Every now and then, someone comes along who changes everything. Jack Pappalardo was one of those people. Aside from being a positive, friendly human being, aside from being a brilliant real estate lawyer, an avid hockey fan, a Deadhead, a fiercely devoted husband, and all the other things he was — Jack was a powerful, creative visionary who forever changed Denver’s art scene.
That’s how many of us came to know him, to respect him, to love him, and to call him our friend. By the time I met Jack, in 2005, he had already been working to build the now-famous stretch of Santa Fe Drive in La Alma/Lincoln Park into the cultural juggernaut it would become. He was an enthusiastic fan of the arts, and he and his artist wife, Georgia Amar, had taken up residence in the same building that housed her Habitat Gallery, in the heart of the growing Art District on Santa Fe.
It was a time when galleries were springing up like wildflowers. “When we opened Kanon in 2005,” gallerist Kym Bloom recalls, “I quickly discovered that Jack was sort of the father of the art district. He would help us with everything, from negotiating a lease to tax questions. And he and Georgia always found time to stop by each month, just to say hi and check in on us.”
In hindsight, it felt like the dawn of a golden age for Denver’s art scene, and particularly for the Art District on Santa Fe, as more and more galleries moved to the popular area. Jack and his board of directors worked to promote the monthly First Friday Art Walks, which mushroomed from dozens to hundreds to thousands of visitors over the years, eventually reaching an average of 20,000-plus each warm month — before the pandemic, at least. At its height, the four-block district claimed the highest density of art galleries in the country. And in 2012, it became one of the state’s first two certified Creative Districts, a designation that came with grants.
The driving force behind all of this was Jack. Sure, others helped. Others worked, others promoted, but Jack was the engine that powered the train, and everyone knew it. He had his legal insights, his real estate wizardry, his connections with city officials — but his real superpower was his genuine, unflagging enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for the arts, enthusiasm for his neighborhood, and enthusiasm for the artists, musicians and creatives that made it all happen. He was, above all else, a fanboy. And that made all the difference.
His personality elevated every corner of the district. He was always smiling, always encouraging. He had an easy laugh and a positive spin on everything. When he and Georgia first moved to Santa Fe Drive, he embraced the neighborhood (then a raw canvas) wholeheartedly and would offer jobs to the people he’d find sleeping in his doorway. His heart always drove the mission.
In a 2012 Westword article about his Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Art & Culture, Jack credited his success to “attitude,” explaining the importance of creating an art district that was welcoming, friendly and “not pretentious.” In Jack’s view, galleries could sell art for five-digit prices or for $5, while out in the street, musicians, dancers and people from all areas of the city could gather to have fun and celebrate the diversity of talent the district had to offer. Jack’s recipe for success brought in the crowds and the art sales.
Jack’s achievements inspired other art districts, and he was always reaching out to connect and find ways for various art organizations and districts to work together, cross-promote and grow together. While many cities have one art district, if that, soon metro Denver had eight — all of them thriving.
“Jack was an inspiration,” says artist Tracy Weil, head of the RiNo Art District. “The work he did with the Art District on Santa Fe was literally a blueprint on how we started the RiNo Art District. Community- and grassroots-focused, and a way to support the talented creatives and small businesses in our city long-term.”
In 2009, I was lucky enough to be invited onto the Art District on Santa Fe board of directors, and there I saw Jack’s brilliance up close. Our monthly meetings were always full of big ideas, fun plans in action and great progress reports. One by one, Jack ticked off his wish list of enhancements for the district: Bring in more galleries; add more member benefits; create gallery maps and district brochures to distribute at local hotel and tourist info sites; paint the cement bump-outs along the street; hire shuttle buses to deliver patrons to and from the Golden Triangle; create partnerships with nearby parking lots; install Art District banners up and down the street; plant trees, add energy-efficient blue street lights to distinguish the four-block district; wrangle permits to close the street for special celebrations.
He lured in anchor businesses like the Center for Visual Arts and the 910 Arts complex — and those are just some top-of-my-head recollections from my brief time on the board. Jack was relentless in his campaign to improve the district.
His “white whale,” though, was a plan to expand the sidewalks, to create a more inviting environment. It involved narrowing that stretch of Santa Fe Avenue to just two lanes — no easy feat, since the street is technically part of the state’s highway system. He worked on the proposal for ten years and repeatedly hit a brick wall.
The past few years, Jack began spending more time in Ontario, Canada, where Georgia had bought an A-frame cabin in the 1970s. It was their second home, a beautiful, quiet oasis not too far from Jack’s native New York. They had even talked about moving there permanently, and I, for one, found the idea utterly awful. A Denver without Jack? A depressing thought, but, sadly, one we now have to get used to.
Jack died at Porter Hospital on Thursday, December 3, from complications arising from pancreatic cancer. It was an illness that hit quickly and that Jack chose to keep private, so as not to “burden” his friends, according to his brother, Bob, who was with him shortly before he died. On Facebook, Bob posted that Jack had told him, “It was a great life. I have no regrets.” Jack was only sixty years old.
Jack’s last Facebook post, in October, was an announcement that his big “impossible dream” was finally being made real. Work had begun to widen the sidewalks in the district. At long last, the plan had been approved, funds had been allocated, and lines had been painted on the asphalt to show the newly designated traffic lanes. His final bucket-list item could be checked off the list. And so, right up to his untimely end, Jack’s love and work for our arts community continued. And we are all better for it.
Dana Cain is an art collector, event planner and former Art District on Santa Fe board member.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.