about the exhibition and related events at the Arvada Center’s website.
Keep up with Michael Paglia’s weekly art reviews and recommendations at westword.com.