Denver's arts and culture groups responses to vandalism amid protests

As Denver residents stare down another 24 hours of protests, the city’s arts and culture scene is busy cleaning up while also bracing — as best as it can — for the next round of uncertainty.

That’s because the city’s landmark buildings and statues, as well as the area it calls Civic Center Cultural Complex, have been at the heart of four days of protests against the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man.

Major nonprofit cultural institutions such as History Colorado, the Denver Art Museum and the main branch of the Denver Public Library system have been caught in violent clashes between police and hundreds of protesters defying emergency curfew. And with Denver’s curfew pushed to 9 p.m. and extended through Friday as of June 1, there’s worry that more is coming.

“We had graffiti and broken windows over the course of the long weekend,” said Erika Gonzalez, director of communications for Denver Public Library. “At this time, we anticipate replacing the windows will cost about $15,000. We don’t have an estimate on the removal of graffiti and we will continue to assess damages over the coming days. As part of the city and county of Denver, Solid Waste has been supporting us with the removal of the graffiti.”

A Denver Art Museum spokeswoman said glass panels on the under-construction welcome center on 13th Avenue was damaged, and graffiti was sprayed throughout the campus, including on the outdoor sculpture “Cow and Calf.” A History Colorado spokesman said the weekend’s damage was limited to exterior parts of the building.

“Artifacts inside remain secured behind locked doors,” John Eding said. “There were no reported injuries or thefts.”

One of the most recognizable images from the protests has been the public sculpture or bronze statue, now covered in anti-police graffiti. The Civic Center area has more than a dozen such major pieces, from playful sculptures in the Denver Art Museum collection to monuments that sit just outside the Colorado State Capitol.

“Michael Chavez (manager of Denver’s public art program) was down there on Saturday at Civic Center cataloging the damage,” said Ginger White, executive director of Denver Arts & Venues. “We send all of that to the city’s risk assessment division, which handles our insurance. Right now, for example, portions of the public-art panels on the doors at McNichols, just installed a couple of years ago, have been damaged or destroyed. But we’re still trying to get our arms around all of it.”

Denver Arts & Venues owns and operates landmarks like the McNichols Building and the Denver Performing Arts Complex — both of which were sites of weekend protests. Like Civic Center park and the complex around it, McNichols has seen broken windows, fires and tagging, even as National Guard members moved in over the weekend to defend it and other Arts & Venues facilities, like the Colorado Convention Center.

Historic landmarks including the Ellie Caulkins Opera house have been tagged along with statues and an unknown number of public-art pieces, according to White and dozens of videos and photos posted on social media. Most bear messages supporting the Black Lives Matter movement while decrying militarized police forces.

While White’s team is assessing the overall damage, they’re also fortifying for the next round of potential unrest. Between recently renovated buildings and priceless art, new bouts of violence and destruction could easily lead to millions of dollars in damage in the area just south of downtown Denver.

Photos and video of a car burning against the western side of McNichols — just across the street from the City and County Building — lit up social media over the weekend, prompting internationally known Denver artist Thomas “Detour” Evans to criticize the vandalism on social media.

“Ya’ll MF’ers really tries (sic) to burn down the McNichols Building with Arts and Venue department inside,” Evans wrote on Twitter on May 30. “What the F does that prove!?!?”

White on Monday said that assistant venue director John Mosely “is meeting with general-services to talk about plywood that we installed to protect windows and doors. But even for ones that weren’t damaged, they have to go into historic molding, so that’s unfortunately creating its own kind of damage trying to protect the McNichols Building.”

White said she has also requested additional National Guard protection at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, which houses the performing homes and main stages for the Colorado Symphony, Colorado Ballet, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Denver Center Theatre Company and Opera Colorado.

Sandra Phillips, a gallery owner in the Golden Triangle neighborhood that overlaps with the city’s cultural complex, had just reopened her business last week when the protests began. She was already navigating coronavirus restrictions and nervous patrons when the front window of her gallery was smashed at 47 W. 11th Ave., about a block from the Denver Art Museum.

“Guess I have a guardian angel (since) no art was damaged, no looting,” she said Monday. “I boarded up Saturday afternoon and canceled all appointments. It looks like a war zone in the Golden Triangle neighborhood. I am trying to be strong for the artists, but it’s heartbreaking to see the damage everywhere.”

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EDIT: ALL SOLD OUT! Thank you! This raised $630. I’ll be sending it over as soon as I’ve received all payment. ⁣ For the next 48ish hours I’ll be selling a limited number of prints and giving all the proceeds to the Minnesota Freedom Fund (@mnfreedomfund). In their own words, they pay bails and immigration bond for those who can’t afford to as they seek to end discriminatory, coercive and oppressive jailing. They have vowed to help free protestors incarcerated by police. ⁣ ⁣ Prints are $25 inc shipping within the US only- swipe right to see which ones are available (including the one on the first slide). In total I have 20 prints ready to ship out so that’s $500 if I can sell them all, but please feel free to donate more if you’d like! If you’re outside the US and would like to help, for $10 I’ll send you a digital file of any of my illustrations for your own personal use. Prints come signed on 8.5×11 matte fine art paper and securely parceled.⁣ ⁣ Please DM to arrange payment and shipping- I’ll post Venmo and PayPal receipts to my stories in the interest of transparency (with names redacted if you wish), as well as a receipt for the donation. ⁣If you prefer to donate directly that works great, just send me your receipt! ⁣ #georgefloyd #justiceforgeorgefloyd #minnesotafreedomfund #blacklivesmatter #blacklivesmatter #acab#allcopsarebastards

A post shared by Sofie (@sofiebirkinillustration) on

EDIT: ALL SOLD OUT! Thank you! This raised $630. I’ll be sending it over as soon as I’ve received all payment. ⁣ For the next 48ish hours I’ll be selling a limited number of prints and giving all the proceeds to the Minnesota Freedom Fund (@mnfreedomfund). In their own words, they pay bails and immigration bond for those who can’t afford to as they seek to end discriminatory, coercive and oppressive jailing. They have vowed to help free protestors incarcerated by police. ⁣ ⁣ Prints are $25 inc shipping within the US only- swipe right to see which ones are available (including the one on the first slide). In total I have 20 prints ready to ship out so that’s $500 if I can sell them all, but please feel free to donate more if you’d like! If you’re outside the US and would like to help, for $10 I’ll send you a digital file of any of my illustrations for your own personal use. Prints come signed on 8.5×11 matte fine art paper and securely parceled.⁣ ⁣ Please DM to arrange payment and shipping- I’ll post Venmo and PayPal receipts to my stories in the interest of transparency (with names redacted if you wish), as well as a receipt for the donation. ⁣If you prefer to donate directly that works great, just send me your receipt! ⁣ #georgefloyd #justiceforgeorgefloyd #minnesotafreedomfund #blacklivesmatter #blacklivesmatter #acab#allcopsarebastards

A post shared by Sofie (@sofiebirkinillustration) on

Despite new challenges, and the fact that Phillips said she was “sickened” after witnessing the defaced statues in the area, she said the female business owners at 11th and Acoma streets — including Tiffany Meidenger and Sydney Ilg — came together as a community to board up and protect their assets. However, Phillips said she and her peers are eager to take the focus off the destruction and mayhem, and instead explore positive actions to address the problems people are protesting about in the first place.

That includes sending aid to the groups at the center of the protests — something she’s prepared to do immediately.

“The pandemic has suddenly become secondary to the travesty of racism, still alive in our country,” she said. “The gallery and artist Sandra Kaplan will donate 10% of any profits during this time to peaceful protests and the family of George Floyd.”

After sharing images on social media of their broken windows and spray-painted exteriors, History Colorado on Saturday received more than 240 donations via Facebook totaling more than $8,900, according to Eding. The museum depleted supplies normally used for creating exhibits in order to assist with boarding up broken windows and cleaning up debris. (Donations can be provided to History Colorado via h-co.org/donate).

“Staff members also collected projectiles, discarded cans of spray paint, and a placard reading ‘Love is the only answer’ that was left in the street outside, in addition to taking documentary photographs,” Eding said. “These items will be reviewed by a curatorial team adding materials to History Colorado’s collection for our History in the Making initiative.” (That project continues to seek submissions from the public via historycolorado.org/covid-19.)

Other Denverites are donating to organizations that were set up to help protesters, such as U.K.-born artist Sofie Birkin. One hundred percent of the proceeds from her $25 prints, which are now sold out, benefited the Minnesota Freedom Fund over the weekend.

Some arts institutions that are weeks or days away from a planned reopening, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, are still not looking to postpone due to the unrest — at least not at the moment, said director Nora Burnett Adams.

“Fortunately, the building has not been vandalized,” she said. “But I think we all need to recognize what our role is in terms of offering support and service to our city. We all need to stand up for what our values are, and ours is to reopen in a safe way.”

MCA Denver officials have applied for state and city variances to open their new exhibition, “We the People,” on July 1, but approval is anything but certain. The exhibition from artist Nari Ward directly addresses current events, Adams said, and would be relevant and helpful to have on public view.

“For decades, Nari has addressed these issues, whether it’s racism and power or national identity and immigration,” Adams said. “There are thousands of ways to respond to his work, but all are extremely poignant and powerful. Now more than ever, it will be resonant with our city as we go through this insane process of bearing witness to the horrors and injustices that are present every day.”

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Some venues miles away from the protests, such as north Denver’s historic Oriental Theater, are hanging back out of respect for what’s happening. Owner Scott Happel had launched a fundraising campaign for the endangered theater last week, only to pull it back this week.

“We have decided to postpone our fundraiser until a time when it won’t risk taking up space from the current issues,” Happel said.

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