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Shannon Block on The Edge, LEGOs and Other Surprises at the Denver Zoo

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Denver has more than one winning team: The Denver Broncos may be the national champs, but this city’s artists and arts organizations keep scoring with audiences not just in Colorado, but around the world. And while the football season is over, the 2016 arts season is just beginning, so we’ve checked in with some of the scene’s stars to see what they’ll be watching — and watching for — this year.

Up now: Shannon Block, president and CEO of the Denver Zoo.

Westword: What are three things any newcomer to Denver should know about the arts scene?

Shannon Block: The Denver arts scene is expanding and becoming more eclectic and diverse as it responds to the influx of new residents, as well as visitors who are drawn to our vibrant city. The large concentration of millennials who choose to live, work and play within the city is driving cultural entertainment and enrichment to a nationally recognized level. I think what makes Denver’s art and cultural offerings so successful are their accessibility and multi-generational reach.

What developments on the arts scene are you excited about this year?

There is so much going on that sometimes it can be hard to stay on top of what is happening and when. I have found the new Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) website to be a valuable resource when I want to find out about a particular organization or venue around metro Denver. The site is very easy to use. You can refine searches in a lot of different ways. So there is really no excuse, or reason, not to sample Denver’s arts and cultural scene. And the fun part is that what is out there is always changing.
Who/what are the artists/arts organizations to watch this year?

I love to see the different special exhibits and performances that come through Colorado each year. It opens your mind to so many experiences that you may not have otherwise had the opportunity to enjoy. I often bring my daughter with me, because I believe the more I can expose her to at a young age, the more she will appreciate art and culture later in life. I believe that fostering creativity and curiosity is important in inspiring the future generation.

Last year, Denver Zoo presented Nature Connects, Art with LEGO® Bricks, brought to you by the Goddard Schools. We were pleased that Denver Zoo was chosen as the only venue in Denver to give Coloradans and out-of-state visitors the opportunity to marvel at these sculptures, representing a variety of animals and plants created from LEGO bricks. Both kids and adults loved them. Due to that success, we have made the decision to seek out relevant, stimulating and creative traveling exhibits that will engage our community. This fall we will present Washed Ashore, Art to Save the Sea. Environmental artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi creates marine-animal-themed sculptures completely out of trash and debris found in the sea and on the shoreline. The purpose of this exhibit is to educate and create awareness of pollution and its effect on marine-life species, and the positive role we can all play in protecting our planet.

What’s exciting at your own organization/institution?

People may not think of Denver Zoo as a mecca for artists, but we are actually bursting with art and creativity. I consider animals as living art. Take, for instance, the beautiful, vibrant green, turquoise, orange and brown plumage of a peacock as it strolls the paths in all of its majesty. Often, artists will sit across from an exhibit for hours sketching, or a photographer will be silently poised near an enclosure to capture the perfect image of one of our extraordinary animals. Where else in Denver could you go to see such a diverse and eclectic group of subjects? In addition to our living, breathing and flourishing animals, Denver Zoo has many bronze animal sculptures positioned throughout our campus.

I don’t want to leave out our resident animal art enthusiasts! Each year, a select few of our most promising, up-and-coming animals take brush in hand (or beak) to express their creativity on canvas. These masterpieces are then showcased during Denver Arts Week, where people enthusiastically bid on them during an online auction. I’m fortunate to have these great works of arts hanging on my office wall and in my home.

Even our new exhibits are planned with an artistic flair. The architecture of The Edge, which is our tiger exhibit opening this summer, was designed to not only be an exceptional new home for our magnificent Amur tigers, but to provide our guests the opportunity to see their athleticism up close, in an environment that mimics their native habitat. Curved metals and perforated walls will be sculptural in appearance and are meant to enhance activity for tigers. We are excited to see how both our guests and tigers will react to them.

How are you working to grow your audience?

We are always looking for ways to engage our guests and open their minds to the wonders of nature and wildlife. As I mentioned earlier, traveling exhibits have become one of many ways to attract visitors, promising a new experience each time they pass through our gates.

Interactive experiences are what really make an impact, so we have implemented many opportunities for guests to get up close and personal. For instance, we introduced our giraffe-feeding platform and our “Be a Zookeeper Zone” last year, where visitors can get eye to eye with some of the animals that call Denver Zoo home. The Edge tiger exhibit will be another opportunity for people to appreciate the magnitude of standing close to a tiger as it passes by, or looking up to see one gracefully sauntering through an enclosed walkway overhead.

Since our Master Plan was approved last year, we are eagerly looking forward to all of the amazing exhibits, educational opportunities and experiences that are on the horizon. We can’t wait to share it all with our guests, both Coloradans and those who travel to our great state.
Find out more about Shannon Block and the Denver Zoo at denverzoo.org.

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