"One of our guiding principles is to be community-oriented and [community]-minded — we want to have as positive impact as possible," says Walter Chaw, Alamo's vice president of operations and a Denver native. "We're mindful of architecture and footprint. We want to show that we’re not interlopers; we're not parasitic. As part of that conversation, we wanted to have a local artist [build a piece for the Colfax theater exterior]."
The team had seen Osborn's work at the Blake Street RTD station on the A Line, and they liked the way the artist had paid homage to the RiNo neighborhood's industrial roots. Through a partnership with the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA), which funds public art, the Drafthouse brought him on board for the project.
Osborn is an architect who has spent the last few years focusing on art and sculpture, and his work is on display throughout the metro area and the U.S. The Drafthouse piece is his third finished public commission. In addition to the Blake Street work, he has a sculpture at Berkeley Lake Park — and as with his other projects, he did thorough research on the neighborhood as he prepared for the piece. "I feel pretty strongly about having the artwork be specific to a site," says the artist. "For me it was important to have understanding of [the history of Colfax] and knowing that over the years there have been different groups or cultures that have been in that area. Colfax is the gateway to the West. As things are redeveloped in the area around Sloan's Lake, it's important not to lose that sense of history. It's important to try to reference that. It doesn’t have to be literal, but that's where I like to start."
Osborn built a deconstructed movie screen, attempting to harness all the different pieces of the Drafthouse's home neighborhood. "I looked at, in an abstract way, how can I reference some of these different cultures and layers around here. That started to generate the form. There are these undulating, overlapping pieces. It's not really woven, but there's this idea of meshing things together to create something. When you look, I don’t expect people to say, 'Oh, this is about the Jewish or Hispanic community.' That's not my intent. But I hope to invoke a feeling. It's up to interpretation what people get from it."
And then, of course, the screen is a reference to the Drafthouse. "The screen is a nice play on the fact that it’s a cinema," he says. "When I think about a movie screen, you have these ideas projected, and they're constantly changing. I like that concept. You get this series of fragments put together in a composition."
The recognition of the community's diversity synched well with the Drafthouse's sense of bringing together its neighbors in the theater while preserving and contributing to the character of Colfax. "We're passionate about this idea that going to movies is a sacred thing. We do it as a community," says Chaw. "Gathering in a cave in front of flickering light may have been the first way we learned culture. [This piece is] something that represents a place where people gather. There are a lot of diverse pieces, and they'll change as the neighborhood changes, and we want to be part of the community conversation. We want to bring all these pieces together — especially now, when we're so fragmented, separated and and divided. This is a call to grow together rather than grow apart."
In an additional nod to that ongoing conversation, the piece really will physically change as it ages. The steel Osborn used will oxidize and rust in the elements.
Alamo Drafthouse is sensitive to the same pressures of gentrification that Osborn is reacting against. "The idea of gentrification is a tricky topic," says Chaw. "There's a pejorative sense that we’re pushing out the original ownership. The first thing we did when we began construction was to ask all our neighbors for permission to be there. We asked what they wanted, needed and expected from us. I can’t change that this is a new business, but I can welcome in as many people as possible."
To that end, Alamo has a number of initiatives to bolster its community. In addition to public art, and local sourcing of its food and beer, the theater hosts special screenings to raise money for nonprofits, and raising funds for everything from a nearby elementary school to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.
"We're interested in augmenting the communities around us," says Chaw. "We really care about this community. This is where we live and are raising kids. We’ve all chosen to work at the Alamo because it’s more than just working at a movie theater or selling popcorn. There’s real opportunity for good and to influence from our position. Let’s try to do what’s right. Let's try to provide support and opportunity."