The unassuming cinder block building at 100 Santa Fe Drive occupies a colorful niche in Denver history. "It used to be a bar that had a secret brothel," explains Ricardo Baca, CEO of Grasslands, the cannabis- and psychedelics-focused marketing and PR company that's now housed there.
The building is currently seeing its legacy raised from covert brothels to Biome, Denver's new fine arts biennial that Baca founded with friend Jason Diminich. Marketing companies aren't necessarily known for mounting art events, but Baca has been wanting to bring this passion project to life since before he founded Grasslands in 2016. "This has always been the goal: fine art," Baca says. "Up until we got there, this has been a place to expand our personal art collection."
That collection has Grasslands brimming with art: A serape-patterned mural by artist Carlos Frésquez decorates a bar area, and there's a poster by Shepard Fairey along with photography and mixed media by Denver-based artist Josh Palmeri. A custom-made mezcal cart with cowhide details is a functional work of art in its own right, as is Baca's grandmother's pink refrigerator, which was refurbished into a wine cooler and temperature-controlled cannabis stash.
Born and raised in Denver, Baca hit the silver screen as the subject of the 2015 documentary Rolling Papers, which follows his career as a cannabis editor at the Denver Post after he moved over from music editor. He says his "obsession" with biennials began in the ’90s, when he had just graduated from college and stumbled upon the Venice Biennale while traveling in Europe.
"It's been one of the most important friendships of my adult life," Baca says of Diminich. "He has significantly more background in art. And one day I was like, 'Hey, man, I have this thing I've always wanted to do. I can't do it by myself; I could never succeed. You somehow have the perfect skill set to come with in mind. What do you think?'"
Diminich remembers the moment well: They were on a COVID camping trip with their wives in 2020, and he recalls that they could not stop rattling off ideas and ideal artists. "One of the things about Ricardo and I is we're both dreamers," he says. "And we're both fortunate to have very tight partners to keep us grounded."
They worked throughout 2021 to make their vision a reality. Biome's mission is "to celebrate fine art through inclusivity and community," similar to how its namesake promotes growth in a contained ecosystem through elements that support each other — and as they planned the first event, the pair turned to the community for advice. Diminich spoke with various artists before creating the entry application: "I was asking what their best exhibiting experiences were to the worst."
They mounted Biome 001 in March and Biome 002 in July, and while Baca says their goal has never been "money or bodies in the building," the initial events were definitely a success. "We were both kind of blown away," he adds, "because we're working our networks and we're inviting our friends and our communities, and then some of the people who came out [included] some interesting power players in art as well as some very interesting old-school community art players and community members."
Biome will celebrate its grand opening on Friday, September 16. Biome 003 has a theme suited to its Grasslands sponsor: "Set and Setting," a concept coined by psychologist and psychedelic advocate Timothy Leary to illustrate that your mindset and surroundings are important to consider before you indulge in hallucinogens. "There were some artists who understood the concept when it comes to the psychedelic world. Other folks took it in more [as] looking at the natural world, and we have a lot of folks who have their own internal Set and Setting mindset. So we have a wide array of multi-disciplinary fine art across the gamut," Diminich says.
Sarah Darlene Palmeri, Marissa "Revery" Napoletano, Mario Zoots, Madelyn Hadel, Elle Hong and Jasmine Holmes. They were selected by Denver-based jurors Lares Feliciano, a Puerto Rican interdisciplinary artist with RedLine; Kalyn Heffernan, the disability-rights activist and founding member of hip-hop group Wheelchair Sports Camp; and artist Tony Ortega, a recipient of the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts and a professor at Regis University.
"We thought it was so important to have jurors from diverse communities, because we have an aesthetic, but we're also two able-bodied, cis-gender, male-identifying folks. ... The ultimate final call should be people from the community," Diminich explains. "One of the things I heard from a lot of the folks I was interviewing and talking to is that, like in any scene, there are the darlings, and you tend to see a lot of saturation of folks. And so a lot of folks are saying, 'I'd love to get in a space with diversity, gender expression and civility, culture and creativity.'"
Baca credits Diminich with helping to facilitate Biome's open and accessible ethos as the biennial's director. Diminich, who taught theater at a public school in Queens for a decade and was nominated for a Tony Award in 2015 for excellence in theater education, knows from experience that the arts are just as important to those with disabilities: Although his mother was blind and deaf and his father was deaf, they always made an effort to raise him surrounded by art and music. He lost them both to COVID.
"We went to tons of Broadway shows; we'd always go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York," he recalls. "Two folks living with disabilities were paying so much to send us all over to art galleries that they weren't really experiencing themselves. It's something that I've never lost. ... Immediately, with Biome, I was like, 'We need to create something that's accessible.' The mission is [to] create communal experiences, where the community can be in contact with professional artists, with folks who maybe might be otherwise priced out."
While going over the artists' work with them individually, Diminich says each one associated the word "memory" with their respective pieces. "We have a phenomenal artist, Elle Hong. They're a transgender dancer and video artist, and they have created a piece which will be displayed that is really putting themselves out there. It's a beautiful piece," Diminich says, adding that Hong was nervous about displaying the movement-based video installation at first. Biome, he notes, is meant to empower that kind of vulnerability.
"Another major component is each artist's workshop," he says. "Before our closing [at the end of 2023], we have quarterly events, different types of workshops on topics from collage to meditation. There are lots of interesting pieces, which are going to be both displayed and an experience."
The next cohort will be assembled in 2024 for exhibition in 2025. And while Grasslands will always be the official host of Biome, Baca is quick to note that the two are separate.
"We hope that Biome eventually expands beyond these four walls — the next biennial, maybe. I think it's definitely going to happen," he concludes. "I'm so proud of what we're doing right now on a shoestring, completely self-funded. We're normal people who have normal means. I feel fortunate to have started a business that has allowed me to gather a little bit of a nest egg to say, 'Let's pull the trigger and let's fuckin' do it.'"
Biome 003, Biennial Grand Opening, 7 p.m. Friday, September 16, Grasslands, 100 Santa Fe Drive, free. To find workshops and more information, visit artbiome.com.