Denver is a city of alleys, not like, say, Portland (where dumpster diving is so much more difficult). In this video, Ravi and Matt (the bathhouse crew) rap their way through alleys in Denver until they discover some of what the alley holds…
One of my first memories experiencing the “real world” as a teenager was a summer visit to Toronto, Canada. I was allowed to wander on my own in this major metropolis. What I recall from both memory as well as photos from this trip was the quantity of public artworks the city displayed on corners and in distinct locations. For me they served as memorable markers in the environment and enhanced the mostly banal architecture of the city.
Now, many years later, I have sat on public art selection panels for the city of Denver and have approved many works of art for the city collection as a voting member of the Mayor’s Commission for Cultural Affairs. I have also had the wonderful opportunity to work with artists who create public art through my association as owner and director of Plus Gallery. Although many artists go after this work because it distinguishes their career in spectacular ways, few can successfully break into this realm. The competition is extraordinary and the notion that you need to have completed a commission in order to get a commission certainly comes into play.
Denver artist John McEnroe is an artist I’ve worked intimately with and exhibited widely at my gallery for over five years. His ability to conceptualize new and spectacular forms through a rigorous studio practice is virtually unparalleled in the region. His first major commission, a series of “sprue sculptures” that grace the walls of the Colorado Convention Center, are impressive by any standard, exhibiting a playfulness through scale and form that is rivaled only by the giant blue-bear that looks in on them through the massive exterior windows of that building.
John’s fourth commission for the city of Denver, “National Velvet,” was recently installed at the eastern foot of the Highlands Walking Bridge. Though it is the fourth commission John has received in Denver, it is really the first that seems to parallel the general dynamics and singular approach to material that has distinguished John’s entire career as a visual artist. While “National Velvet” will certainly have its detractors, as all great works of art do, it exhibits many uncommon characteristics that are practically revolutionary in the field.
The towering mass of bulbous, glandular forms is captivating in its ability to stimulate the imagination, truly handing the reins of interpretation over to the viewer. The sculptures total transformation from day to night through the use of light is a distinction that few if any public artworks can claim, a direct testament to this artist’s ingenuity and ability to experiment. It’s just what the environment begged for and will undoubtedly become one of the most iconic works of art in the city.
Cities develop initiatives to collect and commission art because it electrifies the environment, providing visual cues that become the true landmarks within a city. Not everyone embraces the value that public artwork adds to a city, but it is certainly what distinguishes leading cities and progressive ways of life across the world.
November 24, 2008
Denver is a square, proud, prompt little place, surrounded by immensity.
–Demas Barnes (Denver visitor, 1865)
Denver is the unlikeliest of cities; there’s no port, no access to an ocean or a major river, nowhere to get to (easily) between here and there. Compared to other urban centers, it came late to the party, and unnaturally, forced on an unwilling landscape. Started by claimjumpers and promoted with false claims of easy money, there was never any gold at the confluence, but there was an opportunity to set up a transportation hub in one of the less explored and exploited regions of the country.
In the first two years, 100,000 people came through looking to find a fortune; by 1864, the city had less than 5,000 residents and was practically destroyed by flood and fire. For those still here, isolated in “this god-forsaken place,” it may as well have been the end of the world. It was touch and go until the railroad came in in 1870, setting off one of the first of Denver’s booms.
Maybe it was the boom and bust cycles, or the latecomer status, or the distance from centers of culture, but for much of the city’s history it’s been better known as a place to go through, rather than a place to stay.
You may thank your stars that you left this country when you did, for it is deader than it ever was. The fact is I am getting damn sick of this God-forsaken place.
–Silas Soule (1861)
One hundred twenty years later, in the late 1980s, the oil bust wreaked havoc on the Denver’s economy; people were jumping ship for wherever they could make a living, and mostly anywhere was better than here. Downtown was sleepy and lonely (especially after hours), and the skyscrapers that had been built in the 70s emptied out as fast as they went up. The good news? Parking was plentiful and free.
One of the many odd jobs I had at that time involved emptying the offices (cubicles and desks mostly) from the Arco Tower on 17th Street in Downtown. For weeks, we loaded the furniture on carts and rolled them onto semi-trailers destined for warehouses in Texas. The wealth (and jobs) that had been imported left town when times turned tough.
Looking at the empty storefronts in the Arco Tower, my buddy Ray and I proposed to the property manager that we install a series of temporary artworks that would show the space off while also having a sense of humor. Our proposal? Cows. Denver, we thought, should embrace its traditions, and engage in a fun dialogue to encourage people to come back downtown.
It sounded good to us. But not to the property manager. Anything but cows, he said.
…the rare beauty of the accidental location, the grandeur of the region, the charms of the climate, and the enormous permanent resources of the country became fixed in the minds of the people…
–Jerome Smiley, History of Denver (1900)
From its founding 150 years ago, Denver’s residents have described the city with a combination of self-deprecation and boisterous civic boosterism, sometimes with more than a touch of defensiveness. But along the way, something has changed, and there is a bit of self-confidence that doesn’t seem so out of place; there’s a willingness to embrace both the city’s frontier roots and its urban existence.
Denver is no longer so oddly placed in the middle of the frontier. The world has changed. Denver was an accidental city, but now it has grown to become a metropolitan center. Maybe now we can look back with some pride and just a little bit of nostalgia for our cowtown past.
23 November 2008
On November 22nd, 1858, William Larimer and a gang of town promoters from Kansas founded Denver City by crossing cottonwood sticks at the center of a one mile square plat on the east side of Cherry Creek at the confluence with the Platte River.
Of course, it wasn’t really theirs to claim, as it had been deeded to the plains tribes in the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, but Larimer made a deal with William McGaa, who had founded the town of St. Charles earlier in the year. McGaa would give up his rights to the city, and Larimer would give him whisky and name a street after him. It was a good deal all around (though the city leaders eventually took away McGaa’s street). Then on April 6, 1860, Denver merged with Auraria, located just across the creek – and the price of the deal, no surprise, was a barrel of whisky.
In the first two years of the city’s existence, 100,000 people came across the plains to Denver in search of gold. Of those, 75,000 would leave disappointed. In the past 150 years, Denver has pulled its ass out of the fire any number of times. Whether it was the flood of 1864 (or 1965), the silver crash of 1893, the great depression, the oil bust of the eighties, or countless other struggles, Denver and the people who live here have reinvented themselves through community, art, and story.
Over the course of the upcoming season we will offer up our favorite 150 different expressions of the city, its neighborhoods, people, and culture. All media whether in image, text, or video will be published. Along the way, we’ll be offering up some opportunities for getting together to share some new stories and some whisky too.
We hope that you will join us in celebrating Denver’s past and present, and in building our future. We welcome your input and your thoughts. If you are interested in submitting content to be part of the buckfifty, visit our how to submit page for more information.