In the '60s and '70s, Colorado was a jewel in the crown of hippiedom. Communes popped up, granola and grass were available — and then there was the regional capital, Boulder. Is it why we were the first state to fully legalize marijuana? Maybe — but one thing is certain: It launched Denver's alternative art scene, which is still going strong. In 1979, a bunch of Boulder bohemians rented a storefront in northwest Denver that became Spark Gallery, the city's first artist cooperative, and in the intervening decades, those kids with disheveled hair became veteran artists. RetroActive: Founding Spark recalled those early days; it was presented at Pirate: Contemporary Art (another early co-op that opened right after Spark) and mounted by Rule Gallery — precisely the kind of community-mindedness the hippies promoted. Among those included in the show were Clark Richert, Jerry Johnson, Richard Kallweit, Charles DiJulio, George Woodman, Andy Libertone, Paul Gillis and Margaret Neumann. Denver's vibrant contemporary-art world of today owes a big debt of gratitude to this groovy crowd.

Last summer was Matt Scobey's season. Not only was his floor piece in Denver's Biennial of the Americas one of the genuine standouts in the event, but his solo at Leon Gallery, The Essence, was one of the strongest shows of the year. In it, Scobey played with art history in a set of chaste post-minimal boxes and a group of brutalist totems. Each type of work employed cast concrete as its principal medium. The boxes, titled "Vibe Transmitters," were placed on wooden stands of different heights. They had three separate parts: a transparent colored acrylic sheet through which light emitted was sandwiched between a concrete base and a concrete top. As good as these were, they were overshadowed by Scobey's even better non-objective totems, also in concrete. Some of them were made from casts of discarded items, like soda bottles or cut-up basketballs, but surely the best were those composed of purely geometric shapes, including pyramids, cones and solid rectangles. In these, Scobey consciously referred to Brancusi's "Bird in Space" and "Endless Column," and he clearly couldn't go wrong with that.

Last summer, the new mobile exhibition venue Black Cube was launched by Laura Merage, the founder of RedLine, who chose Cortney Lane Stell to run it. Black Cube plans to sponsor pop-up events beyond Denver; the goal is ultimately to travel the country in a big black box. A standout among the initial Black Cube offerings was Derrick Velasquez: New Brutal, a captivating architectonic installation last winter. For New Brutal, Velasquez erected a tower in the gutted interior of the under-construction Stanley Marketplace, at the east end of Stapleton. The tower, which rose to 25 feet, was made of two-by-fours covered with fake wood panels adorned with plastic ornamentation. Open voids standing in for windows allowed viewers to see into the lighted interior. During the course of the show, Velasquez added more and more details, making the cheaply built tower even more pretentious by the end than it had been at the beginning. It was something like a parody of a Venetian palazzo by way of Home Depot, effortlessly ridiculing the pompous and tawdry new buildings now changing the face of Denver.

The Colorado Photographic Arts Center has gone through a number of ups and downs since its founding in 1963 as an advocacy group for fine-art photography, but things have probably never been worse than they were six months ago. Two things were happening: The organization had been told that it needed to vacate its cramped and unworkable space in Highland, with the property owner wanting to go in another direction, and then CPAC director Rupert Jenkins announced that he was leaving town and giving up his post. So CPAC had no space to move to and no director to help find one, though boardmembers were already looking. In September, CPAC brought on a new director, Samantha Johnston. At that time, the word was out that Ironton Gallery would be closing, and the handsome space it occupied was up for rent. You can see the happy ending coming: CPAC unveiled its much more serviceable headquarters in the former gallery in February. And there was even a bonus, as an artist in an adjacent studio had moved out, allowing CPAC to take over that space for its offices.

Just over ten years ago, in 2005, Design Council, a support group for the Architecture, Design and Graphics department at the Denver Art Museum, launched an annual fundraiser held in the dead of winter called Design After Dark. Almost immediately, it became an absolute must-attend event for Denver-area architects, designers and artists, as well as many of their clients. This year's version, titled "Amass" and held last month in an empty roller-skating rink on South Broadway — yes, weird locations are a standard feature of the event — attracted a huge, glittering crowd heavily larded with the hip and the impeccably dressed. Organizers had invited artists and others to contribute works, some of which were spectacular, to be sold for the fundraiser. Participating artists included the likes of Ravi Zupa, Matt Scobey, Jeanne Quinn, Jaime Molina, David Kremer, Blanca Guerra and Phil Bender. The stylishness of the DAD party would seem to reflect the stylishness of the department's curator, Darrin Alfred, but he passes off credit for the event's success to the hardworking Design Council committee charged with putting it together.

designafterdark.denverartmuseum.org

It may be a coincidence, but many top companies staged one-act evenings in the past year. These ranged from the hilarious Murder for Two at the Garner Galleria — which specializes in lighthearted, after-work entertainment — to the wistful one-woman musical Tell Me on a Sunday at the Avenue. There was also the Denver Center's Fade, a thoughtful play about class, race and identity in Hollywood, and Edge's heart-stopping production of the tragedy Medea — which definitively proved that you can get as much emotional, poetic and intellectual punch from a short evening as you can from a long one. If you're looking for a cheerful night out, something thoughtful to chew on or a jolt of culture that still leaves enough time for a late-evening drink or dinner — or just an early night at home — the theater world has you covered.

Curious Theatre Company

It's getting absurdly hard to park your car when visiting downtown theater venues. There are evenings when you find yourself racing to the Denver Center from a faraway parking lot, only to arrive ten minutes late anyway. Parking is even tight these days for more far-flung venues like Miners Alley in mellow downtown Golden. But somehow it's never necessary to leave home extra early for a play at Curious. Get there on time or only a little early, and you'll find parking comfortably close in the lot opposite the theater.

The Edge Theater Company

The narrow strip mall outside is unappealing, but once you've walked into the Edge Theater itself, you're in a different world — brightly colored, with original works of art displayed to your left and a busy bar to your right, the entire lobby milling with cheerful people. Behind the desk, there's often an actor or director you recognize who seems to know every patron by name. Your fellow theater-goers tend to be equally friendly. You can start a conversation with something as obvious as, "Do you come to the Edge often?" or, "What have you seen here that you liked?" And if you're so inclined, you can continue the discussion over a beer at intermission.

Phamaly Theatre Company

Cabaret wouldn't be a risky choice for most theater companies — the show has been around a while, and its shock value has faded. But for Phamaly, composed of actors with a variety of disabilities, this musical about the dissolute life activities in Berlin's Kit Kat Klub in the years leading up to World War II represented a huge challenge. Performers were asked to writhe, pose, embrace and strut their sexiest stuff on stage in skin-baring costumes, and they did it with beautiful, no-holds-barred panache.

Avenue Theater

The Avenue Theater is a part of Denver history, a friendly, cozy, well-situated venue that's been around for over twenty years. But for several seasons there's been a sense of drift, and the offerings on stage have been wildly uneven — serious plays, comic sketches, shows that didn't seem to know whether they were serious or comic. John Ashton ran the place from 1990 to 2005 — overseeing a period when it changed location — then sold it, but remained involved in various capacities. And now, after a period of churn, Ashton has taken over as executive director. His first season began with a professionally produced rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me on a Sunday, and the rest of the year looks just as promising, with David Mamet's hilarious — and very aptly timed — political sendup November; and Bakersfield Mist, a hit on Broadway that starred Kathleen Turner, about an unemployed bartender who thinks she's found a genuine Jackson Pollock painting and the arrogant, erudite art expert sent to authenticate it.

Best Of Denver®

Best Of