High-Altitude Arts: Denver Arts Tour

High-Altitude Arts: Denver Arts Tour
Ask people in Denver what they love about their city, and you’ll hear the same answers again and again: the snow-capped Rockies draped across the horizon, 300 days of sunshine a year, a bustling downtown district and Denver’s outdoor-loving spirit.

Chances are, you’ll also hear one other topic mentioned: the arts. This region of more than 2.5 million has an ever-increasing appetite for all things artistic — and Denver is willing to put money behind that passion. A self-imposed sales tax raises more than US$ 38 million a year, which is distributed to more than 300 arts organizations and facilities. The result is a rich smorgasbord of artistic offerings concentrated in one beautiful region of the West.

The Denver Art Museum, for example, expands its complex on October 7 with the opening of the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which nearly doubles the size of the museum’s exhibit space. It was designed by acclaimed architect Daniel Libeskind, master-plan architect for the World Trade Center Memorial site in New York City. Libeskind’s design for Denver’s art museum extension is a soaring, geometric edifice clad in glass and titanium.

Pismo Fine Art Glass exhibits the works of both well-known and up-and-coming artists.
Pismo Fine Art Glass exhibits the works of both well-known and up-and-coming artists.

Founded more than a century ago, the Denver Art Museum boasts more than 60,000 works of art. In addition to a full schedule of world-class exhibits, the museum is renowned for its American Indian, pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art collections.

Three diverse new exhibits will open on October 7, when the museum re-opens, following construction. They include the modern and contemporary works of “RADAR: Selections from the Collection of Vicki & Kent Logan,” “Japanese Art from the Colorado Collection of Kimiko & John Powers” and “Breaking the Mold: The Virginia Vogel Mattern Collection of Contemporary Native American Art.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art is also getting new digs, a 25,000-square-foot (2,323 m²) facility in LoDo (Lower Downtown) that’s scheduled to open in mid-2007. One of the largest Victorian districts in the country, LoDo is among Denver’s most popular neighborhoods — and for good reason. Century-old, red-brick warehouses have been restored and turned into thriving businesses, loft apartments, lively brew pubs, music clubs and award-winning restaurants.

The district is also home to some 30 galleries. Robischon Gallery, which offers a wide range of modern art, is within walking distance of Union Station, the town’s historic train station, and Coors Field, home to the Colorado Rockies baseball team.

Other galleries can be found near Writer’s Square, just a quick walk from Denver’s pedestrian-friendly 16th Street Mall. Among these galleries is Knox Galleries, which showcases monumental bronze sculptures. Nearby is Ernest Fuller Fine Art, which is known for its representational art, including sculpture and etchings by nationally acclaimed artists.

But all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover a wealth of independent Denver galleries offering everything from very affordable pieces to works by the world’s top artists.

Pismo Fine Art Glass, located in Cherry Creek North, an upscale neighborhood and shopping district, offers this diverse range. Among the works available are chandeliers by renowned American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.

“Dale has elevated blown glass from a craft to an art, and is represented in museums around the world,” says owner Sandy Sardella. “[Italian] Lino Tagliapietra is another of the most-talented glass artists in the world. He is now in his early 70s, and continues to amaze us with his creativity and genius.”

Pismo also offers the works of up-and-coming artists. “It’s often difficult to bridge the gap between affordable art for the home and museum-quality work for the discriminating collector,” says Sardella. Yet Pismo can do just that.

The Sandra Phillips Gallery, on Santa Fe Drive, specializes in contemporary art.
The Sandra Phillips Gallery, on Santa Fe Drive, specializes in contemporary art.

If glass isn’t your thing, you’ll likely find your favorite style of art in Cherry Creek North. With some 500 stores, it is the largest shopping district between St. Louis and San Francisco. Family-owned Saks Galleries has been bringing fine art to Colorado for over 40 years, specializing in 20th century American and European oils, watercolors and bronzes, as well as estate collectibles such as silver, furniture and textiles.

Just a few blocks down is Show of Hands, a thriving gallery that just celebrated its 23rd birthday. Started by a group of artists, Show of Hands is a favorite with locals as well as visiting collectors, representing artists from around the country, including shadow-box artist Scott Lyon and Michael Bauermeister, an artist who sculpts wooden vessels.

“We’ve tried to stay as true as possible to handmade craft,” says co-owner Douglas Brugger. That dedication has paid off. NICHE magazine named Show of Hands as one of the “Top 100 Retailers of American Craft” 11 years in a row. This year, the award changed to the top 25 and Show of Hands still landed a spot.

Many of the region’s top artists got their starts in cooperatives. “Denver is known for having one of the finest cooperative arts scenes in the country,” says Sandra Phillips, president of Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe.

One of those cooperatives is SPARK Gallery, which has been going strong since 1979. The gallery is located in the growing Art District on Santa Fe, in the heart of Denver’s Hispanic and Latino community.

For years, Denver’s Santa Fe Drive was a rundown street, an overlooked stepchild on the outskirts of a vibrant downtown community. As prices rose downtown, several galleries moved to Santa Fe Drive, which was more affordable. The plucky gallery owners put their heads together and created an arts district that was the first of its kind in Denver.

Today, the street is an eclectic mix of theater, galleries, restaurants — even the forthright Museo de las Americas, the Rocky Mountain region’s premier museum of Latino and indigenous art and history. Changing exhibits feature basketry, textiles and ceramics.

Parking spaces along Santa Fe are not easy to find, but it’s worth the visit, as the area is an excellent place to spend the afternoon browsing. Most of the galleries in the district are small and fiercely independent. Several reflect the neighborhood’s Latino heritage.

Another Mile High favorite is Abend Gallery Fine Art, in the Wyman Historical District, an area that was once home to Denver’s wealthiest residents, including famed Titanic survivor Margaret “Molly” Brown. The Abend Gallery offers rotating exhibits, and has a special fondness for local talent. In 2004 and 2005, Abend was named Readers’ Choice “Top Art Gallery” by Denver’s city magazine, 5280.

If you’re visiting Abend, you’ll also want to stop in at the Savageau Gallery, just a few steps away. The gallery specializes in art by early Colorado and Western artists.

Galleries along Santa Fe Drive form a one-of-a-kinds arts district that represents Denver’s independent voices.
Galleries along Santa Fe Drive form a one-of-a-kinds arts district that represents Denver’s independent voices.

Owner Earnest Bonner is a former stockbroker who turned his passion and knowledge of African American art into a one-of-a-kind gallery experience. Artists can often be found onsite, and a jazz band entertains visitors twice a month. Just meeting Bonner and experiencing his quick wit and infectious enthusiasm for the art is worth the trip in itself.

Every summer, Denver celebrates the arts at the annual Cherry Creek Arts Festival. This three-day festival is one of the nation’s most competitive juried events; last year only 234 participants were invited from a pool of 2,000 applicants.

The festival is a family-friendly affair. Visitors can enjoy live performances and kids’ activities, sample local cuisine and meet exhibiting artists in person.

From colorful festivals to world-class museums to independent galleries, Denver is firmly supportive of the arts — and why not? The arts are a beautiful part of life, and that, in itself, is something to be celebrated.

If You Go

Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau


Visit this site for gallery listings, addresses and other helpful information. The first Friday of each month is the best time to visit Denver, as most galleries stay open late during the monthly Denver Art Walk.