Robert Gray moved to Denver in 2017, in part for Colorado's weed. Growing up in the Midwest — first Chicago and later Milwaukee — he knew that being caught with cannabis in a state where the plant was illegal could come with legal consequences he didn't want to risk. He quickly found work in the cannabis industry here, first as a budtender at Starbuds, then as a sales representative and, later, a community engagement specialist at Craft Extracts, a position that introduced him to the world of marijuana marketing.
During his time in the notoriously un-diverse cannabis industry, Gray, who is Black, encountered racist behavior. He was called the N-word during his first week as a budtender, and although the incident was addressed, Gray recognized that this state's marijuana industry has a long way to go when it comes to inclusion and social equity.
Incorporating his love of art with his marketing knowledge, Gray is now at the intersection of marketing, street art and cannabis. The founder of Rob the Art Museum — a business that connects local artists with companies looking to incorporate visual art into their brand — he's also the chief marketing officer for IRL Art, a similar organization. Rob the Art Museum offers a rotating art subscription program featuring local artists and has connected businesses with muralists; it also curated the Black Love Mural Festival that displayed work by twenty Black artists in Civic Center Park over the summer. At IRL Art, Gray has helped organize immersive art events such as the Acoma Street Project. Although he no longer works exclusively in marijuana, he continues to connect with many cannabis companies, keeping his industry roots firmly planted.
Westword caught up with Gray to learn more about the cannabis industry’s connection to art and how Gray found himself in the marketing, art and weed niche.
Westword: Your name is Robert, but Rob the Art Museum is not named after you. What’s the story behind the marketing collective’s name?
Robert Gray: It first came about when I was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and they built a new art museum. I used to go there as a place of refuge from all the chaotic things happening in my neighborhood, but it wasn’t a very popular place. Milwaukee isn’t a small town, but if you go to Walmart, you’re going to see somebody you know; if you go to the park you’re going to see somebody you know. But at the art museum, I never saw people I knew. I would go there, and it would make me feel better. I was my happy place, and I wanted to share that joy with people in my neighborhood.
I looked at the price tags [of the art], and I couldn’t afford to buy pieces off the wall of the art museum; it was twenty dollars a person to get in, and I couldn’t afford to bring all my homies from the hood there. So I was like, "Fuck it, I’m just going to rob it." In order to bring this physical reaction, this emotional reaction, this spiritual reaction [to the art] to my community, I would have to rob the art museum. That doesn't mean actually committing a robbery, but to take artwork in and bring it outside of a museum — outside of a secretive place with elitism.
I want to make sure we have that beauty in our neighborhoods. Growing up in the inner city, the most art that I had seen was gang tags in alleyways and album art on my iPod shuffle.
You are something of a cannabis refugee — a person who came to Colorado in part for the legal weed market. How much did the above-table marijuana industry bring you to Colorado?
Moving to Colorado, I just wanted to not be pulled over, harassed and possibly killed for having an eighth of weed on me. As a kid, when I kept smoking, I knew I was more likely to get caught if I kept buying eighths, so I started buying larger quantities. I started buying ounces and bigger amounts of weed, and I was just like, "Oh, this is getting too dangerous." As I was getting further into the black market of cannabis, I wanted to venture off and do better.
One day I got a call from my auntie, and she was just crying. I was like, "What’s wrong?" and then she said, "Somebody killed your dad." So I called my older brother who was in Chicago, I got my little brother, and we drove up to Gary, Indiana. We weren’t gonna wait until the police told us what happened. There are a lot of murders where I’m from, and you never know what happened. In Gary, we went to my dad’s house, and he had a bunch of growing equipment from Colorado. He had the receipt for it and it was from Colorado, so I always felt attached to Colorado, I felt like it was a sign, just, this is where I needed to be. It was like, "My dad is gone, but hopefully I can make him proud and make something out of this cannabis world." I just knew I wanted to get to Colorado because my father passed away, and all I needed was that little-itty-bitty sign.
You started as a budtender but ended up working in cannabis marketing. What made you want to change gears?
The opportunity came with a pay increase. When I was doing sales, I was homeless; I was sleeping on a friend’s couch, but I did have a job, a reason to get up and go in the morning. Living in Colorado, even if you have a decent job as a budtender, you can’t afford a house by yourself. So when they [Craft] came to me with a new job, I was like, "Yes, this sounds cool, but I’m going to need a pay increase."
Once I got a bit more money from this higher-paying job, I opened a cannabis-friendly art museum — which was an Airbnb that I rented out. It was four stories with six bedrooms. After I had that for about two months I thought, "Okay, this could actually be something.”
I got fired from Craft in February, and I was just like, "Okay, I don’t want to work for someone else anymore." The two highest-paying jobs that I’ve ever had, I’ve been fired from for some bullshit.
Rob the Art Museum is a marketing collective with an emphasis on visual art. What does that mean? What does your work with the cannabis industry look like?
I don’t work exclusively in the cannabis industry, but because I have grassroots connections to the cannabis industry, I can make those connections [between artists and the industry] when I want. Like with Veritas or Dablogic — I have these connections and I have support from them.
The art subscription program has died down a little since the pandemic, but if dispensaries want to change out their artwork, they can contact me, and I will come install art in their establishment. I have worked with a variety of different places to curate the art — like if it’s a tire business, we will curate car and motorcycle art. Art can be a suggestion to buy something if it’s planned properly. We rotate things out every month, and we work with local artists.
I also do things like the Acoma Street Project, which was the biggest project here in Denver during the pandemic. We were running [the event with about] 250 people a night about four to five nights a week. We had a 5,000 square-foot gallery and we had an outdoor immersive event. We collaborated with the Dairy Block and did their final Fridays, and we did the Black Love Mural Festival at Civic Center Park. We also did a celebration of life for Breonna Taylor; we had live speakers, live performances and a crowd.
I never want to tie myself down to just the cannabis industry since it’s federally illegal; that’s why I call myself a marketing collective with an emphasis on art.
Beyond the obvious connections between cannabis and art — getting high to make and look at art — how is Colorado’s marijuana industry connected to the local art scene?
I don’t feel like there is a huge connection. At least when I first got started, there wasn’t really a place that intertwined the two, and that’s why I started making my pop-up art museums. The one company that I think has been very artistic is Olio. Its packaging is amazing, and it works with many artists to design custom packaging.
But most times — like with packaging, for example — it will be the most basic necessity, just the brand with a logo on it. Or if you go to Cultivated Synergy for a budtender night, they just have foldable tables with an email, lanyards and stickers on it, but with nothing artistic. You might have one live painter, but you’re walking past that and you’re giving them maybe five seconds; it’s not immersive. There aren’t many events where you can consume cannabis and be immersed in art at the same time.”
Corporate social responsibility (the idea that private companies should contribute to the well-being of their communities, often through financial and volunteer efforts) is very big in the cannabis industry; some companies have entire departments dedicated to it. How does supporting the local art community fit into marijuana companies and corporate social responsibility?
I think local artists should be put on the back burner compared to people who have been affected by the War on Drugs — people of color and Black people, in particular. I think that needs to be addressed first, and it is being addressed on a state level with the social equity initiatives that are being rolled out in 2021. So [the cannabis industry] is headed in the right direction, but Colorado is late to that. As someone who has been in the cannabis industry, our social equity program is being rolled out really, really late. So once that problem is solved and the industry has supported the people that the War on Drugs has affected, then I believe it’s nice to be involved in your local artist community, because it’s great for marketing.
But I don’t feel like local artists should be prioritized, because most local artists are white men. There are women, too, but predominantly it’s white men — so if you are prioritizing local artists you are prioritizing white men and creating a cycle where you’re not really helping anyone but the people who are already in positions of power.
How can the cannabis industry support people of color and those affected by the War on Drugs?
Opportunities and education. One of my mentors and business partners is Annie Phillips [owner of IRL Art]. When I first met her, she worked for Meow Wolf, and we met at a dispensary; we had an organic conversation about art and how art should be available to the masses, and then she gave me the opportunity to work with her, and she educated me. She was teaching me things on a daily basis; we would have weekly phone calls where we would just talk about art, and she elevated my knowledge.
She didn’t just teach me things, she offered me paid opportunities, and that’s one way I think we [the cannabis and art industries] can have a direct impact. It’s not enough to just teach someone and then say, "Go figure it out yourself" while you take all the opportunities. You should pick someone up, give them opportunities, teach them and let them learn from their mistakes. Consistency is key: It takes people being persistent and following up with it and being willing to reach their peers when they see someone needs help and helping them out.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.