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Sensi Magazine

Scene It All

Sep 09, 2016 01:08PM ● By Randy Robinson

Photo: The Denver Art Museum’s North Building and the “prow” of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building. Photograph by Jeff Wells, courtesy of the Denver Art Museum. 

Just three decades ago, Denver didn’t have much of an art scene. The city hosted just three major galleries with a scant few prominent works. During Denver’s aesthetic dark ages, critics considered Colorado Springs and Boulder to be Colorado’s creative havens, not the Mile High City. 

Now, Denver is home to over a dozen world-famous collections, and the city enjoys a spattering of nearly a hundred smaller galleries. We own bragging rights to an art district that stretches halfway across town. We’ve been crowned the queen of the art scene between Los Angeles and Chicago, and as our city continues to grow at an explosive rate, so too does our artistic output.

What you’re about to read is more than just a handy guide to our city’s collections. It’s a map of our country’s history, and how Denver formed an integral part of our national identity. Right here, in our bustling metro area, we serve as a time capsule, a glimpse into the story of America’s convoluted evolution through time—and space.


Denver proper was cofounded in 1858 by one James W. Denver. It’s easy to forget, in all the rabid “Colorado native vs. non-native” bickering we hear today, that the state’s capital was founded by a man from Kansas. It wasn’t always called “Denver,” either. As a gold rush town, the city was first fittingly known as “El Dorado,” then “Denver City,” and only later, after it merged with its commercial competitor Auraria, did it become the Denver that we know today.

But even before James Denver, the area was governed by Chief Little Raven of the Arapaho tribe. And before Chief Little Raven, the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho called these lands their own. Due to gold, silver, and other shiny things, settlers arranged sketchy treaties with the American Indians. It took less than a decade for the settlers to usurp the land around the Platte River and Cherry Creek. After a series of bloody battles—and one particularly embarrassing massacre—the “pale faces” forced most of the Indians out of the Denver area.

Those stories of pueblos, of ancient gods slumbering in the mountains, of early Native alliances with white men, of broken treaties, of mining towns and buffalo, can be found depicted in photos, sculptures, paintings, and pottery at the MUSEUM OF WESTERN ART {1727 Tremont Place, Denver}.


The railways plowed through the plains. Claims were staked and left empty holes once stripped of their precious metals. So-called pioneers abandoned saloons and brothels almost as soon as they popped up.At one point, Denver nearly became a ghost town.

But the robber barons saw potential in the young, dusty city. With heavy investment, the camp once known as El Dorado transformed into the Rocky Mountains’ cusp of manufacturing.

The American midwest’s most famous art district, RiNo, wasn’t always an arts district. Ironically, RiNo used to be Denver’s industrial district, where factory workers toiled under an 18-hour-day, 6-day workweek that crushed their dreams beneath the behemoth heels of steel and capital.

Alas, Denver’s most creative minds got the last laugh. Artists, after all, have a fairly twisted sense of humor, which you can see for yourself throughout RiNo. Several lavish studios here were once failed factories, warehouses, or depots. By preserving the area's old, oppresive brick-and-aluminum architecture, these studios flip the proverbial bird at industry by forging cutting-edge works in the very places that once snuffed out higher aspirations. Check out BLUE SILO STUDIOS {4701 National Western Drive}, Dry Ice Factory {3300 Walnut Street}, and Ironton Studios {3636 Chestnut Place} to experience historic sites that house some rather ingenious creations. 

Another thing RiNo is famous for: graffiti. The scourge of urban OCDs everywhere, graffiti is lauded as a high art form in RiNo rather than a nuisance. The entire neighborhood sports the most dazzling examples of clever, insightful wall art to ever grace a back alley. From September 17–18, catch the Colorado Crush, a weekend event where Colorado’s best graffiti artists red—along with every other color spectrum. 


In addition to the factories-turned-studios, Denver exhibits a number of small galleries dotted along Santa Fe, where rookie and veteran artists alike show off their newest and boldest creations. The days of immolated seamstresses are no more; today, tourists from around the world visit Santa Fe to share laughs as they critique art nouveau paintings over craft whiskeys and crystal glasses of merlot. Santa Fe is also the spot for Denver’s First Friday celebrations, where the expansive roadway becomes a giant district-wide party of open galleries, wine tastings, and street performances to delight droves of bar-hopping art connoisseurs.


The age of industry led to blind nationalism. Blind nationalism led to two world wars. Ultimately, America and her allies emerged the victors, but not without a price. The atom bomb and the Iron Curtain ushered in a new period of fear-riddled angst. Afraid that the US could lose a cultural war against the USSR, the CIA cooked up a plan. The plan would dethrone Paris as the artistic center of the West, making America the new king of the avant garde. By showing America’s freethinking spirit, by demonstrating our defiant will to expression, the US could defeat the communist ideology of mindless collectivism. To do this, the CIA would act as a covert patron to a new art movement of fringe thinkers: abstract expressionism.

The reason we know about guys like Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko is because of this CIA arts program. This CIA project was so secret it never even got a cool name like “MK Ultra” or “Operation Nocturnal Emission.” This isn’t some cooky conspiracy theory hatched from the darkest recesses of Alex Jones’s dim mind, either. This is documented historical fact.

One beneficiary of this program was Clyfford Still. Even among the weirdos of the abstract expressionists, Still himself was a bit of an outsider. In 2011, Denver became the lucky city selected by Patricia Still, Clyfford’s widow, to house the entirety of Still’s collection. The CLYFFORD STILL MUSEUM {1250 Bannock Street} contains over 3,000 works from this American icon, making it one of the world’s largest galleries devoted to a single artist.

Of all the collections on this list, Still’s requires in-person attendance. You can’t appreciate his paintings by looking at photos of them on the Internet. Some of these canvases are huge; they were designed to loom over the audience. To truly experience them, sometimes you’ve got to crane your neck back. 

Clyfford Still, however, wasn’t alone in this CIA patronage. The DENVER ART MUSEUM {100 West 14th Avenue Parkway} is currently hosting “The Women of Abstract Expressionism” exhibit until September 25. The women in this exhibit, from Elaine de Kooning, to Deborah Remington, to Perle Fine, all benefited from this shadowy benevolence project.

Rarely do art historians discuss the contributions that female artists made to this Cold-War, spy-driven art movement, so catch it while you still can.


As the CIA pushed the abstract expressionists into the public eye, little did they know that America would soon invent another earth-shattering cultural phenomenon: rock and roll. Born from black congregations in the South and on the East Coast, rock and roll would forever cement America’s place in music, art, youth, and pop culture history. Walk through the COLORADO MUSIC HALL OF FAME {17900 Trading Post Road, Morrison} at Red Rocks Amphitheatre to see memorabilia from legends such as The Beatles, U2, and, of course, John Denver. THE FILLMORE AUDITORIUM {1510 North Clarkson Street} off Colfax, too, houses photos and memorabilia from world-famous acts.

1960s–1970s: THE BUELL THEATRE

THE BUELL THEATRE {1350 Curtis Street}, a monument of American stage performance, is probably the most notable building seen from Speer Boulevard. Its owners say it’s the largest art complex “under one roof,” but its history is as strange as anything

else you’d expect in our state. Before the Buell became Colorado’s Broadway, it was a sports stadium. Legend has it that a competing basketball team once placed a hex on our state, and if you’ve followed the Nuggets’s games, you might buy into that tale. The complex’s opening ceremony, back in the late 1960s, included a cleansing ritual which, apparently, didn’t work.

Out-of-towners may be surprised to learn that heavy metal gurus Led Zeppelin performed their first US show here. Or that Spencer Haywood, Colorado’s first superstar athlete, made his name in this very building. If you’re from Denver, then you probably already know that the Buell Theatre showcases some of the most talented performers in the US, whether it’s musicals, ballets, Cirque du Soleil, stand-up acts, or classic plays. And if you happen to be wandering around before or after a show, the top level of the theater’s parking garage has some of the most breathtaking views of the Denver downtown area. {Shhh, I didn’t tell you that.}


After the insanity of the Cold War (supposedly) ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the nation—and the world—transitioned to a new era of artistic thought. Unfortunately, this era, known as the postmodern, sought to defy definition. Its focus on absurdity, cultural fusion, and intellectual play meant its characteristics were difficult to pin down.

The postmod era got its start in New York City. In Denver, located on the 16th Street Mall, sits the DIKEOU COLLECTION {1615 California Street, #515}. This gallery, founded by siblings Devon and Pany Dikeou, is probably the closest thing to New York’s po-mo scene

this side of the Mississippi. The Dikeou Collection houses some of the most wonderfully cute yet capricious works that should tantalize everyone’s inner child—or perhaps make them cry a little. But it’s the good kind of crying, the kind you have when you realize everything society told you is a beautiful lie, and the truth turns out to be not ugly, but awfully hilarious.

Pop art, classical art, religious art—none of it is sacred at the Dikeou Collection, because absurdity, ultimately, is the only truly sacred thing in an absurd world.

If you’re already downtown to check out the Dikeou Collection, you might as well walk a few blocks over to the Denver Art Museum, the granddaddy of all art collections in Colorado. In 2006, the additions of the Duncan Complex and the Hamilton Building nearly tripled the size of this already-gargantuan gallery. True to the spirit of postmodernism’s obsession with

multiculturalism, the Denver Art Museum features nearly every type of culture de l'art imaginable: here, you’ll find pre-Columbian Native American art, full suits of genuine Japanese samurai armor, immortal statues that once guarded Chinese palaces, oil canvases of dancing bears, useless-but-eye-pleasing furniture, portraits of local figures, African masks, and photographs from a time when no one smiled for the camera. If you’re bringing your family to the DAM, there’s an entire section devoted to children.

If you’re still hankering for a taste of the (post) modern, keep the MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART {1485 Delgany Street} at the top of your list. Although its quality is most certainly on par with the DAM, the MCA specializes in modernity. There’s also activities for kids here, such as the Bubble Garden, a miniverse constructed of plastic spheres made to play on. Heck, adults could have a blast here, too.