When we first tapped Samantha Johnston for Colorado Creatives, our regular series profiling the region's top cultural workers, in 2016, the then-new leader of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center had inherited an institution in search of a permanent home. Her goal of building CPAC into a nationally recognized organization was just beginning, cramped by a temporary space at Ironton Studios and the need to first find needed funding. A year later, when Johnston moved CPAC into its current, roomier Bannock Street space, her mission to expand found roots.
In the present, Johnston and CPAC are doing a smashing job guiding and organizing Denver’s biennial Month of Photography 2021 for the first time after taking the reins from event founder Mark Sink, and CPAC itself has grown exponentially. Learn more as Johnston tackles the CC questionnaire in redux.
Westword: How has your mission at CPAC changed since you first answered the CC questionnaire in 2016?
Samantha Johnston: Our mission has not changed, but CPAC has had a lot of growth, including a move to the Golden Triangle neighborhood in 2017. I have worked to balance change over the last few years while honoring the long history of CPAC. Our exhibition program has expanded to include more shows during Month of Photography festivals, and I have worked to exhibit a wide range of early- to mid-career artists and underrepresented voices. We have grown our education programming as well, offering teen programming in the summer and adult continuing-education programs throughout the year.
I am really proud of launching our Veterans Workshop Series in 2017, which provides five months of free photography education for Colorado-based U.S. military veterans. To date, 35 local veterans have completed the program, and many are now exhibiting and publishing their work for the first time, which is creating new opportunities for them and introducing fresh perspectives into Denver’s broader arts community. And as you know, we’ve taken on the biennial Month of Photography festival, with the first one under our leadership happening in March.
What's interesting to you right now in the world of photography?
There is a lot happening in the photography world right now, including much-needed recognition of BIPOC artists and resources such as the Photographer’s Green Book, which is a resource hub for inclusion, diversity, equity and advocacy within the lens-based art community. I’m very interested in seeing the role photography plays in the documentation of such a tumultuous time.
As a creative, what’s your vision for a more perfect Denver?
I don’t like the word “perfect,” but my vision definitely includes more creative spaces for artists. We have many excellent museums, institutions and galleries, but I still feel there could be more spaces for artists to show work. I would like to see Denver become nationally recognized for the great art that it produces.
It’s a challenging time for artists and creatives in the metro area, who are being priced out of the city by gentrification and rising rents. What can they do about it, short of leaving?
Last year was very challenging, and it has been hard as the city grows for creatives in the metro area. I wish I had an answer for the larger problem of gentrification and rising rent, which is a growing issue all over the country, but I don’t. Right now I think it’s important for artists to focus on getting through this pandemic, on staying healthy, doing what it takes to make ends meet, to keep creating when you can, and to not give up. Artists are resourceful, and I think it’s important to think about their networks and what is essential to them. Do they need a separate space to create? What goals do they have with making and showing art? It’s been encouraging to see what Benjamin Rasmussen has done with Pattern Denver by creating another space for community and photography.
What’s your dream project?
I’m extremely fortunate that one of my dream projects is happening now. I was asked to curate photography for the Market Station Project downtown, by Continuum and EBD. It’s created an opportunity to help highlight works by dozens of talented Colorado photographers. Projects like this are so important for Denver. I was really excited to select and curate work for the building.
What advice would you give a young hopeful in your field?
Make connections and build your network. Connect with your community and the spaces that you want to be a part of. The photography world is a web of connections. Other advice would be to think about what you want for the work you are making — an exhibit, commercial opportunities? Consider what is important for your career.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Choosing one favorite is tough! There are so many creatives doing great work in Denver. I want to give a shout-out to Louise Martorano at RedLine, who is a constant driving force of support in our arts community, especially through the pandemic. Another is Yvens Saintil, who participated in our Veterans Workshop series and continues to develop his practice and show his work. He recently showed work at the Arvada Center with Narkita Gold.
What's on your agenda right now and in the coming year?
Right now our team is focused on the biennial Month of Photography festival that CPAC took leadership of in 2019. Mark Sink did an amazing job growing the festival, and I’m excited to see all the planning come to fruition in March. We have more than eighty events happening all over Denver next month: exhibitions, artist talks, workshops, reviews. It’s an incredible example of collaboration, and it’s become such an important platform for photography in the Mountain West region. Works by more than 500 artists are on display, and more than thirty exhibits are showing work by Colorado-based photographers.
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
It’s great to see artists thinking of new ways to experience art. I am excited to be working with David Moke and the Denver Theatre District on Night Lights Denver for Month of Photography. This program is an important way to see work in different and unexpected venues, and David’s enthusiasm for the arts and making connections is fantastic. I am excited to see other projects, too, like Doug Kacena’s project #ArtFindsUs, which brings artwork around the city on a billboard truck.
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