There Are No More "First-Ever" Art or Music Festivals in Denver

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The area once known as "that place outside downtown, close to the Coliseum and the Pepsi plant" was christened River North and reconstituted as the River North (RiNo) Art District more than a decade ago — long before real estate began its steady scorch up Brighton Boulevard and the rebranding went into overdrive. Back when the place really was full of artists.

The irony — if it can be called that — is that with the area's transition into a hot real-estate market, the RiNo Art District has become a mostly unaffordable place for actual artists. As RiNo has become populated by live/work spaces, CrossFit gyms, behemoth craft breweries and, much to my surprise, a store selling only extra-virgin olive oil, many of the art galleries, artist studios and performance spaces have been pushed out. Rule Gallery and Hinterland were the area's most recent casualties; the history-packed building that had housed these art spaces will soon be demolished.

A few weeks ago, the area hosted the first RiNo Music Festival — a well-funded event promising to give a glimpse into the "neighborhood's cultural future." It was a perfectly fine festival; plenty of my friends were either participating as artists or working behind the scenes, and I'm all about creative people and those who facilitate creativity getting paid for what they do. But what bothered me was the coverage, which suggested that this festival was the first-ever in the neighborhood, and somehow breaking new ground for art and music. No, dude. That wasn't the case at all. 

The rediscovery of this once-overlooked section of Denver isn't a new phenomenon propelled just by big money in a hot market. Denver is constantly mischaracterized in hopes that we can be Columbused (again and again and again) as we are "discovered." Again. The thing is, no American city was here "first." A big part of Colorado's story — and the story of many other towns that like to feign a sexy outlaw Wild West tale as our only history — is how we took this space from people who were already here. But does that mean it has to keep happening this way? Nope.
This weekend, Fantasia 2016 will fill Rhinoceropolis, Glob and Club Scum, three venues in the RiNo Art District. Fantasia began in 2011 as an installation-and-performance gathering at Rhinoceropolis, and has since grown into an event utilizing the three spaces over three days, featuring different programming and performances each evening. Rhino is the hub; the warehouse has been transformed into a dream world, spearheaded by artist-musician-organizers Madeline Johnston, Colin Ward and Stephan Herrera. Music, film, live hand-poke tattooing, dancing and so much more happen within these modest spaces. Fantasia may not look like what you think a festival should look like — and that's what makes it amazing. There are no beer lines, no VIP passes and no overpriced merchandise, just artists and their art. But it's definitely a festival.

I've been helping put on another festival, this one a music festival, in the RiNo Art District for going on eight years. When Titwrench began in 2009, there was no way we could have done it without the venues that offered to host us: Rhinoceropolis, Glob and Club Scum. I don't mention this as some kind of "I was there, man" ploy; I'm just frustrated when the efforts of artists are ignored. There's room for both well-funded art and music events and DIY art and music events; we don't have to pretend one or the other doesn't exist. In fact, Denver's art and music scene would be much stronger if we could coexist. But that starts with acknowledging the foundation before trying to pour cement all over it. (For a great model of how DIY art and money can come together, check out my piece on Santa Fe's Meow Wolf art complex.)

I understand that DIY art and music communities are transient, often hidden. That's a benefit sometimes; rather than looking for attention, they cater to the community right in front of us. But as the RiNo Art District has come into full view, many DIY events already taking place there have come out of the shadows. Fantasia is no secret; grab a copy of Westword this week and read about it. Titwrench may have had a much harder time getting people to take us seriously because apparently the word "tit" is frightening, but it's been in RiNo for years and will continue to be. Everyone is invited — just don't tell us that we don't exist.
One of the suggestions I hear a lot when I'm talking about the aches and pains of a growing Denver is to "get over it." When I point out the changes in our city that I don't regard as beneficial, I'm often met with the tired, growing-city trope of "what is happening to Denver is happening to places like Oakland, Seattle and San Francisco and has been happening to New York City for a long time." But I don't care if it is happening to other cities. What I care about is Denver. I know Denver. I grew up here. This city raised me. I want it to thrive — and that means not dismissing who and what existed here before our latest boom.

It's ignorant, offensive and rude to pretend that the people who have been making art in a suddenly prosperous area didn't exist before the real estate got hot. There are going to be few, if any, "first-ever"s in Denver in 2016; that adjective is nothing more than hype. If you want to be a part of this city and support what makes it so incredible, get out there and talk to people. Go to art galleries you've never heard of. Go see concerts of local musicians you don't know anything about. Take advantage of our cultural institutions — both mainstream and DIY. Celebrate Denver for the city that she is, not the city she's supposedly "going to be."

There's plenty of room here for more music events, more neighborhood celebrations and more art spaces (many, many more affordable art spaces). Just be sure to acknowledge what's going on here before stamping "first-ever" on an event. Denver will thank you. 

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