Spark Gallery, Denver's longest-running artist cooperative, has moved several times since it formed in 1979; it's currently in the Art District on Santa Fe, in the building at 900 Santa Fe Drive that had been the studio of the late Lawrence Argent, the artist behind “I See What You Mean,” aka the Big Blue Bear at the Colorado Convention Center.
A few months back, Spark’s members, along with those of D’art, a contemporary art gallery and artist cooperative founded in 2019, signed five-year leases with Payge Holdings LLC, a landlord they loved that had bought the Argent building. When both galleries were ordered closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, owner Kat Payge, herself an artist, cut them a break on rent for a couple of months until the gallery scene started coming back to life.
But now Payge Holdings is selling the building for $1,800,000, and the artists are hoping they don’t have to move again.
"It’s just a wrenching experience in lots of different ways," says Spark president Barbara Baer, who has experienced the ups and downs of the cooperative model since she first joined as a freshly minted MFA student in the late ’70s; she returned when she was a young mother and again as a late-career artist. "It means rebuilding your attendance numbers. It means doing some renovation on a new, raw space. It’s a really difficult thing to survive.”
Yet Baer is optimistic. It’s customary for new building owners to respect the leases of current tenants, she points out, and if whoever buys it does, Spark will have a few years before it has to worry about finagling a new lease or getting the boot.
"Mainly, we’re very grateful to Kat Payge for having bought the building and ensuring the galleries would stay there," says Carrie MacKenna, co-founder of D'art Gallery. "Our leases are good through August 2024 — both Spark and ours. We’re just going ahead with our programming and planning as if we’re going to be there for the next four years."
The cooperative model — in which artists volunteer to do pretty much everything, from making and hanging the art to running the desk, fundraising, promotions and more — is born from and designed to survive tough economies. Part of what makes cooperatives vital to a city’s creative community is that they provide a much-needed home for non-commercial and experimental work, and the artists involved tend to be scrappy and determined...the sort who will figure it out.
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“I just know art-making is important to all of us,” says Baer. “We’ll never stop doing it, but we love where we are, and we’re hoping that can continue."
MacKenna is hopeful that whoever wants to buy the building will be an art lover who will extend the cooperatives' affordable leases. If that's not the case, though, she worries not just about the fate of the space, but also the future of the Art District on Santa Fe.
"Basically, what this really means for the Art District on Santa Fe is, in 2024, if whoever owns the building decides not to have galleries there, there’s not going to be an arts district on Santa Fe," she says, noting how many galleries have closed along the strip. "There would be too few spaces to make that viable.... The city needs to step in and figure some ways to help the actual galleries and arts venues on the block, or Santa Fe Drive is going to go away."