Denver is a do-it-yourself town. The people who headed west after the gold discoveries in 1858 and 1859 were definitely DIY, determined to make new lives for themselves in the great unknown. When their claims didn’t pan out, some shifted course and became merchants, stocking supplies and offering services for the fortune-seekers who kept coming. Others began building up Colorado’s new towns along the Front Range, serving the ranchers and entrepreneurs who kept coming (and, yes, taking the land of the real natives in the process). When the railroad was going to skip Denver in favor of Cheyenne, Denver boosters (including disgraced territorial governor John Evans, who’d set the stage for the Sand Creek Massacre) built their own branch line. A century and a half later, another transplant who first came to the public’s attention with his DIY brewpub is governor of Colorado (and two years ago, John Hickenlooper apologized to the descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre on behalf of the state).
For generations, the metro area has drawn artists and other aesthetic explorers, people who want to make their mark — people every bit as daring as prospectors and brewmasters and politicians, but rarely as high-profile...or highly compensated. Artists have been at the vanguard, creating their work wherever — and however — they could. As early as 1904, photographer Charles Lillybridge (whose work is currently up at the History Colorado Center) opened his “scenic photographer’s studio” in a squatter’s shack beside the South Platte River. Through the years and all over Denver, artists have patched together makeshift studios in the cheapest, least-desirable parts of town — only to have to move on when their artistic contributions made those areas so desirable and valuable that artists could no longer afford them. Before it became LoDo, lower downtown was full of artists, who ultimately surrendered their spaces to pricey loft projects and sports bars; they moved on to Santa Fe Drive, Highland, South Broadway and, finally, the River North neighborhood.
In 2005, two artists pushed to turn that dusty old industrial area into the official RiNo Art District, already home to a number of unofficial studios and galleries and DIY spaces, including Rhinoceropolis, an all-ages performance venue at 3553 Brighton Boulevard that had opened that same year and quickly became the heart of Denver’s underground scene. Like so many places in RiNo over the past decade, though, the building that houses Rhinoceropolis was purchased by a developer with big plans — but at least the landlord agreed to let the venue stay on until those plans came to fruition, perhaps even a few years.
And then came the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, and a sudden visit to Rhinoceropolis by members of the Denver Police Department and Denver Fire Department, which determined that the building violated several fire codes and was unsafe, not to mention not permitted as a residence — so the people living there were evicted, and both Rhinoceropolis and nearby Glob were closed pending improvements. By last week, a GoFundMe campaign to cover those improvements had passed the $10,000 goal, but the artists who’d lived there, who’d helped put the art in the RiNo Art District, were left out in the cold.
In 2005, the same year Rhinoceropolis was founded, Westword created the MasterMind awards, a program that every year gives no-strings-attached cash awards to this city’s artistic adventurers, arts organizations and individuals who are changing the cultural landscape of Denver. Over the years, we’ve delivered over $150,000 to a total of 56 DIY do-gooders — and now we’re making an emergency grant of $2,000 to the ousted occupants of Rhinoceropolis/Glob, the recipients of our 57th MasterMind award.“They’ve sacrificed so much to give our community safe spaces to express and share in one another’s creativity,” says Kim Shively, a filmmaker and 2014 MasterMind who’s leading a fundraising charge.
Meanwhile, the RiNo Art District, whose founders share a 2008 MasterMind winner, is working to create another fund that DIY spaces will be able to tap into for repairs — before the city shuts them down. “We must start giving artists their fair due,” says Jamie Licko, president of the art district.“They should be supported and celebrated as culture makers and shapers. Cultural institutions like Rhinoceropolis
must have a home here in Denver if we want to truly be a first-class city with a creative soul."
At the start of the new year, we’ll begin hunting for the 2017 class of MasterMinds; members will be announced at Artopia 2017, Westword's annual celebration of the arts, on February 25 at City Hall. We hope we can celebrate with them at a reopened Rhinoceropolis, too.
Keep reading for our roster of MasterMinds.
Jeromie Lawrence Dorrance/Dateline Gallery
Mar Williams/Cabal Enterprises
Kalyn Heffernan/Wheelchair Sports Camp (Royalty Free Haiti)
Anthony Garcia Sr./Birdseed Collective
DeeDee Vicory/D’Lola Couture
Eric Dallimore/Leon Gallery
Karen Lausa/Words Beyond Bars
Ietef Vita/DJ Cavem
Counterpath Press and Bookstore/Julie Carr and Tim Roberts
GroundSwell Gallery/Danette Montoya and Rebecca Peebles
Nix Bros./Evan and Adam Nix
Kitty Mae Millinery/Susan Dillon
Ken Arkind/Minor Disturbance
Lance Stack/Flat Response
Brian Freeland/LIDA Project
The Denver Voice
Creative Music Works
RiNo/Jill Hadley Hooper and Tracy Weil
Art From Ashes
Tony Shawcross/Deproduction/Denver Open Media
The Fabric Lab/Josh and Tran Wills
Dragon Daud, aka Dave Denney
Cafe Nuba/Ashara Ekundayo
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy
Emerging Filmmakers Project @ Bug Theater
Denver Zine Library
Hey, MasterMinds! We're looking for you! Send your best e-mail address to [email protected], or just post it in the comments section.