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Marketing jargon from tourism boards would have you believe that “arts” and “culture” go together like peas and carrots. But let’s be real: In Denver, culture reigns supreme.
We frequent $25-per-entrée restaurants that tout locally sourced farm-to-table food. We fork over $8 for a pint at each new craft brewery that opens its doors. We fill every seat at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, no matter how much Nathaniel Rateliff tickets are going for online. We flock to taxpayer-funded sports stadiums, paying top dollar for nosebleed seats. And we’ll charge $400 to the AmEx for a day of white-water rafting faster than you can say “high side!” But go to a local art gallery and buy a painting from a Colorado artist? Not so much. “The Denver art scene has been burgeoning for more than 10 years now, but it’s still new,” says Ian Fisher, a Denver-based oil painter. “Denver is a longtime sports town, not an arts town. It’s tough to cultivate a collector base here.”
Whether our football fetish is getting in the way of a love affair with art or the ease of purchasing that framed print from the Crate and Barrel catalogue is the barrier isn’t really the point. No matter the cause, the truth is it’s difficult to understand why small-business-loving, locavore Denverites only dabble in a fine arts scene that’s 120 galleries and eight art districts strong. “The perception of the traditional New York City gallery creates an automatic separation,” says David B. Smith, who owns an eponymous gallery in LoDo. “The prices. The intimidation. Like it’s a private club and you don’t know the handshake. Denver is too low-key for that. And fortunately, that’s not how it is here.” We (mostly) agree. So don’t just sit there on your couch under that lame factory print. Take a spin through our 14 suggestions and then get out there: Take a studio tour. Talk to a gallery owner. Meet an artist. And maybe bring home something beautiful.
1. Learn What You Like.
Much of the work you’ll see in Denver galleries is “contemporary,” meaning the artist is still living. But when you’re first acquainting yourself with art, using familiar reference points—like some of history’s most famous artists—can help you figure out which genres you’re drawn to.
If you like the work of: Jackson Pollock (“Convergence”)
You can say you’re drawn to: Abstract expressionism
Which is characterized by: An abstract style that looks—but isn’t necessarily—spontaneous in nature.
If you like the work of: Pablo Picasso (“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”)
You can say you’re drawn to: Cubism
Which is characterized by: Fragmenting and redefining three-dimensional subjects and showing them from several points of view at the same time.
If you like the work of: Michelangelo (“David”)
You can say you’re drawn to: Classicism
Which is characterized by: An attention to traditional forms that concentrates on elegance and symmetry.
If you like the work of: Roy Lichtenstein (“Drowning Girl”)
You can say you’re drawn to: Pop art
Which is characterized by: Its tendency to challenge the established art world by using everyday images from almost anywhere—the street, the supermarket, comic books—and presenting them as art.
If you like the work of: Marcel Duchamp (“L.H.O.O.Q.”)
You can say you’re drawn to: Dada
Which is characterized by: A spirit of anarchic revolt; this movement reveled in absurdity and focused on the role of unpredictability in artistic creation.
If you like the work of: Edvard Munch (“The Scream”)
You can say you’re drawn to: Expressionism
Which is characterized by: The use of misrepresentation and exaggeration as well as powerful color and frantic brushwork for dramatic effect.
If you like the work of: Claude Monet (“Impression, Sunrise”)
You can say you’re drawn to: Impressionism
Which is characterized by: Vibrant yet realistic colors, little detail work, and images that represent the artist’s perception of the subject matter.
If you like the work of: Gustave Courbet (“The Stone Breakers”)
You can say you’re drawn to: Realism
Which is characterized by: Depictions of familiar scenes and events as they actually looked.
If you like the work of: Salvador Dalí (“The Persistence of Memory”)
You can say you’re drawn to: Surrealism
Which is characterized by: A desire to express the imagination as it is revealed in dreams.
If you like the work of: Georgia O’Keeffe (“Ranchos Church No. 1”)
You can say you’re drawn to: American modernism
Which is characterized by: An artist’s need to express feelings and ideas and to create abstractions and fantasies rather than represent what is real.
“To know what you like, you need to learn what you don’t like. Look at work you’re not sure about, that makes you uncomfortable. Art isn’t easy all the time; understanding it is a skill.”
—Katherine Sharp, board of directors co-chair, CultureHaus
2. Brush Up on the Lingo.
Emerging artist: Someone who is in the early stages of his career and does not yet have a reputation among critics, collectors, or galleries.
Mid-career artist: Someone who has created a body of work over a number of years and who has received regional or national recognition through the presentation of her work. This artist will have a solid history of solo and group exhibitions at professional galleries.
Established artist: Someone who has created a broad body of work. This blue-chip artist’s work will have maintained its value over years of private sales and at auctions, and he will boast a national (or even international) reputation for his contributions to his genre.
Solo show: An exhibition at a gallery or museum where only one artist’s work is on display.
3-D art: Fine-art-world speak for “sculpture.”
Group show: An exhibition at a gallery or museum where multiple artists’ works are on display. Although the works can use different mediums, there will often be an overarching theme connecting them.
Opening reception: Galleries and museums often host (sometimes free!) parties to celebrate the beginning of exhibitions; the artists in the shows are generally in attendance, and there’s almost always wine.
Represented artist: Someone who has a formal (and oftentimes, long-term) agreement with a gallery to show—and hopefully sell—her art.
Art dealer: Synonym for a gallery and/or gallerist.
Flat files: Chests with flat drawers that are full of a gallery’s represented artists’ portfolios. Even if an artist’s work is not currently on display in the gallery, a collector can still peruse—and potentially purchase—his work.
Checklist: Typically found near a gallery’s front door, this printed list gives information about the artist, title, and price of every piece of art currently on display in the space. If you don’t see one, ask the gallerist.
3. Prime Your Right Brain in Educational Settings.
The number one reason people say they don’t go to galleries is because they’re afraid they won’t “get” the art. Relax, folks—it’s OK if you don’t understand everything you see. But if you’re interested in becoming more cozy in creative spaces, check out the programming at these local institutions.
Billed as the Denver Art Museum’s young philanthropist group, CultureHaus sounds way more highfalutin than it really is. With a $105 annual membership, this assemblage of artsy folks is not only affordable—it’s also welcoming. “We do brunch lectures, happy hour mixers, and private art tours with cocktails in hand,” says Katherine Sharp, co-chair of CultureHaus’ board of directors.
This Month: On November 30, CultureHaus will wow its members with a reception honoring the DAM’s Star Wars and the Power of Costume exhibit.
Art Students League of Denver
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the ASLD has long served Denver’s arts community by providing affordable art classes. But that’s not all the ASLD offers: Through its Art + Lit programming—a collaboration with Lighthouse Writers Workshop—this arts citadel presents First Friday lectures from January through June that pair books and works of art for discussion.
Upcoming Event: Held at ASLD’s Grant Street location on January 6 at 6 p.m., Art + Lit ($10) will explore the Book of Genesis and Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel.”
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
MCA Denver has been bringing contemporary art to the Mile High City for nearly 20 years. This beacon of fine art rotates multiple exhibits throughout the year while also making art more accessible through its programs. In November, December, and January, MCA Denver hosts Black Sheep Fridays, a drop-in program with “an atmosphere of sophisticated nonsense,” during which you might decorate holiday ornaments with vintage erotica.
This Month: Black Sheep Fridays will take place at 6 p.m. on November 11 and 25. Free with museum admission.
4. Visit Lots of Galleries and Then Frequent the Ones You Like (And Can Afford).
If You Are: A total art newbie
Because: These galleries are approachable and offer locally made fine art as well as other items, such as jewelry, blown glass, and ceramics, from Colorado artisans.
If You Are: Looking to make your first original art purchase—on a smaller budget
You Should Visit: Artwork Network, Abend Gallery, Dateline, Helikon Gallery and Studios, Leon Gallery, Leisure, RedLine, Colorado Photographic Arts Center, Lapis Gallery, Sally Centigrade, Pirate: Contemporary Art
Because: Although all of these dealers have more expensive wares, they also frequently stock pieces from (often locally based) emerging artists that can cost less than $1,000.
If You Are: A blossoming collector with a big wall to fill and some money to burn
Because: These galleries specialize in mid-career artists, some of whom are from Colorado; be prepared to shell out at least $2,000 if you want to bring home a sizable piece.
If You Are: A serious and discerning art connoisseur
Because: Denver’s upper-echelon art dealers represent mid-career and established artists (read: sometimes quite pricey), but these galleries also have a mission: to push art forward. That means you’ll often see interesting installation art or edgier pieces that the dealers know won’t sell but deem important enough to devote display space to anyway.
“My goal for Robischon Gallery has always been to make a true and substantial contribution to the culture of our time.”
—Jim Robischon, co-owner and director, Robischon Gallery
5. Trust Us: The Gallery Is Open. Just Walk In.
It’s OK. You’re not crazy. We feel it, too—that mix of trepidation and the sensation that you might somehow be arrested for breaking and entering. We don’t know why, but walking into an art gallery can be a little disconcerting. Maybe it’s that there’s rarely a human to greet you—or even if there is, he’s just as apt to ignore you as say hello. Or maybe it’s those insane-asylum-white walls. Somehow you feel…naked. “Walking into a big empty gallery space can be difficult,” admits Adam Gildar, owner of Gildar Gallery in Baker. “It’s like there’s nothing to hide behind.” Gildar stresses, however, that every gallery owner in Denver wants you to come on in. “We are, after all, commercial spaces,” he says. “Our goal here at Gildar is to assuage your fears, to be friendly, to show you our art. And you’re welcome whether you want to buy something or not.”
6. Understand That While A Huge Oil Painting Might Not Be In Your Budget, There Are Other Options.
“There is a threshold here,” says Bill Havu, owner of William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle. “Original art is not a poster, so it’s not going to run you what a poster does. To get into original art, you’re probably talking a range of $750 to $1,000.” So, yeah. Original art isn’t cheap. What might be surprising to know, however, is this: Gallery owners get it. They know not everyone has a truckload of dough to spend on beautiful things. As such, they aren’t going to be offended if you tell them you only have $800 to spend. They even welcome it. “It’s OK to tell me that you have $1,000 and you’re wondering what I have in that price range,” says David B. Smith, owner and director of LoDo’s David B. Smith Gallery. “I have a bunch of hidden gems for less than that.” In fact, most galleries have rich storage areas where they stockpile artwork that isn’t on exhibit. What might be back there? “If you see something you like on display but you can’t afford it,” Havu says, “ask if there are smaller-size pieces or works on paper or limited-run prints from that same artist in the back. You might be surprised by what’s available.”
7. Be Aware of the Unique Artist-Gallery Relationship.
In an age when the internet has virtually killed the middleman, galleries have (so far) remained an integral part of the art-dealing business. With the increased ease of self-promotion—hello, Instagram!—one might think creatives would want to avoid sharing their profits with brick-and-mortar entities that often take an industry-standard 50 percent cut. That’s not the case, though. “Having my work in a gallery is worth it for the exposure,” says Kirsten Savage, whose oil paintings show at Abend Gallery. “I don’t want to do the marketing and the networking; I want to paint.” But wouldn’t it be smarter for a potential buyer to purchase artwork directly from the artist, who might be inclined to discount the work since the gallery wouldn’t receive its cut? “Savvy artists who want good relationships with their galleries don’t do that,” says Michael Rieger, co-owner of Lapis Gallery on Tennyson Street. “Smart artists stabilize their prices. Their prices should be the same on their websites as they are at their galleries.”
8. Be Mindful That Making Art Is Someone’s Livelihood.
You wouldn’t be thrilled with someone popping into your office to ask if you’d be cool taking a pay cut on the project you just finished, right? Well, neither would an artist. Because most of us are unfamiliar with how art is priced, we tend to think the dollar signs we see are more flexible than they are. “No negotiating with artists,” says Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. “The fact is, it’s not easy to make money off of art.” Fort Collins–based painter Kirsten Savage agrees. The formally trained artist, who is represented by Denver’s Abend Gallery and specializes in conceptual figurative works and Southwestern landscapes, says it took making a real business plan—which included analyzing how she prices her art—for her to be able to start painting full time three years ago. Here, Savage breaks down the labor that went into “After the Party” (pictured above), a 24-by-36-inch oil-on-panel framed original, which sold to a private collector for $3,500.
“People are always afraid of buying ‘bad’ art. If it’s not durable, if it’s too fragile, if it’s going to fade, if you’re paying way too much for it—then it might be bad art. Otherwise, if you like it, it can’t be bad art.”
—Michael Rieger, co-owner of Lapis Gallery
9. Seek Out Young Artists At Local Studios.
It wasn’t that long ago—maybe 10 years back—that budding Colorado artists were told by their mentors to hightail it to the coasts. Although it had potential, the mile-high art scene just wasn’t an incubator or support system for earnest creative types. “In 2006, my professors at the University of Colorado Boulder told me I needed to get out of Denver,” says painter Ian Fisher, who’s represented by Robischon Gallery and works at Tank Studios. “But I wanted to stay. I’m glad I did because the younger part of our community is doing interesting things. Those are the artists people should really be checking out.” Which, of course, begs the question: How does one find these imaginative young minds? Like all professionals, artists need places to do what they do. But unlike most of us who go to an office where the rent is paid by our employers, creators must foot the bills for their workshops—unless they have studio spaces in their homes (unlikely for the millennial set) or a benevolent benefactor. Because the starving-artist trope is more reality than parody, brush-, chisel-, and camera-wielding virtuosos in Denver have learned that co-working spaces and open-format studios offer a cheaper and more collaborative way to work. They also provide you, the potential collector, with an easy way to peruse the work of many emerging artists simultaneously—either on their websites or by visiting their on-site galleries or strolling through during open-studio hours.
If you’re searching for truly up-and-coming artists in the metro area, look no further than the undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Art & Art History and Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design. Both institutions turn out formally trained painters, ceramicists, illustrators, photographers, animators, and sculptors each year. They also have multiple on-site galleries where their students can display—and sell—their work.
10. Note These Inside-the-Art World Tips Before You Go Shopping.
How Much? Although gallerists admit that not putting prices next to pieces of art increases the pretension factor, most double down on the practice because they feel that conspicuous dollar signs bring art into what gallery owner Tina Goodwin calls “merch territory.” Don’t let the lack of pricing info scare you off. Simply look for a checklist (see “Brush Up On The Lingo,” page 92), which is usually posted near the front of the gallery.
Get Connected: If a gallery’s selection appeals to you, sign up for its email list. You’ll receive notifications about new exhibitions as well as invites to opening receptions, which are one of the most approachable ways to view
Break the Code: Galleries use colored dots to denote things about the art. Every gallery is different, but here are the generally accepted dot definitions. Red dot = sold; Non-red dot = on hold; Multiple red dots = the work is part of a series and at least one of the works has been sold.
Try It On: If you’re waffling on a piece because it might not look right in your foyer, ask if you can “take it out on approval.” Says Chris Serr, owner of Abend Gallery: “Many galleries will deliver and install a piece of art for free so you can live with it for a few days. No deposit required. If you love it, it’s yours. If not, the gallery will take it back.”
Saved for Later: It seems a little Walmart-layaway-plan-esque for places that sell high culture, but most galleries are happy to let you pay in installments. You won’t be able to take your object of desire home until you’ve paid the full bill, but at least someone else can’t scoop it up in the meantime.
11. Don’t Miss Denver Arts Week, From November 4 to 12.
Think Denver Restaurant Week—but for consuming arts and culture instead of food. Also presented by Visit Denver, this 10-year-old all-things-art affair actually lasts for nine days. Conveniently scheduled at the beginning of the holiday shopping season, Denver Arts Week provides galleries, museums, and other cultural institutions with a shot of marketing muscle that prompts them to dream up special events, art walks, studio tours, discounted artwork, and free admission days. “The general idea was to get people off the couch,” says Jayne Buck, Visit Denver’s vice president of tourism, “and into their neighborhood galleries, where they might become arts supporters.” This year, Buck expects to see free admission to the Denver Art Museum on the night of November 5; art “safaris” in the RiNo art district; and exhibits like Lapis Gallery’s Democracy: Of the people, by the people, and for the people, where some works will go for $52.80. For a full listing of events, visit denverartsweek.com.
12. “Follow” Artists Who Intrigue You. (Or Check Out These Creatives We Like.)
Social media has not only revolutionized the way painters, photographers, and sculptors reach potential collectors, but it’s also reinvented the way you can view locally made art.
13. Be Savvy About the Politics of the Arts Community—And Then Feel Free to Ignore Them.
All industries have internal politics. Medicine has them. The tech sector has them. Energy definitely has them. So it’s little surprise the arts business has ’em, too. In truth, the principles, rhetoric, and philosophies that surround the creation and sale of fine art probably don’t matter much to the average shopper. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bear in mind the most common hot-button topics.
The Issue: The Relative Ineffectiveness Of First Fridays
The Explanation: Yes, people flock to Denver’s eight art districts on First Fridays. They chat with gallerists. They drink the (sometimes) free booze. They view art. And they frequently leave empty-handed. Gallerists across town agree the exposure is nice; they’re just not so sure about the ROI.
The Issue: The Art District On Santa Fe’s Undeserved Granddaddy-Of-Them-All Status
The Explanation: The Convention & Visitors Bureau pushes it. Hotels send tourists to it. Local publications (this one included) write about it. But is Santa Fe Drive really the center of Denver’s art scene? A lot of local art-world folks say no way. In fact, the phrases “uneven quality,” “low-caliber art,” and “disappointing to true collectors” come up all too often.
The Issue: The Milquetoast Bent of Art Festivals
The Explanation: Local art events, like the well-attended Cherry Creek Arts Festival, are enjoyable enough, say Denver-based gallerists and art consultants, but the artwork on display is undeniably vanilla. There’s rarely going to be art that does what art is supposed to do: challenge the mind and provoke discussion.
The Issue: Denver’s Arts-Writing Vacuum
The Explanation: Artists, gallerists, museum curators, consultants—they’ll all tell you Denver lacks critical writing about the arts, an important driver for any creative community.
14. Go Beyond the Gallery.
Be sure not to ignore these creative-space alternatives.
If buying art at auction sounds like something you can’t afford to do, you’re likely thinking of the high-profile bidding that goes on at Sotheby’s. But not all auctions are of the $63-million-for-a-Picasso variety. In fact, the Denver outpost of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers—located in the Golden Triangle—is downright approachable. The auction house’s 2016 Mountain Decor auction had approximately 134 fine-art lots, 60 of which sold for less than $1,000. “Auction is about the fair market value—not the retail markup you’ll find at galleries—which means you can find work from established artists often for way less,” says Maron Hindman, managing director for the Denver firm. Here’s how it works: The auction house takes items on consignment, gives sellers estimates for how much things might garner at auction, and organizes them into themed sales. The Denver arm of Leslie Hindman hosts up to four auctions annually. Interested parties can look at the sale’s catalogue in advance, preview items at the brick-and-mortar location a few days before an auction, and then register to bid in person or online. (The auction house takes a commission from both the buyer and the seller.)
This Month: On November 10 at 10 a.m., Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Denver will host an auction titled Arts of the American West, which will include items such as paintings by John Ford Clymer, an American painter known for his work (pictured above) depicting Western scenes. Register at lesliehindman.com.
Festivals & Markets
Peak season for Colorado’s outdoor art gatherings is May through September, although there are a handful of holiday-time markets that include fine art. In general, festivals and markets are combinations of emerging and mid-career artists as well as what you might call artisans and/or arts-and-crafters. Not every artist in these fairs is from Colorado, and the selection can be a mixed bag as far as quality, but a keen eye can spot something special. Fave Fest: The Art Students League of Denver’s Summer Art Market, typically held in June near the intersection of Grant Street and East Second Avenue, requires that every piece exhibited is original work. We love that prices are reasonable, even for larger works; the vast majority of the tents are manned by Colorado artists (such as sculptor Dea Shea, whose work is pictured); and there’s no shortage of “bin” pieces—i.e., unframed smaller works, reference studies—which are often less pricey and therefore perfect for that wall in the powder room.
Coffeeshops & Hair Salons
“Do not look down on artwork you see in alternative spaces,” says Stephanie Aguilar, a Golden-based oil painter. “Lots of talented emerging artists start in restaurants, frame stores, and coffeeshops.” Take a few minutes to peruse the decor at, say, Stella’s Coffee Haus in Platt Park or Mead St. Station in Highlands Square or La Cour bistro on South Broadway, and you’ll find the art is usually relatively inexpensive and almost always born locally. Bonus: Unlike galleries, which take a huge bite out of artists’ profits, salons, bistros, coffeeshops, frame stores, and restaurants often charge less to display the art.
Denverites Jill Wiltse and Kirk Brown have been amassing artistic treasures—some of which have been shown in museums the world over—for 20 years. Here’s what this couple knows that you don’t.
5280: How do I know if something is worth collecting?
Brown: Ask yourself what you like to see when you wake up in the morning. Whatever it is, it’s worth collecting—no matter if
it’s $300 or $3,000.
Wiltse: We love Hungarian paintings from the turn of the last century, Ascher scarves, and French furniture from the ’40s, among other things. We’re not your average collectors…but that’s how we started. One of Kirk’s first “collections” was of the little stickers you find on produce. I think we still have it someplace.
Where do I even start?
Brown: Go to galleries regularly. But don’t limit yourself. You can go to consignment stores, thrift shops, art fairs, and auctions, too.
Wiltse: We don’t take beach vacations. We take museum and gallery vacations. That might not be for everyone, but you could consider adding a gallery or two to your holiday plans.
What happens if I buy something and then I don’t like it after some time has passed?
Brown: Your tastes will change, and that’s OK. We’ve sold some things we were no longer in love with.
What’s your best advice for beginning collectors?
Wiltse: No matter what you buy, protect it. Even if it’s a print or a poster or a piece of beautiful fabric, put it in a frame with glass that shields it from UV light. Framing it well also makes it have a finished look.
Brown: Push your taste buds. I didn’t love Hungarian art at first and now I do. It’s good to grow.
Why Should I Buy Original Art?
There are many altruistic reasons to support artists. My motive is a bit more selfish—and that’s OK. —LBK
I can still smell the raw sewage. And I can still see his face: sincere, hopeful, and a little embarrassed. His name escapes me 17 years later, but his situation—his story—will never leave my memory. Along with a few other students, I had walked through the streets of Havana, Cuba, to visit this man’s home. He was a distant relative of someone in my study abroad program, and we’d been invited to visit not only to secret some basic necessities (deodorant, cooking utensils, baby lotion) to his family, but also to see his paintings.
Although I was only 20, I wasn’t so naïve as to think we wouldn’t be encouraged to buy something when we arrived. I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the overwhelming reality that this family was living in what amounted to a tin-roofed shack with a dirt floor, which on this day was befouled by a backed-up sewer. There was literally shit pooling in their living room. And from what I could tell, this wasn’t the first time.
I was able to suppress my gag reflex long enough, however, to speak to this eager but soft-spoken man in my broken Spanish. He was sorry about the smell, but he had been excitedly waiting for us. That much was clear. Every inch of available space was covered with rough-edged pieces of flat canvas, all of which displayed brightly colored paintings of life in Cuba. Frida Kahlo he was not, but his folk art was beautiful in its own way. He beamed as we viewed his work, but he wasn’t pushy. I may be wrong, but I believe he wanted us to like his art as much as he wanted us to purchase it. A rendering of a straw-hatted man harvesting tobacco set me back $40. He thanked me, shook my hand, and smiled a gratified smile. It was the first piece of original art I had ever purchased.
Although the paint has cracked and the edges have frayed further, I have held on to that canvas over the years. It’s too fragile to display, but I have it safely stored in my basement. When I take it out from time to time, I’m reminded of what that first purchase taught me: that unlike a mass-produced print bought at the mall, original art tells a story. There is a life behind that plaster or paint or piece of metal. And that’s the self-serving part—I enjoy telling the story of the Cuban artist. I enjoy it so much, in fact, that buying a piece of art whenever my husband and I travel has become something of a tradition. It doesn’t happen on every trip, of course, but when it does I’m excited to bring home one more story for my home.