Everything about the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver’s (MCA) downtown location—the geometric glass facade, pristine white walls—screams modern. But the institution’s new space, the Holiday Theater, has a more historic feel, including century-old exposed brick walls and retro Egyptian murals.
With new form comes new function, as MCA Denver plans to use the second location in the Highland neighborhood for a more informal, community-focused approach to showcasing contemporary art. It will give the institution a venue “to amplify the voices of the artists that we show in our exhibition spaces, but in a new way,” says Sarah Kate Baie, director of programs at MCA Denver.
Those efforts begin with the theater’s two-night opening celebration, from April 7 to 8, which will feature readings from local poets Eleanor Perry-Smith and Bobby LeFebre and performances by the North High School jazz band and Los Angeles band Chicano Batman. After that, the space will be used to host the museum’s Mixed Taste program (a lecture series that pairs two seemingly unrelated topics for discussion), teen programs, DJ performances, and symposia. MCA Denver will also partner with local organizations to co-host events, as well as provide low-cost rental opportunities for community programs and other gatherings.
“We want to work with exhibiting artists to have a place where we can showcase their work,” Baie says. “And we want to bring in other, outside artists who maybe are not a part of our exhibition platform to give voice to how contemporary art and contemporary culture live in the world in a way that is not just the kind of way we can show in our museum.”
Built as the Egyptian Theater in 1926 (due to Egyptology’s popularity surge after King Tutankhamun’s tomb discovery), the one-story theater’s name changed to the Holiday in the 1950s. Throughout its nearly century-long existence, the space served many functions: Denver’s first Spanish-language movie theater, a Peruvian restaurant, and most recently the Highlands Church worship space.
The church decided to sell the venue in 2020, however, after its congregation grew too big for the 400-seat theater. The listing caught the eye of Nora Burnett Abrams, director of MCA Denver. “MCA Denver had done some programming in the theater when it was owned by the church,” she says. “We did our Mixed Taste program for a few seasons, we did a few artist talks here, so it’s a space that we had been introduced to and really enjoyed working in … So I approached our board and said, ‘We’re certainly not in a position to acquire another property right now, but I’m just throwing it out there: How could we make it a possibility?’ ”
This led one of MCA’s board members, philanthropist Mark Falcone, to form the Denver Cultural Property Trust to acquire the theater, as well as the apartments and retail space that accompany it. “As a museum, how we live in the world is very much a ‘both/and’ mindset,” Abrams says. “We are both rigorous, scholarly, and committed to research, and we are also unconventional, we break the rules, we’re experimental. And we don’t imagine this being anything but a deepening of that ‘both/and’ mentality.”
For now, the Holiday Theater will only open for scheduled events and programs. But long-term, Abrams wants the space to have daily hours for a retail and food and beverage operation in the front-of-house space.
“What the pandemic has made very clear is the importance of connection and being together with other people and sharing in an experience together,” Abrams says. “I think we valued that before the pandemic very much, but as a result of so much isolation and separation, what I care about right now is just the chance to bring people together to share in a really moving and joyful and thought-provoking experience here.”