DENVER — When a tree was removed from Jessica Langley and Ben Kinsley’s apartment courtyard in Ridgewood, Queens, laundry lines were strung up in the space it left behind. “I just wanted to hang laundry,” Kinsley confessed on a call with Hyperallergic, but Langley noticed herself judging a neighbor with four versions of the same shirt. She seized the opportunity of spectatorship and started the Stephen and George Laundry Line in 2015. Artists made work that weighed less than a load of wet laundry, could stay out in all weather, and did not exceed the dimensions of the line. Neighbor kids would yell from windows “what is that?!” and “it’s art!” was the answer.
In 2017, Kinsley was offered a faculty position at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. The husband-wife duo moved across the country and became homeowners an hour south of Denver. Their new neighbors repeatedly shared how the previous owner maintained such a nice yard, which Langley and Kinsley had let it go dry. “We knew that they were already looking and judging,” observed Kinsley, so they launched the Yard in front of their home.
Langley and Kinsley knew their rotating installations were having an impact early in the project when a neighbor left an art review on the app NextDoor: “If you liked the yellow head sculpture [Jerstin Crosby] you are going to love this [Laura Lappi’s “Study of Charring Wood and Burning Structures II].” Delivery truck drivers, mail carriers, and dog walkers often chat with the artists during install and become upset when an artwork is removed. The labor of love has personal costs beyond material expenses — a nest of black widows took up residence under Jody Joyner’s “The Infinite Lawn”; Juliack’s “Transverse Receptors” covered their windows, blocking sunlight inside the home for three months; and a textile work by the art collective FASTWÜRMS tied up the couple’s car for its duration. Langley and Kinsley shrug off these inconveniences and gleefully share that some mornings they open their curtains in pajamas with coffee in hand to find people wandering around taking pictures of art in the Yard.
The Yard is one of many artist-led venues in or near Denver engaging new audiences through unusual means. Many of these venues exist out of a need to exhibit and experiment when funding is scarce. The National Assembly of State Art Agencies ranks Colorado #46 in total legislative appropriations to the arts per capita, or 0.014% of the state general fund expenditures. Colorado did follow national trends with increased funding in 2021 and 2022, in response to the pandemic. However, one-time appropriations are excluded from the rankings because there is no indication they will be repeated in future budgets. For example, Colorado redirected $15.5 million from the state’s general fund to the Colorado Artist Relief Program, but typically allocates $2 million or less for creative industries annually. In light of this reality, alternative art spaces can build opportunities and delay departures by artists seeking better professional conditions across state lines.
As with the Yard, the line between public and private is often blurred with these spaces, as artists work with whatever is available. Denver’s Dateline gallery has been running out of Jeromie Dorrance’s living room for almost eight years. Poet Sommer Browning’s garage transforms into Georgia Art Space every summer since 2017. Yes Ma’am Projects hosted exhibitions in the basement of artist Derrick Velasquez’s home until COVID-19 hit. Months later, Velasquez teamed up with Lauren Hartog to start Friend of a Friend (FOAF) in a 200-square-foot room at the Evans’ School, a former public school built in 1904, that is awaiting construction permits to become a restaurant and shopping complex. It was the only space for rent he could find in Denver under $1,000, so Velasquez budgeted to spend $5,000 of his own money on the project over a seven-month lease, but sales have been good, and FOAF’s 30% commission has covered the rent. “We don’t overcomplicate anything,” noted Velasquez regarding shipping costs and focusing on local artists, “we don’t have the capacity for it.”
Longevity is not often a priority for alternative art galleries, but it is the primary goal for artists Frankie Toan and Therin Zimmerman who started Rainbow Dome in October 2021. They wanted to create a queer-friendly space for interactive art and community-centered events that could sustain a permanent location and resist the upheavals of urban development that closed other artist spaces. Two hundred people attended Rainbow Dome’s one-day event last year, so, four months later, Zimmerman and Toan established an LLC and have since tried to acquire real estate. They believe a broad audience will come for the skating and music, and stay for the art. “There is a whole world of people that don’t go to museums,” Toan argued. “Artistic success is not institutionally bound.” They concede building a new model for art exhibitions means they have half as much time to make art themselves, “I never thought I would know so much about insurance!”
Rainbow Dome thinks it can pull similar levers as Meow Wolf without being entirely tied to a commercial goal, but location as much as programming can grow viewership. Understudy is an art incubator wedged between a train station and a stairwell in the Colorado Convention Center, nabbing theater goers and a steady flow of conference attendees. On the other side of town, visitors to Lane Meyer Projects will need to talk to the bartender if they want to transact because the space is in Pon Pon bar. The late hours (4pm-11pm) and libations encourage lingering, and subsidize the space. For the dry patron or evening dog-walker, Lane Meyer also uses a window display by the front door to entice inquiry.
Artist-run spaces can have their downsides — the practice of reaching out to peers in an artist’s personal circle of friends, for example, can inadvertently reproduce inequities, despite good intentions. But in the best case scenario, these spaces can bridge the gaps in creative ecosystems, and in the case of Denver, they grant artists the opportunity to find community and collectors to sustain their practice when the city and state could do more.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the Rainbow Dome as the Roller Dome. We apologize for the error, which has been fixed.