What Happened Part III: Art in an Evolving City

Part three of a four-part series examining gentrification in Denver, its history, causes, and where our city is going next. Part three examines the role of art and artists in Denver’s development, and how it is managed by the City.

By Robert Davis 

  Reid’s “March To Progress” mural, which was eventually accepted by the Commission. It now hangs in the Red Rocks Room at the concert venue. (Credit: Andrew Reid)

Reid’s “March To Progress” mural, which was eventually accepted by the Commission. It now hangs in the Red Rocks Room at the concert venue. (Credit: Andrew Reid)

Brighton Boulevard in the River North District, late 1990s — no one knew this area by name yet. But there was a plan in the works to ensure that changed. 

After Mickey Zeppelin launched his mixed-use TAXI project, which revitalized a dilapidated taxi depot in the neighborhood, graphic designers and software gurus started moving in. The area soon shortened its name to RiNo, or River North, a moniker meant to capture a glimpse of the area’s new trendy residents.  

In 2003, the City & County of Denver developed the River North Plan. It included strategies to add more mixed-use zoning for developments in order to take advantage of a community the city deemed to be an “Area of Change”— one that can “accommodate growth because of the opportunity to create mixed-use development in conjunction with exceptional transportation access,” according to the plan. 

The City & County recognized that RiNo offered new residents a more affordable housing situation than what was found in Lower Downtown (LoDo) or in the Central Platte Valley. They planned to build affordable housing to accommodate residents making 60 percent of the city’s median income. However, rezoning an area that is primarily industrial proved to be both challenging and expensive. 

The area was still missing its allure to potential residents. Simply putting up new apartments wasn’t going to do the trick. So, what’s a city to do? 

Enter: the artists.

“Art is a social thing and people flock to it,” said Andrew Reid, an artist currently living in Miami who has been selected to create multiple public art works in Denver. “People pay attention to the storylines, and on top of that, it is an extremely cost-efficient way to attract people. It’s a model that works, and Denver knows that. The city has a long history of public art. Such a small investment can bring big returns.” 

A survey conducted in 2006 by ArtSpace, a nonprofit arts developer, found that over 1,000 artists in the area identified as being in need of affordable housing. So the city accommodated the need and built 90 affordable housing units in RiNo, some of which were designated as creative space.  

Now, the area is home to nearly 3,200 creative businesses and supports 30,400 creative jobs, according to the River North Arts District. These businesses include breweries, dispensaries, art galleries, and restaurants. 

For an artist, these businesses offer part-time work with lucratively flexible scheduling, and enough money to help support one’s creative talents. Conversely, the area has become another trap for those trying to work their way out of poverty in Denver. 

  Andrew Reid’s Red Rocks mural which was rejected by Denver’s Commission on Cultural Affairs. Reid says it seemed like one committee member controlled the decisions of which works were accepted and which were not. (Credit: Andrew Reid)

Andrew Reid’s Red Rocks mural which was rejected by Denver’s Commission on Cultural Affairs. Reid says it seemed like one committee member controlled the decisions of which works were accepted and which were not. (Credit: Andrew Reid)

Taxing Cultural Capital Gains

Cultural capital has always been the soft-power weapon of choice for cities across the U.S. It’s how they attract new residents and businesses, often at the expense of the working and lower class population. 

Denver is no exception. 

Developers seemingly follow artists into low-income neighborhoods, bringing with them tastes for upscale coffee shops and boutique pastries. This creates new demand for housing in depressed neighborhoods which drives up their sale and rental value, thereby churning out the residents who can no longer afford to keep their home.

Sociologists have coined a term to describe this phenomenon: “artwashing.” 

“Artwashing” encapsulates both the use of art within city planning and the effects such planning have on artists. Cities will mask redevelopment under the guise of creating an “Arts District.” These districts often amass enough cultural capital to lure high-class investors into an area. Artists must then decide between creating art they love and creating art that will pay for their rising cost of living. 

“I think the trope of the starving artist has been played up to make their art seem more honorable,” said Pat Milbery, founder of SoGnar Creative Divisions. “At the same time, this stereotype is used by businesses and art collectors alike to purchase art for below market value prices.”

The Hand That Feeds

Denver has made much ado about creating an inclusive development model that includes supporting public arts programs on a state level. Artists such as Milbery support Denver’s initiatives to create channels where artists can build their careers. 

But the regulations the city uses to police public art are both banal and archaic, according to Milbery. In effect, they can create disincentives for artists to make art that they love and instead reward those that can tailor their art to fit the city’s message of development. 

Permitting is one way the city accomplishes this. 

Artists that want to paint murals need to get a signed permit from Denver’s Arts & Venues Department before commencing. Other departments, such as Zoning and Public Works, can get involved depending on the size of the art work in question.  

Denver also requires private property owners to sign a release form stating they approve of the work being placed on their property. Otherwise, an artist’s work could be considered graffiti or vandalism, subjecting the artist to punishments ranging from fines to jail time. 

Another way the city controls its artistic representation is through state grants and the public art selection process itself. 

Artists who wish to contribute murals to the city’s public art typically utilize the Urban Arts Fund, which was created in 2007 under former mayor, now governor, John Hickenlooper. The goal of the Fund is to create murals in what were considered “graffiti hotspots” around the city in order to deter future vandalism.

UAF claims to have facilitated the creation of 250 murals and abated 350,000 square feet of vandalized walls. 

The Denver Partners Against Graffiti (DPAG) work in concert with the UAF to provide free graffiti removal assistance on business and residential properties within the City & County of Denver, painting over art considered vandalism by the community. 

Coincidentally the neighborhoods which have the highest concentration of graffiti are also some of Denver’s poorest, including Elyria Swansea and Five Points. So far, DPAG has erased over 51,000 square feet of street art from both Elyria Swansea and Five Points, according to a report by Denverite.  

Denver relies on a seven-member panel to select the art works which will replace the vandalized areas. Only one member of the panel is an artist. The others include: three community representatives living in the neighborhood, an arts professional, a public arts committee member, and a member of Denver’s Commission on Cultural Affairs.

To artists such as Andrew Reid, who painted “March To Progress” which hangs in the Red Rocks Room at the state’s most famous concert venue, this process can be easily controlled by one person. 

According to Reid, the selection of one of his works went outside the norms of the typical double-blind judging process artists normally endure when bidding for work. 

“When I was commissioned to do ‘March To Progress,’ it seemed as though this one administrator was in charge of securing my work, not the committee. I sent him my original painting, and he rejected it. Then I was asked to paint what is currently hanging [in the Red Rocks Room],” Reid said. 

Denver has also strengthened its hand in the art community by requiring businesses and developers to spend at least one percent of a project’s funding toward procuring art as a part of the city’s Capital Improvements Project (CIP). 

City ordinance § 20-86 defines what Denver considers to be public art. This includes, graphics, murals, and sound effects among others. 

 “I think the city wants to have its hand in street art for multiple reasons. One is money, of course. Another is to positively influence the narrative around the city’s image outside of Colorado,” Milbery said.

  A mural by Pat Milbery displayed in Englewood. Milbery admits his work has been criticized as being a part of city planning because he often paints large-scale murals. He says, “Businesses, especially, believe they can’t afford my art because it’s so wide-spread around the city.” (Credit: Robert Davis)

A mural by Pat Milbery displayed in Englewood. Milbery admits his work has been criticized as being a part of city planning because he often paints large-scale murals. He says, “Businesses, especially, believe they can’t afford my art because it’s so wide-spread around the city.” (Credit: Robert Davis)

Towards a More Vibrant Future

Public art transforms the way communities see their share of a city. 

It can also be used to promote urban renewal projects and the civic ideals a city intends for its residents to live by. 

“Public art addresses the community it serves,” Reid said. “Street art can be placed anywhere, but public art, to me, is a very localized thing. It comes with the pride of engaging communities you don’t usually see.”

Both the Denver Metro Vision 2020 and 2035 plans include language that supports the regional vibrancy of the Greater Denver Region. Many of the neighboring communities around Denver have adopted ordinances that allow public art to be displayed. 

Still, Denver’s attachment to vibrancy seems to be suffocating its art scene. Once the city accepts the various viewpoints surrounding its development, the chains currently constraining the city’s public art could vanish. ■