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A staple on Santa Fe Drive for community and contemporary art, the CVA is adorned with murals and is a collaborative work itself. Exterior works shown here are by Denver-based Jaime Molina (right) and Sandra Fittings (above center).

Finding presence on Santa Fe

Through experiential opportunities in a contemporary arts community, the CVA proves curation is an art in itself.

January 31, 2017

By Cory Phare

The word curation originates from the Medieval Latin curatus, related to the care and curing of souls by religious officiants. And although the term gets bandied about today relative to any form of digital content, there remains something sublime about physically setting foot into an artfully arranged exhibition.

That divine root for curate seems fitting for the evocative and provocative exhibitions housed in the MSU Denver Center for Visual Art. The main gallery offers rotating shows from various artists, while the adjacent 965 Gallery is a student-run space that complements the featured exhibit.

Add to the mix membership in one of the most eclectic art communities in the country, and you’ve got an unparalleled opportunity for experiential education in contemporary exhibit management.

From PRESENCE: Reflections on the Middle East. Arwa Abouon,

From there, here

According to Cecily Cullen, managing director and curator of the CVA, the curation process is successful when it distills complex modern issues through the conceptual lens of art. “Part of our mission is to provide a platform for dialogue about contemporary urban issues on global a perspective,” she said. “It’s a great way to address what’s happening there, here.”

Translating an idea across both mental and physical geographies to a gallery wall isn’t a casual endeavor, however. Take, for example, the upcoming exhibition Presence: Reflections on the Middle East, opening Friday, Feb. 3.

Cullen began the design process for the exhibit more than two years ago, along with visiting faculty members Leila Armstrong (art history, theory and criticism) and Natascha Seideneck (photography) as co-curators.


After winnowing down broad concepts, two aesthetic themes – pattern and presence – drove the selection and arrangement of pieces. The former theme is a common recurrence throughout Middle Eastern art; the latter is a statement on physical existence – or absence thereof – relative to space.

“There’s a need to find the balance of conceptual with a rich aesthetic,” said Cullen. “That’s what makes a show compelling – we’re always looking for work that has a poetry to it.”

The resulting exhibition is an assemblage of haunting photography that is individualistic but tied together by a common motif. And as participants in the upcoming Month of Photography, the global narratives within PRESENCE will become amplified across Colorado as part of a shared form.

According to Cullen, this medium is another channel of expression, one as important to thematic prompts of understanding another perspective or another culture.

“Whether set up or unaltered, we seem to get a glimpse of some reality,” she said. “In that sense it helps us empathize – the emotive quality of work allows us to put our feet in others’ shoes.”

Exhibition openings often draw large crowds from the community, especially when they take place during the Art District on Santa Fe's First Friday Art Walks

The life of the city itself

For Hannah Emmons, a 2016 MSU Denver graduate with an individualized degree in art administration and community organizing, the route from campus to the gallery on Santa Fe Drive was more than an ordinary journey – it’s been the road to her goal of “facilitating partnerships that benefit artists, musicians and, in turn, the life of the city itself.”

Starting as a gallery assistant, she progressed as a community outreach administrator and then co-curator for the 965 Gallery. A high-profile space where students curate, assemble, install and promote their own shows, the gallery provides tangible operational experience for a potential career in the world of contemporary art.

Now an assistant gallery manager and exhibition coordinator, Emmons also sits on the advisory committee for the student gallery. She specifically credits her experience for giving her the managerial skills to comprehensively produce cultural programming from concept to execution.

“CVA has opened up the possibilities for me significantly,” said Emmons. “These hands-on event planning, exhibition coordination and curatorial opportunities have allowed me to enrich my learning…. This has also really provided me the confidence to pursue a career in the arts.”

This student workforce development is part of the center’s mission. And students are the lifeblood of the location, according to Gina Yrrizarry, communications manager for the CVA.

“The gallery itself wouldn’t run without the students,” said Yrrizarry. “They are the crew.”

Curating a community

With recent attention from the Oakland Ghost Ship tragedy leading to DIY venue shutdowns in Denver – not to mention the questions around federal funding for the arts – it’s more important than ever to examine what it means to be part of a local creative community.

“The city of Denver and nonprofit arts organizations have access to resources to ensure the safety, accessibility and sustainability of artist communities,” said Emmons. “The idea and reality of what is changing right now with the world around it – this calls for more community organization and collaboration among artists.”

In this environment, the CVA stands as a beacon. As a member of Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe, it serves as a nexus for students, artists and community to converge and converse about design and access.

The gallery’s location within the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood provides a visible port of entry for neighborhood denizens to engage with MSU Denver, according to Cullen and Yrrizarry. With outreach efforts like the Young Artist Studio and Creative Industries Internship, the CVA actively serves as a civic bridge by providing free after-school arts programming and facilitating internships for high school students.

The ever-popular First Friday Art Walks also bring thousands of people into the neighborhood each month. And as Emmons noted, art can drive both business and shared values via commerce and connection, acting as a change agent within communities.

CVA’s the location for dialogue and cultural exchange. Community members interact with neighbors and strangers alike, while students benefit from working alongside professionals for demonstrable, hands-on gallery experience they can later use to launch a contemporary arts career.

And it all starts by curating a presence.

“Other college galleries don’t get 2,000-plus attendees regularly coming through to see the work of students next to international artists,” said Cullen. “The CVA is truly a unique asset for MSU Denver students -- and the Denver community overall.”

Presence: Reflections on the Middle East and the accompanying 965 Gallery's Resound: Reverberation Between Artist and Place run until April 8. See below for more exhibition samples and gallery photos.

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