Art News

Spilled Paint: The RiNo Art District Is Cleaning Up a Mess

Artists Heartboy and SpeakS stand in front of artwork in the RiNo Art District by Moe Gram.
Artists Heartboy and SpeakS stand in front of artwork in the RiNo Art District by Moe Gram. @nikkiaraephotography
The nonprofit River North Art District, founded in 2005, and the nonprofit street-art festival Crush Walls, founded in 2010, were virtually synonymous for a few years, married by contract and constantly collaborating. Even as artists complained about being gentrified out of RiNo and the surrounding neighborhoods involved with the district, the graffiti and murals multiplying on the walls every year ensured that the area’s reputation as an art hub kept growing.

Along the way, founder Robin “Dread” Munro became a darling of the street-art world and developers alike. For more than a decade, he bridged the gap between testosterone-fueled graffiti crews around Denver and officials who were trying to stop an explosion of vandalism while empowering up-and-coming artists and also getting them paid. In 2017, the year Crush Walls won Mayor Michael Hancock’s Arts & Culture Innovation Award, Munro teamed up with the district; with the two working together, the festival attracted an estimated 150,000 people to RiNo in 2019. City boosters started touting the neighborhood as “the Street Art Capital of the United States” — a flight of fancy quickly shot down by anyone who'd spent time in Detroit or Brooklyn or Miami.

Yet a street-art renaissance had definitely exploded in Denver, and its impact was felt across the state.

But just weeks after its COVID-19-curbed 2020 festival, Crush Walls came tumbling down when rising muralist Robyn Frances, aka Grow Love, sounded the alarm on Instagram by alleging that Munro had sexually assaulted her. Soon other women came forward with their own allegations, all of which Munro and his lawyer have denied.

Weeks after accusations surfaced, the district announced it would launch an investigation into one of its contractors — not naming Munro.

In early December, Tracy Weil, the art district’s co-founder and director, told Westword that the district had cut ties with Crush Walls.

“The RiNo Art District is no longer affiliated with Crush Walls," Weil said. "We'll be continuing to provide paid opportunities for artists with our mural programming and new events in 2021. Keep an eye out on our website and our social media for more info. Street art in the art district will continue to create vivid images and bold messages that are so important during these times."

Since those initial comments, details of the separation have been shrouded in silence — though a major Denverite story last month shared the accounts of Munro's accusers. (Several say they were never contacted by the district or its investigators, much less the Denver Police Department; no criminal charges were leveled against Munro, nor have any civil cases been filed.)

Munro definitely got Crush Walls and all of the associated intellectual-property rights in the divorce. He says he plans to reboot Crush, though perhaps not in RiNo; in the meantime, he explains, he's doubling down on his own creative practice.

“For the next year, I’m more focused on my own work, my own personal work,” he says. He's currently doing painting of Vikings on the walls at GreenSheen Paint; he says he has plenty of other contracts in the works.

As for bringing back the festival he founded, "I don't want to put a time frame on it," he says. “We’ll be working on putting together a group of people that want to spearhead the production of Crush — a local group of artists who want to take on the responsibilities of what it means to do this type of festival, people who have been in the culture and are of the culture, and not brand-new artists who have been painting a couple years.

“Now that I’ve obtained the rights to Crush, I’m able to take it and go anywhere with it,” he adds. “Getting the right people together and getting everything organized is super time-consuming. I needed to step away from all the roles and responsibilities of what that is right now so I can do some of my own work.”

The RiNo Art District hasn't been waiting to see where Munro lands. In early February it announced a new, year-round, community-driven street-art series, the RiNo Mural Program, administered through Keep RiNo Wild, the charitable branch of the district. The program is being organized by Alexandrea Pangburn, who worked with Crush to diversify the festival and is now director of curation for the district. A rising street artist herself, she founded the Babe Walls women and nonbinary mural festival, which debuted in 2020 in Westminster and which she plans to take to Arvada from July 15 to 18, when 26 artists will paint approximately fifteen installations along the Ralston Creek Trail.
click to enlarge Cya the Creator in action. - TYLER VITELLO
Cya the Creator in action.
Tyler Vitello
The district is recruiting local businesses to offer up their walls, with the hope of spreading the mural art that has defined the Larimer Street corridor throughout the surrounding neighborhoods, including Five Points, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. Businesses are also being asked to chip in for artist fees.

With a focus on equity, the district will pay artists higher rates than Crush ever did. They also could get more attention: Pangburn hopes that by stretching the work throughout the year, more people will come down and meet the artists and focus on individual works, which was difficult to do when Crush Walls had hundreds of murals going up in a matter of days.

“Everybody comes in for a week to see a festival. Now everybody can come over for an entire year," she explains. "Hopefully, these small businesses in the district will be supported over an entire year rather than a week.”

Pangburn, who worked with Munro on Crush, says she learned hard lessons from her time with that festival and the sundry criticisms it faced: not paying artists what they were worth; spending too much money on international superstars who dipped in and out of town without forging relationships with the community; serving as a Trojan horse for gentrification; trouncing across neighborhoods with little input from community leaders; ignoring the contributions to muralism from legacy Chicano artists; failing to adequately represent women and nonbinary artists and people of color; and finally, emboldening a patriarchal culture of bullying and worse.

“The best things I can do to support a greater number of artists financially, which is the most amazing part to me — are pulling this funding together to get them paid more than they would get paid in a festival and highlight their work,” she says.
click to enlarge The RiNo Art District showcased Black art in February. - TYLER VITELLO
The RiNo Art District showcased Black art in February.
Tyler Vitello
February’s six murals were tied to Black History Month and organized in collaboration with IRL Art and Rob the Art Museum, the marketing collective of Black Love Mural Festival founder Robert Gray. The work for March is tied to Women’s History Month and is being led by Pangburn's Babe Walls. In the months to come, the program will highlight Chicano/a, Indigenous, LGBTQ+ and youth muralists.

“I think we learned a lot as a district, and our goal is to move forward with these new visions and new thoughts and goals and intentions to bring the artist community and local businesses together, and working together on the art rather than having it be a select number of people to throw something that huge together,” Pangburn explains.

She's trying to steer clear of art-scene controversies playing out on social media while addressing criticisms substantively through her work as a curator.

“I’m continuing to move forward,” she says. “There’s a lot of negativity out there. I myself can’t focus on that, because I’ll ultimately be drug down into that negativity. I know what impact I want to make on the community and how I would love to see a wider range of artists come up and really make connections. That’s what I love the most, is making connections with new artists and pulling in artists from out of state and making connections. ... I’m really focusing on moving forward and not dwelling on the past, learning from my mistakes and trying to just be better.”

When the district brings in artists from outside the state, for example, she wants to keep them in town far beyond the time it takes to paint their work so that they can develop meaningful connections with the community. She also wants to expand the mediums in which artists are working.

“We’ll have some wheat-paste artists in there,” she says. “We’ll have some spray-paint artists. We’ll have house paint, augmented reality, projection mapping. We’re trying to get as many different mediums as possible to really make these installations super cool and a big part of the community.

“We’ll be bringing those elders back into the streets and having their work out for everybody to see,” she adds. “Mentorship is really important as well — not forgetting about those elders. They are what brought us here. Part of the intention behind these murals is working with the community.”
click to enlarge Cya the Creator in front of a RiNo Mural Project mural. - TYLER VITELLO
Cya the Creator in front of a RiNo Mural Project mural.
Tyler Vitello
And working out issues within the community, including gentrification and economic oppression. “I’m trying my best to open that up,” she says. “I want to help rebuild relationships that were really just burned in the past. It was a lack of communication, and I hope that through these murals and engaging these different artist communities within these five neighborhoods in the art district that there will be able to be some rebuilding and growth from that.”

Will there be a big street-art festival in RiNo in 2021? Not exactly. But an arts festival at the district's soon-to-launch RiNo ArtPark is in the works, pandemic willing.

"We’re opening up the ArtPark this summer," says Weil. "We’re still in fundraising mode for that particular project. We’ll be doing an event, probably in September, but it will be dedicated to highlighting all the different art forms that will be celebrated at the ArtPark. That will include murals, music, visual art, installation art, poetry, culinary arts. That’s kind of the concept. We’re still figuring out what that is. We made some great progress."

The ArtPark, which includes a Denver Public Library branch and affordable studio space for artists, as well as the district's ongoing effort to create affordable housing for creatives in the area, are all geared toward keeping and attracting more artists — Weil's original goal almost two decades ago, when he and a scrappy crew of creatives brainstormed creating an art district in what was then largely a dusty, industrial corridor.

"The ArtPark is super important to us," he says. "We're putting money where our mouth is. We’re building affordable art studios. We want to make sure there are artists in the district."

Corrections: An earlier version of this story described Munro as the festival's "co-founder." He was Crush Walls' only founder. The story also described Pangburn as an employee of Crush; she worked on Crush as an employee of the RiNo Art District.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris