A giant, inflatable orange rhino dominated the stage at the first-ever annual breakfast meeting of the River North Art District, which sounds like a somewhat bourgeois affair (although there were mimosas, and the gathering didn't start until 9:30 a.m.) for a concept that seemed so wild a dozen years ago. That’s when artists/organizers Jill Hadley Hooper and Tracy Weil came up with the idea of turning the dusty warehouse neighborhood north of Coors Field along the Platte, where they both worked, into an official arts district. So they got creative and cooked up a nickname, RiNo, and a logo (a rhino, of course), and started pushing their vision.
In 2008, Westword honored that vision by awarding Hadley Hooper and Weil a shared MasterMind award — right before the economy went to hell, and long before anyone could have predicted that RiNo would become the hottest real-estate market in Denver. But they persevered, and last fall RiNo successfully established both a Business Improvement District and a General Improvement District; RiNo now has a $1 million annual budget, five staffers and thirty community members who serve on three boards and all share the goal of promoting the art district and programs that will support the creatives, innovators and visionaries who call RiNo home. The goal is to “keep the arts in RiNo,” says art district co-chair Chandler Romeo, “which means keeping artists in RiNo.”
Keeping the artists should be the goal of this whole booming city, a city where artists have contributed so much, often with so little recognition. These days, the most common form of thanks they get is a notice of rising rent, as newcomers flock to town. But if Denver looks like an attractive place to live today, that’s because artists set the scene.
In honor of the groundbreaking, often underappreciated and almost always underpaid work that so many artists have been doing through the decades in Denver, twelve years ago Westword created the MasterMind awards, a grant program that every year gives no-strings-attached arts awards. We inducted our first creative class in 2005; since then we have saluted more than 55 artists and arts organizations with grants totaling more than $150,000.
And Denver has gotten a big return on that investment. Reading through the list of MasterMinds is a snapshot of how much this city and its art scene have grown. When we named Buntport to the original class of MasterMinds, it was a fledgling theater troupe of Colorado College grads; today it’s a Denver institution renowned for its cutting-edge work. Another winner that year, designer/entrepreneur Brandi Shigley, continues to impress us not only with the scope of her own artistic efforts, but with her support of other artists. In fact, the rest of that first group of honorees — the Emerging Filmmakers Project at the Bug, the Denver Zine Library and artist Lauri Lynnxe Murphy — continue to make incredible contributions to the art scene, even though some of those contributions may have taken forms the winners themselves couldn’t have imagined twelve years ago. (After going to grad school in Ohio, for example, Lauri Lynnxe Murphy is back in Denver and building a tiny house, an arts/activism project that she writes about every week at westword.com.)
Over the years, Denver has lost some MasterMinds to other cities — comedian Andrew Overdahl and the Nix Bros. are part of the recent migration to Los Angeles, where they’re giving Denver artists a great name. Jenny Dorris, who introduced classical music in local bars, is now making beautiful music in Pittsburgh. From the class of 2011, designer Tricia Hoke has moved on to New York — but classmate Adam Gildar continues to make his mark at the Gildar Gallery — with an occasional jaunt to Mexico City to exhibit in shows there.
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The MasterMind awards were not designed as lifetime achievement awards; we wanted to recognize artists at the grassroots level or even lower, help underground efforts grow into something bigger, better and applauded around the city. And so often, the boost has come at just the right time. Last summer, when we honored Anthony Garcia Sr. and his Birdseed Collective, the homegrown artist/activist was still scrambling to secure funding, but in the months since, he’s received major recognition. He still represents north Denver, however, and shares the wealth with his neighborhood.
Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp was also in the 2015 class of MasterMinds. "My head was big enough as it is," she says. "Now that I have the title “MasterMind,” some of my fitted hats don’t fit
At Artopia on Saturday, February 20, we'll honor our first two MasterMinds of 2016. Watch for more on these creative geniuses, as well as Q&As with previous MasterMinds; in the meantime, keep reading for the roster of all of our creative classes:
Kalyn Heffernan/Wheelchair Sports Camp
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 Theatre
Denver Zine Library