Jennifer Melton was a founding member of Zip 37, when the fledgling artist co-op joined Pirate: Contemporary Art and Edge Gallery on the 3600 block of Navajo Street in north Denver 23 years ago. In her estimation, Zip 37 has changed very little since then, outside of the ongoing parade of artists coming and going over more than two decades.
“From my point of view, I think we’d want to be remembered as being accessible, though that’s kind of a boring word to use,” Melton says. “Compared to a lot of those angst-ridden artists out there, we’ve always had a rather happy, upbeat atmosphere at Zip 37 — more so than a lot of galleries. We have a kind of homeyness, a pleasant, homespun feel.”
That might well be Zip 37’s legacy in the coming years. The gallery, named Best Place to Buy Affordable Art in the Best of Denver 2018, is shutting its doors for good on Sunday, August 26. But unlike the other galleries that left Navajo Street after rents were raised last year and found new homes in Lakewood, Zip members have decided that they will not be resurrecting their homey, friendly co-op.
As Zip member Patricia Cronin explains, “Most of us are older and have paid our knock-out-walls-and-drywall dues.”
Ironically, Melton was also a founding member of Pirate, which once stood as the lone gallery in what later became the Navajo Street Art District, where it was joined not just by Zip 37, but the buccaneers of Edge, Next and the Bug Theatre, which all brought community — and art-goers — to the block. “Originally when Pirate moved there, we were the only gallery on the block,” she remembers. “But then the others joined in, and we all became a group. When everyone else left, that was a tough loss. We became our lonely selves. At first we hoped other art people would come in to the block, but that didn’t happen.”
To add to Zip 37’s misery, Patsy’s Inn, an old-style Italian eatery across the street, closed two years ago, cutting foot traffic in the neighborhood. The restaurant stood empty until Acova opened in the space earlier this summer, but Melton says traffic still didn’t pick up at the gallery.
In choosing to hold down the fort on Navajo Street, Zip 37 members agreed to sign a higher — and risky — triple-net lease that, on top of a fixed monthly rental fee, included estimated variables for maintenance and property taxes. When their lease ran out four months ago, they were hit with a staggering reconsideration of actual costs for those variables, amounting to a nearly $4,300 bill they’d have to pay, whether they signed a new lease or not. Given that co-ops often struggle with finances and theirs were flying out of control, members agreed that re-upping wasn’t expedient.
“There've been tears,” Melton admits. “It’s been especially disappointing for new members who’ve been working so hard on getting a show together and will never have the chance to see it go up. We made the unhappy decision to give up rather than trying to relocate.”
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She’s confident that some departing members will find new opportunities. “They are all good people and artists,” she says. “I think they’ll all keep going in some way or another.”
But not before the wake. On Friday, August 24, from 6 to 9 p.m., Zip 37 members and friends will gather for a good-natured sendoff in the true spirit of the gallery. “We’ll be upbeat,” Melton promises. “It’s not tragic. We’re not dying. It’ll be a chance to get together in the same setting, just to be with people who've been around over the years.” The gallery will remain open for a blowout sale on Saturday and Sunday, and then it’s kaput.
Melton is philosophical. “Some people ask why this has to happen, but things are not under our control. Personally, for the whole 23 years, it’s done a lot for me to be with these people at Zip Gallery," she says. “You think it’s just business, but it turns out to be a lot more personal, and I’m glad for that. This stuff’s always gonna happen, and you just have to pull yourself up and focus on good stuff.”
Melton quotes a framed haiku by seventeenth-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide that she keeps in her studio: “‘Barn’s burnt down — now I can see the moon.’ Maybe that’s also true of Zip 37,” she concludes. “Maybe something good like that will happen later.”