Painted into a corner
In light of Rhinoceropolis closure, will Denver do the right thing for its creative class?
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
Stephan Herrera — an artist and musician — stands in front of the Rhinoceropolis building before the city it. Joe Amon, The