Denver's arts and music scene is rich with talented, busy people working to make this city a better place. They bring creativity, a strong sense of social justice, intelligence and a desire to serve the community to everything they do.
Here are nine of the people we plan to watch in Denver art and music in 2021.
Ambassador of Coolorado
Stephen Brackett is proudly “not cool.” At least that’s what he says — though we beg to disagree, because he manages to get an unbelievable amount of cool stuff done for Colorado. Brackett is in constant motion, and where he walks, we’d all be wise to follow.
A graduate of East High School, he gained fame early as part of Flobots, the indie-hip-hop act that had a hit with “Handlebars” and, rather than chase national attention, focused instead on community and getting to work on the activist causes that the act’s members care about much more than clout. Together they launched a nonprofit that eventually became Youth on Record, Colorado’s leading music-education nonprofit.
Unburdened by the need to prove himself and fully willing to embrace the weird, the Flobots MC has spent years fighting for his community: fueling radical movements with love and optimism, building youth programs, championing racial justice. He’s boned up on social movement theory, religious history and cultural studies, and has put that knowledge to work as both an organizer and a musician.
After years of serving on the board of Youth on Record, in 2020 Brackett joined the staff as director of special programs, and in March he was appointed by Governor Jared Polis as Colorado’s second music ambassador. Through this role — and in collaboration with Colorado Creative Industries, the state arts agency, and Take Note Colorado, the nonprofit founded by Governor John Hickenlooper in 2017 with the aim of getting a musical instrument into the hands of every K-12 student in Colorado — Brackett has expanded Youth on Record’s music-education efforts across Colorado. The project will employ working musicians, bridging the too-often-split urban-rural divide and using music to spark critical conversations.
That would be enough. But there’s more.
Brackett is also working with Youth on Record to create its own talent agency, one that will include ongoing education, management and industry opportunities for former students who have graduated from the nonprofit and are trying to make it in an industry that too often siphons intellectual-property rights from artists and exploits them. His hope is that the project can create a better model and a better way forward for emerging musicians.
And that would be enough. But there’s more.
Brackett’s also planning to work with arts organizations throughout Denver to bring performances and cultural opportunities to town. If this idea comes to fruition, theater and music groups will perform short pieces on top of flatbed trucks that travel through neighborhoods and create surprising cultural exchanges — demonstrating that no matter how socially distant we have to be, the arts will be there through it all. The effort follows a project launched in 2020 by the Athena Project and K Contemporary under the #ArtFindsUs banner, and will only grow from there.
And that would be enough. But there’s more.
Brackett has also been busy working on a national campaign for truth, reconciliation and reparations, the sort of process that has helped Rwanda and South Africa heal from racial and cultural violence. The project is being led by women of color from around the country, including leaders in the Movement for Black Lives, the Landback movement and other seasoned organizers who use polling data and high-level campaigns to create change.
“If we’re talking truth and reconciliation, that doesn’t mean some people,” Brackett explains. “We are figuring out how to message and reach those folks who are hostilely against us.”
The work was going on long before the racial-justice protests of summer 2020 and will continue long after. As Brackett sees it, the movement will create a new vision of the American Dream that isn’t just reserved for cis-gender white men.
Brackett has the spirit, intelligence, resilience and longstanding commitment to community to push this movement forward. As with all of his projects, he’s motivated by a radical spirit of love, inclusion and collaboration — even between people who have long viewed each other as enemies.
Says Brackett: “Truth and reconciliation is one of the best ways to address the long-festering wounds of any society and open the way toward a new day of liberation and healing.”
In 2021, the sky’s the limit for Amber Blais, producing director of Rainbow Militia Circus, who says that her dream is to grow wings and fly. We’re surprised she hasn’t already. The circus artist, who has a background in public relations, managed to showcase some of Denver’s best artists in amazing, unexpected performances throughout the past year. And while immersive arts are at risk of becoming mainstreamed, Blais has made sure that the independent spirit is strong in town.
In March, she’ll be working with the immersive-arts company Prismajic, Exdo Events Center, the Circus Foundry and the Black Actors Guild to launch Celestial Chaos. “Inspired by Greek Mythology, the story centers around three gods who know the Earth is coming to an end, and so they endeavor to try to create a brand-new planet,” Blais explains. “They have failed a few times — 345, to be precise, but who’s counting, really? They have brought a few of their godly friends with them and need the audience’s help to determine if this time they actually got it right.”
“Who knows?” Blais responds. “I know that we have phenomenal artists and humans around us, so I am also looking at facing whatever opportunities and challenges come our way — together.”
Making a Mark
If you’ve been in the Denver tattoo or piercing scene for any of the past 25 years, you know the work of Alicia Cardenas. In 1994, at the age of sixteen, she apprenticed at Bound by Design; she started piercing professionally at seventeen. In her early twenties, she co-opened Twisted Sol, a piercing and tattoo studio, and then in 2008, she started Sol Tribe on Broadway.
While other shops offer high-quality tattooing and piercing, Cardenas brings a spiritual, ritualistic focus to her work, rooted in her studies of cultural anthropology and her indigenous heritage. In the years she has been in business, she’s made waves in the body-modification world, through scarring, branding, suspension and more, and has pushed the tattooing and piercing industries to be more culturally responsive and respectful of their indigenous roots, which are too often ignored.
But it’s not just Cardenas’s body-modification work we’re looking forward to watching in 2021; she’s also become a rising presence in Denver’s street-art scene, painting one-of-a-kind murals that take on contemporary cultural struggles through ancient, indigenous iconography and geometric design. The scene, which has become embroiled in fights over gentrification, patriarchy, cultural appropriation and more, and is too often stuck in predictable aesthetics, is due for some fresh energy, styles and politics. Cardenas, who is new to that world yet seasoned as an artist, will be one of the people pushing for innovation and cultural respect.
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Juan Fuentes came to Denver with his family when he was one, and has been calling this place home ever since. Fuentes first dabbled as a DJ and producer in the underground hip-hop and techno scenes; more recently, he built a career as a photographer and artist. Through this work, he’s made his mark in the city, starting the photo archive Old Denver and documenting communities that are being displaced through rapid gentrification.
This past fall, Fuentes worked with the nonprofit D3 Arts on a street-art project honoring longstanding Westwood neighbors and building community power and pride as part of a larger response to a summer plagued by violence. In the year to come, he’s leading workshops with students from the American Indian Academy, working on documenting Sun Valley with the Latino Cultural Arts Center; co-creating a book with Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre, with help from the arts group Warm Cookies of the Revolution; and working with D3 on building a skate park in Westwood. He also has exhibitions of his photos in the works at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center and Alto Gallery.
“In 2020, there was an awakening that was needed,” says Fuentes, as people addressed social justice issues, race and gentrification. In 2021, he hopes that leads to more critical thinking and concrete change. “Watch me, but don’t watch too carefully,” he warns. “I don’t know what to expect after this past year.”
After longtime senior curator Nora Burnett Abrams moved up to head the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, she had to bring in a new curator, and she picked Miranda Lash, contemporary-art curator at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. As a newcomer, Lash brought energy, a commitment to forward-thinking curating, and a keen eye for cutting-edge and innovative art. With COVID-19 crimping the museum’s operations, though, she’s had an odd first few months.
In 2021, we’re ready to see Lash shine. “The first half of 2021 will be all about planning for the future and laying the groundwork for projects we’ll be presenting at MCA Denver over the next few years,” Lash says. “We’re working on creating a program that includes a wide breadth of artistic perspectives and a clear-eyed look at some of the most pressing issues facing our society today. We also want to celebrate what is unique about Colorado, so stay tuned for some fun infusions of Colorado flavor in the mix. I’ll be doing lots of virtual studio visits with artists and researching as much as I can. Then, once vaccines are widely available, I intend to enthusiastically plunge back into seeing art in person, traveling, and getting to know the texture and feel of the city.”
And the city is looking forward to getting to know her.
On the Line
Whether you’re talking to a DIY venue operator, a street artist, a foundation head or a government official, they all express enthusiasm for Louise Martorano, the head of RedLine Contemporary. In part, that’s because Martorano has a problem: She’s helpful. Too helpful. Ask her for a favor, and she’ll do whatever you need, no matter how many hoops she has to jump through, no matter how many phone calls she has to make.
Finding money and support for artists was her mission through all of 2020, one she plans to continue in the new year. And she’s putting money where her mouth is: On New Year’s Eve, Martorano was at RedLine, still handing out checks from some of the more than $9.6 million in relief that her organization has administered through 2020.
Her goal for 2021 “sounds a little boring, but I have decided that I am not going to be afraid of extensive, wordy and bureaucratic contracts if it can further access to resources and relief for artists and communities,” she says. (Thank God someone’s willing to read them.) “I owe my career to artists and folks in this industry and community, and want to do any and everything in my reach to help facilitate more economic support for a sector whose very purpose is to bring people together and has been unable to do so since March.”
In late 2020, East High School graduate and businessman Kwame Spearman took over as CEO and majority owner in a thirteen-member investor group that purchased the legendary Tattered Cover after the independent chain’s topsy-turvy year. He steps into his new position with a noble goal for 2021: finding the perfect book for every Denver resident.
With new leadership and the backing of flush investors, Tattered Cover workers are hoping for a much-needed pay raise and increased benefits, which Spearman says he’s willing to consider. While people have been lamenting the economic fate of bookstores for years, Spearman sees not just the cultural value of the Tattered Cover, which is about to turn fifty, but also lucrative possibilities as an investor. “I think people may be surprised by my unfettered optimism about the potential success in brick-and-mortar retail, given some necessary evolutions of course,” he says.
In part, that’s because Spearman believes in-person experiences are more important than ever. And the bookstore — scented by the aroma of books and coffee, filled with couches where you can cozy up and read, and stocked with endless literature to peruse — offers a tactile experience like no other. After the pandemic is over, “bookstores will become a gathering place where we can finally reunite as a society,” he predicts. “I’m a believer that the night is darkest before dawn. Still, in 2021, we need to be safe, caring and respectful of one another while we beat this virus. And then let’s get back to rebuilding our community.”
When Nicole Sullivan opened BookBar in 2013, marrying her interests in literature and booze, nobody could have predicted what a cultural juggernaut her Tennyson Street shop would become, and what a force in the city’s literary scene she would be.
This past spring, she started the nonprofit BookGive, which has donated more than 30,000 books to seventy Denver nonprofits. In the early winter, she launched BookBar Press, an independent publishing house focused on local authors. She also operates a writer’s retreat, and despite COVID-19 restrictions hampering some parts of her business, her store has been busy.
This spring, Sullivan will break ground on an event space at 43rd and Tennyson, with plans to open in fall. And that spot will help her fulfill her ultimate goals for the city in 2021. “I hope that we find more ways to be together that break down our previous barriers of fear, intolerance or simple hesitance,” she explains. “I hope we are all able to meet each other in a new way that comes from a place of knowing that we’ve all just been through a collective political and public-health hell, and that we will make space for each other with patience and acceptance. With so many burdens beginning to be lightened, I look forward to a whole lot of silliness, art for art’s sake, absurdity ’cause we can, and socializing because we want. I hope the scene will feel like a collective sigh of relief.”
Chris Zacher led the charge on building and opening Levitt Pavilion, one of the city’s best outdoor music venues, which started hosting concerts in 2017. When the live-music industry came to a standstill after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Zacher took it upon himself to reach out to Colorado’s music venues, with support from Denver Arts & Venues, and learn the most important issues that club owners were facing, whether they could make it through the shutdown, and what kind of advocacy they would need.
As a result, Zacher spent the past year in policy meetings, joining forces with a thousand-plus venue owners and talent buyers across the country through the National Independent Venue Association; he also helped form the Colorado Independent Venue Association, building power between independent clubs that have long been competitors. Although the federal relief he pushed for passed at the very end of the year, the lasting effects of uniting independent venues has yet to be seen. Still, it has the potential to challenge the dominance of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains and Live Nation, whom Zacher partners with at Levitt, and ensure that the Denver market remains diverse.
“Once we know when we’re going to be allowed to reopen and what that looks like, all of my energy will be on producing an amazing year of concerts,” Zacher promises. “The year 2021 is going to be really busy for me, but then again, every year is busier than the last in this industry.”
Who are you excited to watch in 2021? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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