The year 2020 was as much about art-making as it was about art-enabling. Despite an endless pandemic and social unrest, artists did manage to make important work that helped us cope, gave us hope and, just as importantly, saved us from extreme boredom. But they had help from people and organizations that supported them emotionally, socially and financially.
By and large, the year was a virtual disaster — and by that I mean so much of the art presented virtually failed to resonate — but there were real moments, movements, creative happenings and acts of generosity that defined the best of what was possible.
Here are eight that stand out.
Internal, external, global: Adrienne DeLoe’s “Pandemic Self-Portraits”
Denver artist Adrienne DeLoe figured that the best way to express how she was feeling during the pandemic was to reach inside and tell her own personal story. The way painters and sculptors have done that for thousands of years is through the self-portrait. As she completed her work, it occurred to her that other artists may be taking the same route. So she put out a call, via social media, asking for other portraits. The response was huge. Her “Pandemic Self-Portraits” Facebook and Instagram profiles filled up with amazing works from artists across the planet — Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, more than 656 so far. The social media feeds serve as compelling documentation of all the terrible, happy, introspective and often ridiculous things we’ve all felt in 2020 and underscore how universal our sense of isolation has been. This is art at its best: immediate, true and helpful.
Safe, and definitely, not sorry: Babe Walls
Hands down, 2020 was the best year on record for murals. Galleries and museums were scarce and scary, but the great outdoors — where murals reign supreme over the art world — was our one true refuge. That made the premiere of Babe Walls, which took place in Westminster in August, one of the most welcome offerings of the year. The mural fest started out special: It was one of the few events in the world to feature only female artists, giving an even break to a gender that has historically been overlooked in street art. But the fact that it went forward, despite many challenges and during an international lockdown, turned it into a bold endeavor. We love murals because they are big and bright and carry a message. This one screamed: “Get on with it, world!”
Money mattered: Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, the Denver Foundation, Denver’s Arts & Venues, Colorado Creative Industries
This past year produced a make-it-or-break-it moment for the private and government institutions that fund the arts in Colorado. They could sit it out and say “sorry,” or they could rise to the occasion and save artists and non-profits from sinking into ruin due to lost revenues from canceled concerts, shuttered galleries and darkened theaters. All four of these funders — working separately and together — found a number of creative ways to help. One example: the COVID Arts & Culture Relief Fund, which gave nearly $1.2 million to 41 organizations in the early fall (and is just starting a second round). Another: the Colorado Arts Relief Fund for Individuals and the Colorado Arts Relief Fund for Business and Organizations, funded by the state, which are currently handing out $7.5 million to creative entities still struggling to get by. These funders usually play by complicated eligibility rules and endless rounds of jurying that turn grant-making into an arduous chore. They threw it all out the window and came up with nimble ways to assist creatives quickly.
The first draft of history, writ large: Thomas Evans
If there was a star of the Denver arts scene in 2020, it had to be Thomas Evans. The muralist, who goes by the moniker Detour, painted monumental works that captured the evolving stories of a difficult era. His paintings give form to many of the ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement and manage to capture both the anxiety we all felt this year and our longing for better days. Detour was there where and when it mattered. One amazing example: the portrait that he and fellow muralist Hiero Veiga painted on the exterior of Uptown’s Leon Gallery of Isabella Thallas, who became a victim of gun violence when she was killed in June while walking her dog in the Ballpark District. This is street art as storytelling, as journalism, as a force of community healing.
Art for the people: Doug Kacena
Doug Kacena was simply not going to have it. Like most indoor spaces, his K Contemporary gallery in LoDo was off-limits to customers last spring, severing the connection between his artists and the community. Kacena’s response: bring the art to the streets. So he rented a giant billboard truck and turned works by two of his most popular painters into larger-than-life posters that he drove up and down the main thoroughfares of Denver and Boulder in April and May. It was more than a gallery on wheels; it was also an entertaining and gutsy act of faith during dark days that served both the public and the creatives who depend on audiences to actually experience the things they make.
Playing on: Bravo! Vail Music Festival
The pandemic was raging this summer when the Bravo! Vail Music Festival threw caution to the wind and went ahead with an abbreviated summer concert season. Sure, it was different than the usual fare. Instead of putting major international orchestras on stage, the programs featured small ensembles. And instead of packing the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater with throngs of classical fans, it played to the bare maximum, filling just a portion of the seats to keep spectators at safe distances. Not everything that was planned actually happened. But something about the effort felt epic, as the organization stood firm, as best it could, against its viral showstopper. It was also generous. Unlike other orchestras that took whatever cash they could this summer, Bravo! Vail also made the programming free online to anyone who wanted to see it. Those who clicked in will remember the concerts for a long time.
Self-care: Redline Contemporary Arts Center
Redline Arts Center has become the go-to place for creatives in need. Not only does it support visual artists by giving them free studio space and mentoring, it also sponsors crucial art and funding programs that make art accessible to everyone — from the homeless people in its Curtis Park neighborhood to the art-savvy masses who visit its changing gallery shows. This year, RedLine came through meaningfully with Checking In, a series of exhibitions and events meant to give artists whose work had been cut off from the public legit places to exhibit. One example: RedLine’s current show, also called “Checking In,” which features 28 of Denver’s best artists and is serving as “an emergency placeholder for a lost past and an unknown future.” Yes, there are barriers to seeing the exhibit — appointments, masks, time limits, resistance to leaving the house — but it includes important, of-the-moment work that deserves to be viewed.
Fair. Logical and revolutionary: The U.S. Congress acts right
Unless you are a gig worker, you can’t understand the fundamental unfairness of an unemployment compensation system that only helps people who work at traditional businesses. That’s the way it was for decades as self-employed workers — including artists, musicians, dancers and writers (and, yes, Uber drivers and pizza deliverers) were excluded from this important part of the social safety net. That changed this year when, finally, governments realized those workers matter, too, and the $2 trillion CARES Act was passed into law, making everyone who suffered lost wages during the pandemic eligible for assistance. This single shift did more than any other effort of 2020 to keep creatives and their families fed and housed and, most important, creating.
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