By Cory Phare
Like artists everywhere, many in Denver’s creative community were already stringing together exhibitions, performances and side hustles to make ends meet while heeding the call of their craft.
And that was before the pandemic.
Since Covid-19 shut down galleries and performance spaces, things have only gotten worse. According to a 2020 Covid-impact study from Colorado’s Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, more than 80% of respondents characterized the impact of the coronavirus as moderately to extremely severe. About one in three said they had lost creative-sector jobs via furlough, layoff or elimination.
Three-quarters of the survey-takers seriously questioned their ability to survive the storm.
“Artists and the arts tend to be in this paradoxical space,” said Peter Bergman, associate professor of art and communication-design program coordinator for Metropolitan State University of Denver. “It’s a huge part of the economy, especially in Colorado. … Yet individual practitioners always seem to be living on the edge.”
The nonprofit arts-and-culture scene produced $1.9 billion in economic activity in 2017, according to a 2018 economic-activity study by the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts. But Colorado ranked a dismal 45th in the U.S. for legislative appropriations to arts agencies last year, and the 2021 figure is expected to drop by another 35%.
Before the pandemic, MSU Denver’s Center for Visual Art, an anchor in the city’s Art District on Santa Fe, routinely welcomed more than 2,000 visitors during its monthly First Friday art walks. The CVA’s University connection has proved to be a lifeline as the lockdown shuttered other galleries, and some closed permanently.
“It’s been really tough for venues that rely upon ticketed entry,” said Cecily Cullen, the CVA’s director and curator. “That loss of attendance and subsequent revenue mean a lot of places are hurting right now.”
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In “Deeper Than Skin,” Denver artists examine life experiences within the Black community. The culmination of local activism stemming from the summer 2020 and ongoing movements for civil rights highlight the continuation of the social-justice timeline. The exhibition promotes community perseverance and humanizing actions.
Featuring exhibition artists: TyreeJones, YvensSaintil (current MSU Denver student) and JasmineWynter (MSU Denver alumna)
There may be one sliver of good news. Some artists have offset lost revenue from canceled exhibitions with more direct-to-consumer sales, said Dani Cunningham, a longtime visual artist who studied art and art history at MSU Denver.
She sold more pieces in 2020 than in any previous year, she said.
“It could be that people are at home and paying more attention to the space around them and want to find more enjoyment in that,” she said. “That makes sense; they’re taking fewer excursions and dinners out, so those who can are buying more art.”
Cunningham recently joined forces with partner Laura Beacom to form Chant Cooperative, an arts co-op that helps member artists market their art and connect with buyers, among other services.
“I’ve seen a lot of artist friends not wanting to take the time to promote because they’re focused on the process of making,” said Cunningham. “They don’t want to spend time on Instagram or maintaining a website. I really enjoy that, so I’m glad to advocate and take on that role.”
Shifting to the digital environment has been critical for many artists’ survival. Bergman, who recently gave an online artist talk at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art with partner Heather Link-Bergman, saw a 150% increase in his Instagram followers after the virtual Quaranzine Fest 2020.
“The limits of the pandemic got me thinking about avenues to interface with people and share my work online, with a global reach,” he said. “For many artists, it’s forced us to professionalize our digital footprint through engagement, marketing, web presence and social media.
“I think it’s better in the long run to help financial viability and believe things will continue in a hybridized format as we reemerge.”
Zanele Muholi - Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness
January 8 – March 20, 2021
In more than 80 self-portraits, celebrated visual activist Zanele Muholi (South Africa, b. 1972) uses their body as a canvas to confront the deeply personal politics of race and representation in the visual archive.
With the state easing gathering restrictions to Level Yellow as of Feb. 6, galleries are adopting safety measures to bring patrons together again – carefully – in person. In addition to distancing and sanitization practices, the CVA has been operating at 10% capacity – about 30 people. That allows instructors to bring students in for a striking current exhibition, “Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness,” an exploration of race, gender and visual representation by South African artist Zanele Muholi, running through March 20.
Cunningham recently wrapped “Various Cardio,” an exhibition at Dateline Gallery with fellow Denver artist, Julio Alejandro, focused on racial oppression in professional athletics. The do-it-yourself gallery in Denver’s River North neighborhood showcases the city’s experimental and emerging artists.
Jeromie Dorrance runs the mixed-use space, which doubles as his home. The 2009 MSU Denver art grad co-founded the operation while living in Berlin in 2013.
“It’s a little different than what you’d see at a ‘regular’ commercial gallery,” Dorrance said. “We’re exposing people to art they otherwise wouldn’t see.”
That includes the gender-bending current exhibition by Shadows Gather. The solo show, a, risqué romp through Denver’s underground goth and LGBTQ+ club scene, features images shot on instant film from 2019 to early 2020. It’s an early part of March’s Month of Photography showcase, which runs through March 13.
It’s a far cry from the one show per month Dateline put on before the pandemic, but Dorrance said he’s grateful to keep his venue going.
“It’s really sad; we’ve seen a lot of other galleries close – a lot of bars and music venues, too,” he said. “I could have been one of them, but I’m lucky that I live here in the space and have to only pay one rent instead of two.”
Other CVA programs, such as the Art + Action high school internship and weekly Culture Club online artmaking workshops, continue to run strong, Cullen said. Bergman added that the University’s efforts empower the business of art, noting that MSU Denver’s footprint makes it the largest art school in Colorado.
Cunningham, who is finishing a master’s degree in art history and museum studies at the University of Denver, said the high caliber of arts education at MSU Denver was integral to her journey.
“If you look at the great names in the Denver art community – folks like Jeromie at Dateline, Derrick Velasquez, Sarah Rockett and of course (internationally renowned Chicano muralist and art professor) Carlos Frésquez – most of them have some connection to the University,” she said.
Bergman also noted the inherent characteristics of resiliency, entrepreneurship and creative thinking, all applied via initiative, that studying art brings.
“There’s a lot of work subsidizing passion in this field,” he said. “… And yet (artists) still find a way to execute their vision.
“Regardless of what field you’re in, that’s valuable.”
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