The new Space Gallery went from prefab to fabulous

Though Denver's art world can trace its roots back to the late nineteenth century — the Denver Art Museum, for example, was founded in 1893 — it has only reached critical mass since the dawn of the 21st. The most obvious evidence of this was the construction of the DAM's Hamilton Building and of MCA Denver's new home in the mid-2000s; both were momentous events that raised the city's art profile nationally and internationally.

In the ensuing years, dozens of new galleries have opened. In particular, Santa Fe Drive, one of the city's top art districts, has seen a lot of gallery expansion, especially in the past few months. Two new galleries in the 700 block, both with the potential to be noteworthy, have come online across the street from one another. The Michael Warren Gallery — located in the former Sandy Carson/van Straaten space — is a partnership of Michael McClung and Warren Campbell. And in the shop vacated by Space Gallery, former Space assistant Frank Martinez and partner Michael Vacchiano have opened Point Gallery.

But the biggest news on Santa Fe involves the aforementioned Space, which has just unveiled its brand-new, custom-designed building — and it is fabulous. Galleries typically occupy repurposed retail, commercial or industrial buildings, like Michael Warren and Point do, so a structure specifically created to display and sell art is pretty rare here; William Havu Gallery and Plus Gallery are the only other architect-designed art venues in Denver.

Founded in 2001 by Michael Burnett, Space began in LoDo before moving to Santa Fe a decade ago. In 2010, Burnett decided that he and his wife and partner, Melissa Snow, needed to buy a building. They approached the owners of their location (where Point is now), but they were not interested in selling. Burnett and Snow then looked at an existing building down the block, but a long-term lease holder (John Fielder) made that location unfeasible. Next, the couple talked to their neighbor, architect Owen Beard of Solid Design, about designing a new building, and the decision was made to do just that. Though Beard's specialty is luxury residences, his new Space Gallery is decidedly not homey — but rather aloof and very elegant.

From the exterior, the new Space, a chic neo-modernist design, is an eye-dazzler, commanding the northeast corner of Fourth Avenue and Santa Fe. The building was originally intended to be an industrial shed — the kind of thing you might see along I-70 as it crosses Commerce City — because it was acquired as a pre-engineered structure in a kit. Beard then conceived of a new envelope in which to wrap the exterior, using the structural elements as they were meant to be — with some tweaks. But he completely re-conceived the way the cladding materials were to be used, and he added many elements.

On the brow of the hill, and set on a cast-in-place concrete podium that has constructivist elements, Space looms large as you whiz up Santa Fe from the south. It is exaggeratedly horizontal in form, rising two stories and topped by a flat roof. Most of the first floor facing Santa Fe is a glass-and-steel curtain-wall that's recessed beneath the cantilevered second floor. The rest of the Santa Fe side and most of the rest of the first-floor walls have been carried out with concrete panels held in place by vertical steel bars and punctuated here and there by doors. The second floor is clad in ribbed-steel sheets that came with the kit, but Beard reoriented them so that the ribs run horizontally instead of vertically, as originally intended. The second floor is enlivened by a seemingly random pattern of small windows, all but one of which is horizontal, with the vertical one indicating the main entrance right below it.

At the south end of the building, one quadrant has been left in skeletal form to provide a partial enclosure for a sculpture garden. Beard has used the ribbed-steel panels to clad the tops of the skeletal passage, so that it functions as an entablature located just below the roofline. Below that are steel beams set in a horizontal stack, filling in the space that's aligned with the other second-floor walls. The sculpture garden is further delineated by a minimalist fence done by Tyler Aiello, which wraps around the three exposed sides. The garden is currently installed with a group of monumental constructivist sculptures by Stephen Shachtman. (I'll bet Burnett is looking to add some sculptors to his roster now that the gallery has this great place to show three-dimensional work, something it never had before.)

For the exterior, Beard took what was supposed to be one of the most prosaic and degraded building types imaginable — one of those prefab steel abominations — and used its parts to create something monumental. It's a building that establishes itself at a glance as being an important destination, in the same way that MCA Denver, by David Adjaye, and the Clyfford Still Museum, by Brad Cloepfil, do. It's quite an accomplishment for a virtually unknown, emerging architect like Beard to stand up to the likes of Adjaye and Cloepfil, but I think, with Space, that he does.

The functional interior, designed by Beard with consultation from Burnett, includes an impressive and enormous double-height exhibition space, which can be subdivided with movable walls. Surely the most remarkable feature of the interior is the heavy-metal grand staircase set parallel to the front windows. The stairs are made of sheets of steel, with square, tubular steel used for the railings. The whole thing was executed by Morgan Briskey's Elemental Design. The staircase leads to the overhanging mezzanine, which is used for exhibiting artworks, as well, and to the rest of the second floor. (There's a very nice back staircase, too, also by Briskey.)

The first and second floors both have an assortment of offices and studios, some of which have been drafted into duty for displaying art, at least temporarily. Even in its old location, Space was a popular spot for special events, even garnering national publicity for its marijuana-themed private parties. Though the pot parties might make the papers, the mainstays of the event schedule are weddings and large parties, and the new place has many features aimed at satisfying the needs of hosts and invitees, including facilities for caterers and a raft of bathrooms.

The inaugural exhibit is simply called Space Gallery Grand Opening, and to put it together, Burnett included examples of work by every artist associated with Space, including painters and printmakers, several of whom will be familiar to those who attended shows over the years at the old Space. As might be expected, it's a sprawling, free-associational show (to say the least). But it does reveal the predominant aesthetic of the gallery: contemporary abstraction. Aside from a handful of figurative artists, just about everyone is creating abstracts, and all of them are done to a high standard, with many knockout pieces included in this first effort in these digs.

The new Space Gallery is a real game-changer on the commercial-gallery scene, and even if the building were not as gorgeous as it is, it would still be a venue to be reckoned with: Space is now one of the largest exhibition spaces this side of an art center. Including the basement — but excluding the sculpture garden — the gallery is some 10,000 square feet! This first exhibit, though well installed, was a little hurriedly put together, and the placement of the temporary walls hasn't yet been perfected. But these issues aside, this is one place that everyone needs to see as soon as possible.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia