Painted into a cor­ner

In light of Rhinoceropo­lis clo­sure, will Den­ver do the right thing for its creative class?

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi

W e tend to think of artists as some­thing other than reg­u­lar peo­ple, some­times su­per­hu­man be­cause of their tal­ent, and other times less than hu­man and un­de­serv­ing of the kind of wages that would let them af­ford a de­cent place to live, to raise their fam­i­lies and to make all that cool stuff. Artists are sup­posed to suf­fer, the think­ing goes, and if they don’t like the bo­hemian lifestyle, they should get a real job.

The two ideas are in con­flict and so we go into a bit of de­nial, pre­tend­ing we can have it both ways. We de­clare our pas­sion for art, brag about how creative our city is, and tout the cul­tural sec­tor’s $500 mil­lion im­pact on the re­gion’s econ­omy each year. At the same time, we do lit­tle to pro­vide in­di­vid­ual artists with the re­sources needed to sur­vive in a grow­ing me­trop­o­lis.

Den­ver has boomed over the past decade. The city is big­ger, richer and more in­ter­est­ing than ever. Publi­cand pri­vate-sec­tor investment is through the roof, and ne­glected neigh­bor­hoods are spring­ing back to life. And in all of this, artists have been left be­hind.

The for­saken ware­houses, store­fronts and apart­ment build­ings around the ur­ban core, where they carved out cheap stu­dio and liv­ing space over the past two decades, are now hot real es­tate com­modi­ties. De­vel­op­ers are buy­ing them up and turn­ing them into high-end apart­ment build­ings and gourmet food halls and forc­ing out any­one who can’t pay the jacked-up rents. Both the trendy RiNo and High­land neigh­bor­hoods — un­til just a year or two ago the most im­por­tant in­cu­ba­tors of art in the city — are los­ing gal­leries, work spa­ces and artists in droves.

Ear­lier this month, it all came to a dis­as­trous cli­max when Rhinoceropo­lis, ar­guably RiNo’s most im­por­tant un­der­ground art venue, was shut down by the Den­ver Fire Depart­ment, show­ing a sud­den con­cern about artist-run spa­ces here in the wake of a no­to­ri­ous Oakland, Calif., ware­house fire that killed 36 peo­ple. In­spec­tors popped by, found a few vi­o­la­tions and closed

the doors on the spot. The hand­ful of artists who were liv­ing there were sent im­me­di­ately pack­ing on one of the cold­est days of the year.

No more de­nial. No more pre­tend­ing. Peo­ple lost their homes — peo­ple who should not have been liv­ing there and prob­a­bly knew it. And Den­ver had to face up to the fact that it couldn’t look the other way and al­low a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion to con­tinue.

There’s an im­me­di­ate loss here. Rhinoceropo­lis was a place where young artists found their souls, where art and mu­sic at var­i­ous stages of ma­tu­rity — most of it good, some not — got to be heard and seen. It was an un­con­scious in­cu­ba­tor for tal­ent, a ca­sual scene where artists could be weird and ad­ven­tur­ous and get some ac­tual feed­back from their peers. The place may come back, per­haps as a mu­sic venue, though dam­age to its free­wheel­ing at­mos­phere has been done.

But there’s also a broader re­al­iza­tion that Den­ver has been liv­ing a lie, act­ing like a place that’s friendly to the art com­mu­nity while giv­ing it the shaft. If not Rhinoceropo­lis for artists, then where? What’s left? Swank town­houses have grown like weeds in RiNo while the Hin­ter­land, Rule and Ice Cube gal­leries — places that make al­most no money but serve a cru­cial, cul­tural pur­pose — have been priced out. RiNo built its 21st cen­tury rep­u­ta­tion on the fact that artists chose to hang out there and then, build­ing-by­build­ing, block-by-block, oblit­er­ated their abil­ity to re­main. Or, at least, to re­main there safely.

Rhinoceropo­lis may be crip­pled, but young artists will find new places to in­habit that are equally un­safe and pose dan­gers to them­selves and ev­ery­one around. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion isn’t go­ing to re­move this hearty class of cit­i­zens, just drive it deeper un­der­ground.

The city of Oakland, jolted out of its own de­nial by a hor­rific tragedy, is com­ing to terms with this re­al­ity. A coali­tion of phil­an­thropic groups has do­nated $1.7 mil­lion to help cre­ate safe and af­ford­able spa­ces for artists.

There are in­creas­ing calls for Den­ver to find its own so­lu­tion.

“Cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions like Rhinoceropo­lis must have a home here in Den­ver if we want to truly be a first-class city with a creative soul,” the non­profit RiNo Art Dis­trict or­ga­ni­za­tion said in a state­ment that la­beled the fire depart­ment evic­tions “a knee-jerk re­sponse” to the Oakland event.

That was fol­lowed by a call to arms by the Den­ver Com­mis­sion on Cul­tural Af­fairs, a vol­un­teer group that helps the city set arts pol­icy, which claimed artists are “on the brink of real cri­sis.”

Re­cently, about 100 cre­atives — artists, cu­ra­tors, teach­ers and oth­ers — is­sued an open let­ter to civic and busi­ness lead­ers chastis­ing the city for prof­it­ing from the artis­tic com­mu­nity’s la­bor while “be­ing in­dif­fer­ent at best, and hos­tile at worst, to the in­di­vid­u­als who con­sti­tute its foun­da­tion.”

By let­ting de­vel­op­ers take over the ter­rain of artists and forc­ing them to scram­ble for space, the city is turn­ing its back on a whole gen­er­a­tion of young artists who will have to go else­where, or skirt the edges of the law, the cre­atives ar­gued. Den­ver is “es­sen­tially turn­ing off the tap to the pool of fu­ture creative class pro­fes­sion­als.”

There are a few reme­dies on the ta­ble. The RiNo Arts Dis­trict plans to ex­plore zon­ing changes that could al­low more live/work res­i­den­tial build­ings. The city’s Arts & Venues Depart­ment has been col­lab­o­rat­ing with Artspace, a Min­neapo­lis-based, non­profit de­vel­oper on a RiNo project that will pro­vide up to 100 low-rent, live/ work units for artists.

Both are nec­es­sary ideas, but not enough. De­vel­op­ers won’t cre­ate the cheap, flex­i­ble spa­ces artists need un­less there’s money in it, and 100 af­ford­able rental units barely scratches the sur­face. It’s not just RiNo and High­land. Artists are now be­ing pushed out of the nearby Santa Fe Arts Dis­trict and far­ther-out places like the in­dus­trial ar­eas around the Na­tional West­ern Stock Show com­plex. Even Rhinoceropo­lis it­self was prob­a­bly a goner. The Brighton Boule­vard build­ing was sold in 2015 to a de­vel­oper who is reimag­in­ing the en­tire block.

This prob­lem, like most, will need money and gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion if we want to fix it: tax in­cen­tives for de­vel­op­ers who do the right thing; rules that en­cour­age res­i­den­tial build­ings to set aside work­able units for cre­atives; sub­si­dies to land­lords in tar­geted ar­eas who rent to painters, film­mak­ers and com­posers.

The pub­lic needs to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on, and that will re­quire cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions, es­pe­cially the ma­jor mu­se­ums, to show lead­er­ship and ad­vo­cate on be­half of lo­cal artists, in­stead of act­ing as if civic is­sues are out of their con­cern. Architects and en­trepreneurs need to come up with off-beat so­lu­tions. Pub­lic of­fi­cials needs to guide growth in the di­rec­tion of in­clu­sive­ness — or they need to stop tout­ing artists as one of those things that make Den­ver great.

And artists them­selves need to make some noise. “It’s time to be louder,” urged the RiNo Arts Dis­trict in its mis­sive. “It’s time to be bolder.”

Tom, a Rhinoceropo­lis res­i­dent and mu­si­cian car­ries in­stru­ments to his car be­fore Den­ver fire safety and city of­fi­cials in­spect the DIY venue and stu­dio space for artists and mu­si­cians. Pho­tos by Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

Res­i­dent Made­line John­ston works to clear the spa­ces as oth­ers gather their be­long­ings.

Fine arts critic Ray Mark Ri­naldi is a vet­eran jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic, vis­ual art, opera, dance and more. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @rayri­naldi

Den­ver Post

Stephan Her­rera — an artist and mu­si­cian — stands in front of the Rhinoceropo­lis build­ing be­fore the city it. Joe Amon, The

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