Phil Bender

Page 2 of 3

Westword: Was Pirate an "anything-goes" kind of place when it started?
Bender: Some may think so, but we had an idea about taste and quality. Though when I think back to some of our early shows--some of these artists couldn't be in Pirate now.

Westword: When was Pirate's heyday?
Bender: That's hard to say--probably '81, when we were surrounded by all those other galleries.

Westword: That's interesting, because most of us first found Pirate when it moved to its current location, where it is also surrounded by other galleries. How did you find the place?

Bender: Ron Carter, a former Pirate member, found it. It wasn't an art neighborhood when we moved there. I don't even know how Ron found it. At first there were some rowdy neighbors upstairs. They'd throw things from the windows at people and they hassled the artists. Several years after we were there, Reed [Weimer] and Chandler [Romeo] bought the building while they were Pirates. And later they bought other properties in the neighborhood. I like the way the corner (37th and Navajo) developed owing to Reed and Chandler and their being so art-friendly. [In addition to the Pirate building, the couple owns nearby buildings that house the Edge gallery, the Bug theater and Zip 37.]

Westword: Artists are known as a free-thinking bunch; has it been hard to keep Pirate together at times?

Bender: Surprisingly, there have been few disagreements over the years. Right after we started, Jack Jensen and Paul Schrsder quit to form Mutiny, and they took our logo. Mutiny did a few things and then fizzled out. Several years ago I objected to charging fees for the Treasure Chest [a now-departed gift shop in the back], but I was outvoted. At the time, I was treasurer, so sometimes I just didn't collect the fees.

Westword: How is Pirate different in the '90s than it was in the '80s?
Bender: Several years ago we got rid of the Outsiders shows (open-entry exhibits for non-members) because we weren't getting the response. At first works stacked up and filled the room, but eventually the only work submitted was by people who weren't good enough for other shows. Plus, the other spaces--Edge, Core, Spark--were doing them at the same time of year. And now shows run for three weeks; we used to do two-week shows.

Westword: Are Pirate and the alternative scene faltering now?
Bender: Certain ones of us keep on plugging.
Westword: Has success spoiled it?

Bender: Yes, we've been so successful that people take it for granted. The audience is faltering, but quality-wise or art-wise, it's not faltering.

Westword: What effect has Pirate had on Denver's art scene?
Bender: Art has been made because of Pirate, and I like that responsibility. Artists made things because they had an outlet to show them. They joined Pirate, and then their work took off. But mostly Pirate's been a place for people like me to show their art. It's helped a lot of careers, but most of us still have our day jobs.

Westword: How has Pirate affected your career?
Bender: I like to have a big show once a year. It's gotten my name out, made my reputation. This has led to other shows, getting on panels, press coverage. It could have been better, could have been worse.

Westword: Has there been an antagonism between Pirate and the commercial galleries?

Bender: Some dealers have complained that at Pirate, artists would sell their work for half-price. That's because we never charge commissions. From when we first opened, we wanted Pirate to treat us the way we wanted to be treated, so no commissions. We're pleasantly surprised when we have sales, but sales are never used to pay for Pirate.

Westword: What about Pirate's relationship to the DAM?
Bender: It's been pretty good. A lot of our members have been collected by them. The people who worked there, Dianne [Vanderlip, Modern and Contemporary curator] and Deborah [Jordy, former assistant curator], bought first, and then we were being collected by the institution. In one DAM show a few years ago, there were five or six members. In the current AFCA [Alliance for Contemporary Art] auction catalogue, there are several current and former Pirates.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

Latest Stories