History repeats itself. So does “famous artist” Phil Bender’s art.
On Sunday, April 16, Bender was standing by the windows of a storefront at 3655 Navajo Street, surrounded by his artwork, a myriad of multiple repeating images, and looking over some architectural plans. “Pirate Art Gallery?” he said, frowning at the label on the sketch. “That’s never been our name.”
But Denver’s almost-oldest artistic cooperative has always been full of pirates, renegades who banded together almost forty years ago when there were few options around town for up-and-coming artists who wanted to show their work. In 1982, they docked in a modest, working-class section of Highland, at what was then called Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis, and they’ve been presenting shows there ever since, currently as Pirate: Contemporary Art. On Sunday, Bender was packing up pieces of the Phil Bender exhibit — nine pizza pans from Patsy’s Inn, the almost-century-old Italian joint next door that closed up last summer; repeating rows of numbers that he found at the Sports Castle when Sports Authority bolted last year; nine fans that he snagged when the Hinterland studio left RiNo last fall — as he contemplated packing up the entire gallery for a move to Lakewood in May.
Pirate has known that its ship was sailing for months, after longtime landlords Reed Weimer and Chandler Romeo — artists themselves who lived above Pirate for over a decade while they purchased several buildings on Navajo Street and turned that end of the block into the Navajo Art District — regretfully said that they’d have to raise the always-below-market rent in order to cover the skyrocketing costs of owning property in Denver (starting with taxes). Edge, an independent gallery that had long occupied a spot across the street from Pirate, closed last year and will reopen in June at Prism Workspaces, 999 Vallejo Street. Next, another artist-run gallery that had held down a corner space that was actually once part of Pirate (the original crow’s nest stood by the front door), closed earlier this year; it will hold a grand reopening on April 28 at its new home at 6851 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, where it will be part of the 40 West Arts District.
Soon, Pirate will be part of that area, too. After operating on a month-to-month lease, the members finally secured a spot in Lakewood, at 7130 West 16th Avenue, and will move there after one last show, this one opening April 21 and displaying work by Laura Phelps Rogers: A New Look at the American West. It’s an appropriate title for a gallery that’s on the move. Also an appropriate location.
“Closer to the mountains,” notes Bender, who moved to Colorado from Texas after a ski trip here. “That was all it took. I was born in the summer of my 27th year, coming home to a place I’d never been before,” he says, echoing another famous artist, this one a musician who also adopted Colorado as his home state. In fact, that was right after Bender had proclaimed himself a “famous artist”: As a prank, he’d sent an application, complete with stick-figure drawings, to one of those Become a Famous Artist schools, and then one day a salesman had knocked on the door of the garage where he was living, trying to sell him the program.
The final Pirate show in the Navajo space will close on May 6 with a big “Pirate’s Ship Is Sailing” fundraising event. But Pirate’s members — who’ve never been flush with funds — aren’t waiting for that party to fill their treasure chest with the cash they’ll need to renovate the new location. The crew has launched a $5,000 GoFundMe campaign to help cover costs, and their page says plenty about what’s happened in this town: “For 37 years, Pirate: Contemporary Art has been one of Denver’s most audacious and innovative cooperative art spaces. While many member artists have come and gone, what persists is an unmatched focus on independence and unbridled creative energy. And even as the original vision of Pirate’s contemporary art oasis endures, Denver has grown by leaps and bounds around it. Neighborhoods have changed, rents have skyrocketed, and the city’s priorities have shifted from the arts to corporate development. Unable to afford our current space on the edge of the exploding Highlands neighborhood, the time has come for Pirate to say goodbye to the Navajo Arts District and sail on to new waters.”
Denver’s loss — and it is definitely a loss — is Lakewood’s gain. Artists all over the Mile High City have had to find other spaces as rents exploded. Some have moved to Commerce City, others to Englewood, still more to Aurora. “It’s the suburbanization of art,” says real-estate broker Dustin Whistler, who’s handling the Edge, Next and Pirate spaces. And he knows about it from both sides, since he’s also on the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs. “There are pressures on all sides of the Navajo Art District,” he adds, pointing to all the development just north on West 38th Avenue and in Sunnyside, to the west along Tennyson Street, south in LoHi and quickly creeping up Navajo, which now is full of monster-sized modern homes where bungalows and shotgun houses once stood. “Navajo is just surrounded by a lot of success,” Whistler says. “Everyone cares a lot about what happens to the artists; the unfortunate part is, they have to move.”
And history repeats itself. Over the years, Denver’s artists have been priced out of LoDo, RiNo, South Broadway and now the Navajo Art District. After Pirate goes, the only gallery remaining will be Zip 37, which Weimer and Romeo started. They also own the Bug Theatre next door, which will continue to host art in the district.
At least those renegades at Pirate have a few more weeks there. “I don’t remember anything,” says Bender, when asked to recall his favorite events at the gallery. But everyone else who ever dropped by has a memory, whether it was the bargain piece of art they bought or the altar they contributed to the annual Day of the Dead show. Mention of that extravaganza brings Bender’s memories back to life; he fondly recalls the major bashes that followed the procession through the neighborhood. And then there were all his other shows at Pirate, where he kept exhibiting even after his work landed at the Colorado Convention Center and the Denver Art Museum, after he was honored with a Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, with a proclamation that cited Westword’s comment that “the most important development (in Denver’s art scene) was the rise of the alternative spaces,” chief among them Pirate.
After Bender became the famous artist he had once proclaimed himself. He no longer uses the label. “I don’t need it anymore,” he says. “It worked.”
But Denver still needs the arts...and artists, famous or not.
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