In a 1962 issue of Look magazine, John F. Kennedy said, “The life of the arts…is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” Mark Sink, a renowned fine-art photographer in Denver, was only four years old at the time, but the line has become one of his favorites because it captures his own belief that a city can’t be great without a thriving cultural scene. That’s why Sink—whose parents were part of the group that brought the first modern art curator to the Denver Art Museum—helped co-found the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and, in 2004, launched Month of Photography (MoP). The latter, a biennial celebration, brings together more than 125 local galleries to host over 250 photo-related events. With MoP returning to the Front Range in March and April for the seventh time, we spoke with Sink about how Denver can make JFK proud by scoring better on its art test.

Mark Sink
Photographer Mark Sink has a request: Ask not what the arts can do for Denver—ask what Denver can do for the arts. Photograph courtesy of Michael Ortiz


Name: Mark Sink

Age: 59

Occupation: Fine-art photographer; co-founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver; founder of Month of Photography

5280: Why did you launch MoP?

Mark Sink: It’s showing off the Denver photo community. You get this momentum going, and it’s fun to watch it take on its own shape. Our high school show is one of my favorites. These kids, they’re taking pictures next to their work and are so grateful. I love that.

How has the city helped artists?

In the late 1970s, early ’80s, downtown was abandoned. Then [now Governor] John Hickenlooper came in. After starting Wynkoop Brewing Company [in 1988], he bought art from local artists for his brewpub. He gave free kegs to Pirate, a contemporary art gallery. When he ran for mayor in 2002, part of his platform was based on The Rise of the Creative Class. After being elected, he opened the then new Wellington Webb Building on weekends so artists could use the space for free. When we were building MCA Denver, we had all sorts of code issues. Old Hickenlooper took care of that in a blink. I shot his Christmas card last year and had lunch with him afterward. One of my points that I slid into the conversation was about how much artists are hurting now.

Are artists hurting?

Gentrification is sort of snuffing out that incubation that makes great art. And who knew pot would force artists out of affordable spaces? A group of artists I know trying to form a co-op found a space on Federal—then a grower scooped it up with cash out of his satchel.

What should Denver do to help?

Tax incentives for developers to add nonprofit space to their buildings. I believe in patronage, too. It’s in a developer’s interest to support an artists’ co-op—like in a big industrial building. Then the area around that building becomes hot property. That developer would be the Medici of Denver. That’s on my bucket list, to land a Medici.

This year, MoP will feature any type of art—as long as it includes an element of photography. Do you believe MoP serves as a gateway to less accessible art forms?   

Oh, sure. I call it the trickle-down effect. Photography is one of the best ways to start because people get comfortable with seeing art. Plus, you can get a substantial collection of famous photographers for a fraction of the cost it would take to collect in the Art Basel world.