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A Colorado ‘Arts Incubator’ is a creating a new precedent for exhibition space

Denver's 'Understudy' has a unique funding model taking the pressure away from profit and towards art.

Understudy | Third Dune Productions

Tucked in a rather unassuming corner at the base of the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Understudy is quietly setting art world precedents and proving that its non-traditional model as an experimental art exhibition space is one to take note of.

The average passerby on their way to a snow sports convention might be surprised to gaze into Understudy’s windows and find a “self-smooch tunnel” installation by the group Secret Love Collective, complete with wildly-costumed, androgynous performance artists in the midst of a parade, or artist Andi Todaro’s bizarrely dream-like short film, “Pink Tube of Goo,” projecting on the exterior of the space.  But that’s just how the founders like it.

One of the key ideas behind Understudy is inclusivity and accessibility for the larger community:  Its placement in the Convention Center, along a light rail stop with easy ADA access, equates to a wider public audience being exposed to the kind of emerging art they might never otherwise see.  And, in turn, to up-and-coming, nontraditional artists gaining the kind of public exposure they might never otherwise find.

What exactly is Understudy?  Is it a gallery?  A museum of sorts?

Head curators David Moke, Annie Geimer and Thadeaous Mighell have created a first of its kind experimental artspace located in the Colorado Convention Center. The space is funded through Denver Theatre District’s corporate sales of its billboards. (Photo Courtesy Matthew Brown / Understudy)

David Moke, one of the space’s founders, says it’s all of these things, and also none of them.  “Galleries have a perception of being commercial, and museums can be seen as sterile. We are technically a non-commercial space, but we encourage all of our artists to sell their work,” Moke said.

The space, it maDy be noted, takes no commission from its artists.  An “experimental art and culture incubator,” Understudy is forging a new model – one that is privately funded by the Denver Theatre District’s advertising revenue generated from its giant LED screens.

In 2013, the DTD had commissioned Moke and his business partner Annie Geimer to create art programming for the neighborhood using the pool of ad revenue.  After the success of several temporary installations, such as the infamous “Blue Trees” and a projection-mapped public video game created by local interactive artists Oh Heck Yeah, the group wanted a more permanent outlet.  At the same time, the forced closure of several beloved Denver DIY venues like Rhinoceropolis and G.L.O.B. created an even greater impetus to form another creative space in the city.  This time, however, the creatives would be partnering with the city, rather than opposing its authority.  When the DTD noticed that a 717-square-foot storefront right down the street in the Convention Center had been sitting empty for years, the opportunity presented itself.

Understudy’s leadership, grounded in Denver’s underground art scene, also underscores its non-traditional ethos.  “We all come from a DIY background, so maintaining spaces for artists to have complete autonomy and creative freedom is important to us,” said Geimer.  She and Moke grew up in Denver running in similar circles who watched loud bands play in basements and graffiti artists emblazon their names across buildings.

Moke’s professional background in band management and music festival production eventually gave way to a career focused on creative programming in the community with Denver Arts and Venues, the Santa Fe Art District and DIA, among others.

Geimer similarly started her career in music, producing festivals through Superfly Presents and AEG before returning home to Colorado.  With a newfound vision to support the local art community, Geimer was quickly brought on board by Moke, who saw her talent for translating bold, creative visions into well-executed events.

In February, Understudy exhibited Secret Love Collection’s “Spooky Valentine.” (Courtesy Understudy / Dune Productions)

With both of their hands still in many ‘pots’ locally and nationally, Moke and Geimer needed a logistical mind to bring Understudy’s installations to life. Co-curator Thadeaous Mighell proved to be just that person, having worked with institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and Alliance Francaise de Denver, to local galleries like Unit E and Dryer Plug Studios.

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With ad revenue taking the pressure off of turning a profit via art sales – an often stifling obstacle for most galleries – Understudy has been open to explore working with the kinds of artists and creatives who exist outside of the traditional sphere of a museum or gallery show.  And who work in a wide variety of mediums, for that matter.

It can get “messy,” as Moke puts it but that’s all part of the fun.

Some recent exhibitions include that of poet Mathias Svalina, who spent his residency writing fictitious dreams for anyone who wanted one, hand-delivering them to patrons’ doorsteps via bicycle each morning.  Or Jonathan Saiz’s ironically-named “Blue Chip” show, where the well-regarded artist offered $20 mini paintings via a “vending machine” of sorts.  Other favorites include Ramon Bonilla’s “esoteric man cave,” which reflected upon society’s verge of self-collapse, or Kendra Fleischman’s tablet-laden altars that explored the intersection of religion, spirituality and technology.

Each of these installations have provided critical dialogue between artists and the larger community around societal issues, norms, the self, and just what “art” can be.  A necessary dialogue, one might add, for the general public outside of the Convention Center, who aren’t away of the DIY art scene.

Up next for Understudy is a collaboration with Denver Immersive Opera for the month of March, who will be performing a modernized version of Bluebeard’s Castle through projection-based art.  Denver artists Amber Cobb and Mario Zoots will also be showing in the space together, a first for the longtime couple.

True to its multi-disciplinary, genre-bending roots, Understudy will be hosting a “wider range of mediums” in 2019, with other dance, digital, and performance-based art slated later in the year.

Mighell sees a greater diversification of the Understudy brand itself coming, with shows growing outside the 717-square-foot space in sister venues and off-site activations.  “I think we can do much, much more to bring a greater quantity of emerging artists to the people of Denver, and that’s what gets me most excited about this upcoming year,” he says.

To find out more visit: http://understudydenver.com

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