Phil Bender

Denver's art scene has witnessed momentous changes over the last twenty years, including the establishment of a contemporary-art department at the Denver Art Museum and the tremendous expansion of both public and commercial gallery scenes. But the most important development was the rise of the alternative spaces, which grew into hothouses where some of the best contemporary artists in the city have been nurtured--a happy circumstance that continues to this day.

Although Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis was not the first artists' co-operative in Denver, over the years it has been the most important and influential. And no one has been more responsible for Pirate's ongoing success than conceptual artist Phil Bender, its founder, president and co-director. Like Pirate, Bender has become a Denver institution--despite the thick Texas drawl he displayed during the following interview.

Westword: What first brought you to Denver?
Bender: I moved to Denver in '75 from Dallas. We [Bender and first wife Jennifer Melton] came up on a ski trip to Monarch. Jennifer had a job offer here, which didn't pan out. I figured that I could meet new friends at school, so I enrolled at Metro. Pirate kind of evolved out of the people I met there.

Westword: When did Pirate open?
Bender: We opened on January 1, 1980.
Westword: Who were the original members?

Bender: Including me, and I am definitely the founder and instigator, there were seven of us--Jennifer, Paul Schrsder, Rene Silverberg, Marie Foster, Georgianne Scholz and Jack Jensen. Jennifer was the only non-art student...no other founding members are still involved. Paul left and then came back and left again. Jack applied a few years ago but was rejected. He's an abstract artist, and except for Tree [Laurita], we don't have any abstract artists. It's just our group taste that's evolved.

Westword: Why was Pirate created?
Bender: It was just to have a place to show our work, because at the time, there were few galleries in town, and we were nobodies. I graduated from school in '79. When I was in school, there were opportunities to show my work in student shows, but when I graduated, I thought, "What am I going to do?" Years before, I had tried to open an alternative space in Dallas, so it was still on my mind. Then a guy had a studio in that piano building that used to be at 13th and Broadway, and he was moving out. This was about the time that Spark opened, but I hadn't even heard about it. The rent was $70 a month, so for only $10 apiece, we could put on our own shows. It really was just like the Little Rascals--"I know a place, let's put on a show." But the guy wound up keeping the studio, and it took us six months to find another place. So that's how it started--some guy was giving up his studio.

Westword: Where did you eventually open?
Bender: We rented a couple of rooms above the Kabuki Lounge at 16th and Market. This was before the mall, but we knew it was coming; we were only there a year, and then we were forced out by developers. Then we moved across from Ken Peterson's gallery, the 15th Street Gallery, at 15th and Central. There are condos there on the corner now; the original building burned down. At the time [1981], there were several galleries on 15th Street between Central and Boulder: Core 317, the River Gallery, which was run by Carol Keller, the Colorado Graphic Arts Center, Peterson's place, us. People called it the Greenwich Village of Denver. There were shlock galleries in Denver then, but there were few contemporary galleries. Speculators ran everyone off, the buildings were vacant, and then they burned down. We opened in our current location in February of 1982.

Westword: Why the name Pirate?
Bender: The idea of the logo, the skull and crossbones, was very appealing. Before Pirate, I had the Denver Dada Club, and we set up a booth at the old Bonanza flea market. I found a plastic pirate flag and put it on the table--plus, when I was four or five, I had a photo taken of me in a pirate costume. We kept the membership level at thirteen for a long time because it was interesting with the logo. This was eventually dropped, because financially, we needed more members--at some point it went to eighteen. It really pisses me off when artists don't use the logo on their invitations.

Westword: When did Pirate take off?
Bender: I think it took off the day it opened. I was glad when the first person came to an opening. Glad when the first person saw something they liked.

Westword: But when did it become the place to be?
Bender: Almost immediately, in March of 1980, Westword did a good-sized article about us. We've gotten more press from Westword over the years than from anywhere else, which has got to have helped. Nancy [Clegg, now called Renna Shesso] wrote about us all the time. Also, I remember Max Price [former Denver Post art critic], one of the big guys, coming down the hall and felt we'd made it. I don't remember when the DAM people found us. Also, we had fun with parties, events, concerts. The non-art things we did raised our visibility.