Years ago — when he was in college — Doug Kacena read somewhere that only about 25% of Americans visit art museums or private art galleries.
Still, Kacena, owner/curator of K Contemporary art gallery, 1412 Wazee St., in lower downtown Denver, believes that people want to be able to experience art.
The COVID-19 pandemic hampered the public’s ability to access the art experience. But galleries have come up with innovative, creative ways to keep the public engaged.
And because now art can be experienced in more ways than ever before, it’s likely that these creative solutions will go on well past 2021.
Bringing the art experience to the people
When galleries had to close, “artists had every one of their shows canceled for an entire season,” Kacena said.
This created a nearly overwhelming amount of live-stream and social media videos of art being created at home, as artists felt the urgency to get something in front of people, Kacena said.
Although it’s great that technology can assist in providing people an experience with the arts, Kacena said, the amount of videos — and having to choose which to follow — during the shutdown was a lot for the average consumer and even the most experienced art enthusiasts.
Kacena then asked: “How do we take a mindful approach to all this?”
Both for the public’s enjoyment and to support the artists, Kacena realized that more than ever, there was a need to bring the art experience to the people.
He wanted to find a viable way to accomplish that need and thought of the billboard trucks and how they were effective for advertising campaigns. So he made a few phone calls and was able to get a billboard truck to launch a mobile art exhibit that made its way around the city. Kacena then formed a few partnerships with other organizations, and around Juneteenth — which was June 19, 2020 — put on another mobile event that, in addition to the art on the billboard trucks, featured Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and musicians who were supposed to perform at the Five Points Jazz Festival. Athena Project, a nonprofit that empowers women in the arts, got involved and during the summer, a few more #ArtFindsUs events took place.
“Art is an activator for experience” and “a catalyst for conversation,” Kacena said. “I want to spark that conversation.”
Heading into the New Year, K Contemporary opened two exhibits on Dec. 19. As of Now III celebrates the gallery’s three-year anniversary, and Possibilities features blank canvases placed around the gallery to encourage people to commission their own unique artwork.
“We’re asking people to say, `I want to bring something beautiful to the world next year,’” Kacena said.
Support the arts however you can
Shelley Schreiber is a ceramics artist of southeast Denver who has been teaching at the Art Students League of Denver, 200 Grant St., for about 15 years.
There are many different reasons that people like to take art classes, Schreiber said. For some, it’s to mark something off a bucket list, and for others, it’s the sense of community. Some people take classes to learn a new skill and others do it to enhance a technique, Schreiber said.
The Art Students League closed in March, and reopened in September for limited in-person classes that can’t be done virtually, such as ceramics and printmaking. Classes such as drawing and painting are still being offered virtually.
What has been hardest on the students is having restrictions on their time in the studio, Schreiber said. The students are used to being able to come in whenever they want and have unlimited access to the studio, she added.
“But, everybody’s really thankful that they can come in at all,” Schreiber said. “Artists are struggling. Just being able to do their art is a big deal right now.”
Schreiber believes, however, that when the opportunity comes, people will go back to visiting galleries and museums on a regular basis, taking art classes and attending art fairs and festivals.
But in the meantime, it is important to support artists in whatever way you can, she said. Schreiber suggests viewing art in the avenues available to you, whether it be in-person or virtual.
“Figure out what you like,” she said, “and follow that.”
Also, ask questions, Schreiber added.
“And if you love it, purchase it,” she said.
‘It’s not the art that sells, it’s the individual.’
Bill Sotomayor, a geomechanical abstract artist who lives in Capitol Hill, gave up his corporate job in November 2000 to pursue a career in the arts.
“Never do you understand what a ‘starving artist’ is until you’ve lived it,” Sotomayor said.
He opened a gallery in northwest Denver, but that didn’t work out, he said.
“I realized I wanted to be the artist, not in the business of art,” Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor started creating the geomechanical abstract art he currently focuses on about 10 years ago.
“I love abstraction because it comes straight from who I am,” Sotomayor said. “It’s not the art that sells, it’s the individual.”
Sotomayor believes that people in the Denver metro area do support the arts, and that once people get more comfortable with going out again, Denver’s art scene is going to “go straight up.”
“People are anxious to get out of their home and see new things,” Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor is looking forward to 2021 and feels honored to be RPO Framing and Gallery’s first artist exhibit. Robert Platz and his wife Julie Lizak took over the business — formerly called Old South Frame and Gallery — at 1588 S. Pearl St. in Denver’s Platt Park neighborhood on Sept. 1. Both Platz and Lizak are artists themselves and they envisioned the gallery highlighting their work and that of other local artists.
Additionally, Sotomayor’s show at RPO Framing and Gallery, which takes place through January and will be following COVID-19 restrictions and social distance precautions, will be his first with his geomechanical abstract art in a Colorado gallery.
Though “people are hungry to engage with others face-to-face,” Sotomayor said, “the pandemic has opened an avenue to do things differently.”
Namely, Sotomayor has gained a worldwide following on his social media accounts where he regularly posts updates on how he creates his art.
Denver’s art scene in the future
Aside from art galleries — which is a retail business — not being able to host in-person events with the artists during the shutdown, many artists were closed out of their studios, said Bobbi Walker, owner of Walker Fine Art, 300 W 11th Ave., in Denver’s Golden Triangle.
Galleries came up with creative ways to market the exhibitions and artists virtually, and what came out of that was a silver lining for artists, Walker said.
“The pandemic allowed us the opportunity to emphasize the artist’s story behind the art,” Walker said. “People were able to slow down and take in the story.”
A person can now customize how they experience art, which creates an even more robust experience for the viewer, Walker said. For example, Walker Fine Art has an online viewing room for every exhibit on its website that includes virtual tours and artist-collector dialogue. The dialogue includes getting to hear the artist speak about their artwork, why collectors collect and the concept behind an exhibit from the curator, for example. The gallery will also be implementing a Zoom panel discussion, which will be available for its upcoming exhibit, Upon Closer Reflection, available to view beginning Jan. 15.
Pop-up and mobile art exhibits like #ArtFindsUs and the new hybrid experience of in-person and virtual viewing are something that Walker believes will likely carry on through 2021 and beyond.
And, of course, it’s up to the community to keep the arts vibrant in Denver.
“The community needs to rally around the arts,” Walker said. “Arts and culture is critical to our understanding of humanity, and artists play a role in creating the dialogue.”
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