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How Denver is making a name for itself as an arts destination

The Jesse & Nellie Shwayder Asian Art Galleries at the Denver Art Museum. (James Floris Photography/Denver Art Museum)

How I got here, I’m not sure. But if I’m ever going to get out, I will have to get my bearings.

I’m standing in the doorway of a neon-hued, see-through cathedral within a high-ceilinged cave made of icy stalactites. There’s not one mouth to said cave, but several, each of which will spit me out into another equally head-scratching environment: a steampunk alien cityscape, a network of eerie catacombs and a swamp world that, perhaps appropriately, reminds me of “The NeverEnding Story.”

It’s not a fever dream. It’s the Meow Wolf Denver, a new 90,000-square-foot menagerie of intergalactic, interactive art pieces loosely structured around the narrative that this is what it would look like if four dissimilar, Marvel-esqe universes collided and merged. Since its announcement, the multiyear art project has been one of the most talked-about additions to the Denver landscape. Partially because its creation called upon the skills of myriad local artists, each of whom, said Meow Wolf spokesperson Erin Barnes, “were given their own spaces and the creative freedom to create their own world within the larger worlds.”

While Meow Wolf is a new and exciting trip, it’s far from the only place in Denver where you can be consumed by art. Although the Mile High City has long been known as a jumping-off point for outdoor adventures and a nirvana for beer geeks, its status as a destination for art lovers has somewhat flown under the radar. But, no longer.

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“I think Denver has always had a robust art scene. There have always been artists here, from graffiti writers, to visual artists, to graphic designers, to photographers, there’s a ton of art represented here,” said Andrew Novick, a lifelong, well-known Denver creative. “But it’s not really been known to outside folks until more recently.”

Beyond Meow Wolf, in the past few months, Denver has witnessed the reopening of the Denver Art Museum and the 50th anniversary of its Martin Building, welcomed the Denver Center for Performing Arts back to the stage for the first time since the pandemic, and hosted (two!) immersive Vincent van Gogh exhibits. They’re all events that have drawn new eyes to the capital city’s art scene from locals and potential visitors and that have served as a gateway to exploring the greater art scene more deeply.

Although there are few places in Denver where art isn’t found, there are certain places where it’s particularly abundant, such as the Golden Triangle Creative District. It’s home to the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, the McNichols Civic Center Building, Clyfford Still Museum, Kirkland Museum, Curious Theatre Company and the Denver Art Museum. The latter is not only home to an impressive collection of textbook-worthy artists (van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claude Monet), but it’s also the hub of the neighborhood and the place that has seen the most recent change. The north side of the campus was closed for three years for a complete revamping — a $175 million project — and reopened in October.

“The renovation gave us the opportunity to reinvent the museum and to rethink all the collections, combinations of works, the stories that we tell and how to include our communities,” said Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum.

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Part of finding new ways to share stories and being inclusive comes in the form of interactive displays, wherein visitors can listen to short video clips recorded by the artists that explain what the works are trying to convey, a move that also makes the art and its meaning more accessible for patrons. Other new elements include a glass-walled welcome center, an overhaul of the levels that house the permanent collection, new spaces for education and new collections to uplift the voices and talents of minority communities.

So far, the reception has been good. “I think that people were interested in the arts, but in recent years, it’s become more of something that people want to participate in,” Heinrich said of the response. It’s a belief that Novick echoes: “When Denver decides we like something, like microbreweries, or the outdoors, or in this case, art, we go all in.”

If the Golden Triangle is where art is seen, River North Art District (a.k.a. RiNo) is where art is made. The former industrial area is one of the buzziest spots in Denver, with oodles of playful food halls, experimental cocktail bars and breweries, and a liberal peppering of street-art pieces, studios and galleries.

Here you can track down murals (or hire the Denver Graffiti Tour company to lead the way), attend a workshop at Modern Nomad, see new exhibits at the artist-run Dateline, noodle around the Dry Ice Factory artist co-op or meet the rotating artists-in-residence at the RedLine Contemporary Art Center. The area is also home to Crush Walls, a wildly popular annual art event held in September that brings about 100 graffiti artists from around the world to splash new pieces on RiNo’s walls.

And for the largest concentration of art galleries in the state, there’s the Art District on Santa Fe. The area offers art forms including mixed media, photography, painting and sculpture. On the first Friday of each month, the community hosts the First Friday Art Walk.

It’s also worth noting, particularly for visitors to the city, that art isn’t limited to studios, galleries, museums and public spaces. It has permeated many of the area hotels, too.

Take, for instance, the Catbird Hotel, which recently opened. It features pieces spanning the texture, material and color spectrum, from emerging and underrepresented artists, including unique eight- to 15-inch handmade ceramic sculptures in each room, ironic family portraits (many of which include cat and bird motifs), multiple murals and boundary-pushing installations. Nine dot Arts, the Denver-based company that serves as art consultants and curators for Catbird and various other hotels nationwide, describes the whimsy of it as “an ode to everyone’s favorite eccentric aunt.” It’s just one of many art-forward hotels in Denver, including the Maven Hotel at Dairy Block, the Halcyon, the Art, the Ramble Hotel, the Curtis, the Clayton and more.

Eventually, with the help of a Meow Wolf cast member wearing a hooded cloak and neon makeup, I locate the exit. Although it’s possible to try to unravel the narrative — the explanation of how Convergence Station came to be — through clues hidden throughout the experience, I opted to just enjoy the art. That alone was a lot to take in. Really, given its size and offerings, all of Denver’s art scene can be a lot to take in.

I later asked Novick, someone who has witnessed the evolution of art in Denver over several decades, what words he would use to describe it.

He paused and considered the question, before finally saying: “It’s hard to sum up the scene in a couple of words, but I would say it’s really varied. We’re not known for any one thing, but there’s so much of everything.”

Berg is a writer based in Colorado Springs. Find her on Twitter (@baileybergs) and Instagram (@byebaileyberg).


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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