“Benjamin is no one’s friend,” warns Garth Algar in Wayne’s World, the 1992 film based on the eponymous Saturday Night Live sketch. Wayne’s World starred Mike Myers as suburban Chicago hesher par excellence Wayne Campbell, and Dana Carvey as Garth, his bespectacled slacker sidekick. Garth is referencing Benjamin Oliver, the handsome but slimy television producer who duped Campbell into selling out his popular basement-broadcast public access show for peanuts (Benjamin also aggressively courts Cassandra, Campbell’s rock goddess girlfriend). Although a mainstream hit, Wayne’s World spun a cautionary tale for underground artists: beware those offering quick cash or exposure. Director Penelope Spheeris understood DIY drama; her documentary trilogy “The Decline of Western Civilization” captured precarious pockets of Los Angeles from the late 1970s through the ’90s, introducing cinema audiences to indecorous punk and metal undergrounds.
Spheeris’s genre-bending canon makes clear that basement-dwelling and warehouse-squatting misfits, regardless of decade or geography, regularly encounter two archetypal antagonists: authority figures clamoring to kick them out, and wolves in sheep’s clothing scheming to sell them out.
Denver, Colorado, nestled in the Rockies halfway between Chicago and Los Angeles, once nurtured its own energetic DIY scene. The former cow town lacked a commercial market or prestigious MFA program, but boasted unpretentious people and affordable space. Alternative venues like Monkey Mania and Rebis galleries hosted local exhibitions and music shows, plus touring bands. Throughout the 2000s, DIY spaces proliferated across the Denver metropolitan area.
Most legendary among these was Rhinoceropolis, a (technically illegal) live-work artist space founded in 2005 in an industrial warehouse at 3553 Brighton Boulevard. A sidekick space, Glob, soon launched next door—Wayne and Garth venues, as it were. Two miles north of downtown on the east side of the South Platte River, the neighborhood consisted mainly of junkyards, derelict warehouses, train tracks, and tumbleweeds. Rhinoceropolis and Glob shared a landlord, Larry Burgess, who was reportedly cool; in a 2017 interview, two artists who had lived in the space said he let them do whatever they wanted and didn’t hike the rent. Burgess even helped Rhinoceropolis install a proper kitchen.
Already working in the neighborhood for years was artist Tracy Weil, who had converted a building he’d purchased for $150,000 in 2000 into a live-work space. Coincidentally, Weil and other artists were calling the area the River North Arts District, or RiNo, by 2005, before Rhinoceropolis’s arrival. Despite the gentrification-ready name, commercial developers and city officials ignored the neighborhood. Its concrete blight looked more like the setting for Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road than the cowboy bohemia Jack Kerouac romanticized in On the Road. For artists, dystopia wasn’t so bad. No neighbors meant no noise complaints.
In a 2015 article for the Denver weekly Westword, Bree Davies, a historian of the city’s DIY scene, reminisced about Rhinoceropolis’s early days, calling it “an affordable magnet for weirdos, kooks, introverts, extroverts, and every nuanced version of the extremely motivated, capable, and fearless artist that exists” in Denver. Rhinoceropolis put Denver DIY on the map. Thousands turned up to see music acts like Lightning Bolt, Mykki Blanco, Matt & Kim, HEALTH, No Age, and Dan Deacon. Observing DIY doctrine, Rhinoceropolis and Glob hosted pay-what-you-wish, all-ages shows staffed by volunteers. Over the years, dozens of artists and musicians called the adjacent spaces home, including Madeline Johnston of Midwife, Travis Egedy of Pictureplane, and the late Colin Ward, a polymath who personified Denver DIY. In the early 2010s, a third venue, Club Scum, opened up on the block. The three spaces threw shows in tandem, cross-pollinating metalheads, conceptual artists, zinesters, and ravers. Brighton Boulevard’s energy was infectious and a new generation of spaces surfaced: Juice Church and Dateline in RiNo, and Seventh Circle just west of downtown, among many others.
Joel Swanson’s studio at Tank Studios, Denver.
Courtesy Tank Studios. Photo Derrick Velasquez
Tech Startups, Big Weed, and Microbrews Come Knocking
As the underground surged, aboveground Denver erupted. “Best cities to live in” listicles lauded its three hundred sunny days per year, growing job market, and mountainous splendor. Billions in venture capital poured into Colorado. Tech startups descended upon Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs, and the area came to be known as Silicon Mountain. The sublime natural beauty of the Rockies coupled with the high cost of entry for gear-heavy recreational sports attracted a very particular class of transplant. Despite the 2008 recession, housing prices skyrocketed.
In November 2012, Coloradoans voted to enact Amendment 64, legalizing recreational marijuana beginning in January 2014. Commercial cannabis operations now needed massive indoor facilities to securely grow product. Three months into legalization, the Denver Post estimated the local grow house footprint at “about 4.5 million square feet—the equivalent of 78 football fields.” Raw warehouse space—the type occupied by Rhinoceropolis and Glob—was suddenly at a premium. Before legalization, average annual raw warehouse rent in Denver was less than $5 per square foot, but the Post quoted growers now paying $18. Other weed-legal cities—Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento—saw similarly dramatic spikes in warehouse rental rates when growers set up shop.
Along coastal corridors and across the Rust Belt, artists have long repurposed former port facilities, textile factories, and even slaughterhouses as cheap studio space. But Denver became a city because of an 1859 gold rush, not a manufacturing boom. Compared to Chicago, Portland, or Providence, it had few warehouses. As tech startups, legal weed, and other industries salivated over every inch of commercial urban property, Denver was quickly becoming unaffordable for artists.
Tracy Weil’s RiNo Arts District, however, had finally caught on, becoming a state-certified creative district—with Weil its executive director—in 2014. Unlike many artists, Weil seems comfortable working with city officials and developers toward neighborhood growth. He owns his land and building, which were assessed in 2019 at over $2.2 million. Gentrification’s usual suspects—condos, coworking spaces, culinary halls, startups, and a dumbfounding number of microbreweries—spread virally across the blocks surrounding Rhinoceropolis and Glob. Grow operations discreetly set up shop in warehouses stretching to the nearby I-25 and I-70 interchange. Tourists snapped selfies in front of the sanctioned “street art.” For holdovers in the DIY community, most of whom rented their spaces, the authenticity had evaporated. RiNo was a Potemkin arts district.
“People are down here to get fucked up, not see art,” Jeromie Dorrance, who started RiNo’s Dateline gallery in 2014, wrote in an email. “After five p.m. the scene changes to full-on Las Vegas—like people pissing and puking in the streets.”
In August 2015, developers purchased the entire block at 35th and Brighton Boulevard from Burgess’s family to build Catalyst Health Tech Innovation, a “vertical ecosystem” that brings together “private enterprise (startups to Fortune 100), government, academic and nonprofit organizations with healthcare providers and payers to accelerate innovation and drive real, lasting change.” Burgess, however, assured Rhinoceropolis and Glob that they would be safe until “phase two” of the Catalyst development, which would take years to begin.
Amid expeditious commercial development, there was something subculturally reassuring about Rhinoceropolis and Glob operating defiantly for more than a decade. Westword even published a celebratory year-end piece titled “2015: The Year Denver DIY Didn’t Die.”
Gretchen Schaefer’s studio at Tank Studios, Denver.
Courtesy Tank Studios. Photo Derrick Velasquez
Ghost Ship and the DIY Crackdown
On December 8, 2016, Denver Fire made surprise inspections at Rhinoceropolis and Glob, shuttering both venues and evicting several artists lacking residential permits. Officials cited fire hazards including “extension cords used for permanent wiring, wrapping paper on the walls and plastic on the ceiling.” Three days prior in Baltimore, longtime DIY venue the Bell Foundry had met a similar fate.
The Denver and Baltimore inspections came less than one week after tragedy struck in Oakland. Fire broke out during a concert at Ghost Ship, an illegal live-work warehouse, killing thirty-six people. Ghost Ship had no emergency lighting, no smoke alarms, and no sprinkler system. Unable to locate exits, attendees were trapped inside the venue’s byzantine, ad hoc pathways constructed from highly combustible materials like wood pallets and old pianos.
City officials in Denver and Baltimore insisted the inspections were in response to recent tips, not reactions to Ghost Ship. But leaseholders at Rhinoceropolis and Glob claimed that Denver Fire had been aware of their live-work setup for years. Both spaces had passed several previous inspections. Only once, on November 3, 2015, was a violation cited at Rhinoceropolis: “This is an abandoned warehouse with people living in it,” the report noted. However, Denver Fire took no follow-up action. They even returned for another inspection on July 22, 2016, reporting no violations.
“It was the perfect opportunity for them to push us out because the city clearly has an agenda to redevelop that block,” said evicted Glob resident Stephan Herrera on Colorado Public Radio’s “Colorado Matters” program on January 23, 2017. “We’re not profitable for the city . . . if anything, our way of life is a nuisance to the transplants who are flocking here.”
A Patchwork Support System Emerges
News of the Denver shutdowns and the tragedy in Oakland hit members of Santa Fe art collective Meow Wolf hard. Today, Meow Wolf is a national brand, a major player in the experience economy famed for immersive art installations at a carnival scale. But their subcultural origin story overlaps with Ghost Ship and Rhinoceropolis. Its founding members knew Rhinoceropolis artists personally, and they lost friends in the Oakland fire. On December 11, 2016, shortly after receiving a substantial investment from A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, Meow Wolf announced a $100,000 annual nationwide DIY Fund to assist underground arts and music venues with infrastructure improvements, rent, materials, and equipment. The program would also provide “free consultation and support around legal issues, building codes, and organizational structure improvements.”
Meanwhile, early in January 2017, Denver’s DIY communities convened for an impassioned town hall at RedLine, a sympathetic local arts nonprofit and studio residency program. Various city departments were offering to meet with artists, ostensibly to help them get their spaces up to code. The question of whether or not underground artists should identify their spaces—and themselves—to city officials elicited a cocktail of responses: firm opposition, skepticism, ambivalence, and cautious curiosity. But no unified decision was reached; each venue had its own variables to contend with.
Meow Wolf soon announced DIY Fund grants of $10,000 each to help Rhinoceropolis and Glob get their spaces up to code and reopened. Denver Arts & Venues—a municipal organization whose portfolio includes Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Denver Public Art Program, and the Art Education Fund—committed another $20,000 to the DIY Fund, earmarked for Denver venues.
Artspace—a nonprofit real estate development firm based in Minneapolis that manages “affordable spaces for artists and creative businesses” in cities including Portland, Chicago, and New Orleans—had recently conducted a one-year study on Denver’s need for affordable live-work locales for artists. The organization was already developing Colorado properties in Loveland, Trinidad, and Ridgeway, and the hubbub in Denver fomented a collaboration between Artspace, RiNo Arts District, and Denver Arts & Venues to bring ninety units of low-income live-work housing for artists to 40th and Brighton. Construction was scheduled for 2019.
On July 17, 2017, Denver’s City Council voted in favor of the Safe Occupancy Program, an olive branch between the city and its DIY communities. It would permit artists to keep living in their spaces for up to two years while they brought their buildings up to code. Yet many artists remained skeptical. As renters, they were at the mercy of landlords who could sell to developers at any time. Bringing buildings up to code is an expensive, bureaucratic process. How could artists invest money they didn’t have into long-term improvements on buildings they didn’t own?
To address those concerns, Denver Arts & Venues announced the $300,000 Safe Creative Spaces Fund nearly one year after Rhinoceropolis and Glob were shut down. Both Arts & Venues programs had several caveats, one of which was that artists had to come forward voluntarily.
“The city said, ‘People, just come to us,’ but people were afraid,” artist Derrick Velasquez recalled in an interview. Velasquez is intimately familiar with the politics of creative space in Denver; in January 2013, he co-founded Tank Studios, an aboveground artist collective in a warehouse off South Broadway, to address the scarcity of available studio space.
As a solution, Velasquez explained, RedLine’s executive director Louise Martorano was nominated as a liaison between artists and the city. Denver artists trusted RedLine. Many, including Velasquez and his Tank Studios cohort, had benefited from residencies there. Further, RedLine had been hosting DIY meetings for months. Martorano could meet with artists at all hours of the day—and on their own turf. Her staff could field venue-specific inquiries discreetly, then point artists towards pro bono legal services and other resources.
RedLine received more than one hundred inquiries for the Safe Occupancy Program, but only fifteen projects moved forward. Even with administrative support, going legit is a time-consuming, labyrinthine process that isn’t appropriate for every venue. Martorano estimates that RedLine conducted thirty site visits for the Safe Creative Spaces Fund. Of those, eleven have been approved for funding, including Rhinoceropolis, Tank Studios, and Seventh Circle. Eight spaces have since reached the contractor phase, and a total of $296,954 has been distributed. Seven venues have completed life safety updates, and Martorano says the eighth is on track to completion.
In January 2019, the city gave Rhinoceropolis and Glob the green light to reopen. Rhinoceropolis would be a non-residential, aboveground music venue, while Glob would reincarnate as a private art space. Also in 2019, Tank Studios renewed its lease for five years. Seventh Circle remains open today. Investments these artists made in improving their spaces, assisted in part by the Safe Creative Spaces Fund, have resulted in some security—at least for now.
Interior of Dateline, Denver.
Unfortunately, renewed studio leases or new artist-friendly developments have become an anomaly in Denver. Eerily, Rhinoceropolis and Glob sit in the literal shadow of the Catalyst HTI development; they’ll both be razed during its imminent expansion. And despite Tank’s new lease, Velasquez acknowledged that their landlord will likely sell the building in five years, or that reassessed property taxes alone will raise the rent astronomically.
Dateline’s Dorrance mentioned constant whispers that the gallery’s block faces impending development. After years of talk, plans have stalled on Artspace’s ninety affordable live-work units in RiNo; the project didn’t break ground in 2019, and Lisa Gedgaudas, program manager for Create Denver at Denver Arts & Venues, acknowledged over email that there are currently no plans for 2020. The $300,000 Safe Creative Spaces Fund has been spent, and even with Arts & Venues injecting another $100,000 for 2020, that doesn’t amount to much in a city where the average home price eclipses those figures combined. And who knows what havoc the economic fallout from Covid-19 will ultimately wreak on DIY spaces that supplement their rent with pay-what-you-can ticket income.
A Meow Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Three miles southwest of Rhinoceropolis, a new development, unsubtle as nearby Coors Field, towers above the Colfax Avenue and I-25 viaduct. But the $50 million slate gray, spacecraft-like leviathan isn’t a luxury residential property or a dystopic Chase Bank. It is the Denver expansion of Meow Wolf, now a Delaware corporation, opening in 2021.
Since establishing its DIY Fund, Meow Wolf has continued planting local seeds. Last year, the group debuted Kaleidoscape, an interactive “thrill ride for the mind” at Denver’s Elitch Gardens amusement park, offering a teaser of the forthcoming Colfax installation. Danika Padilla, Meow Wolf’s senior director of social impact, said in an email that the immersive entertainment company has directed “more than $380,000 towards nonprofit organizations, events, artist collaborations, and DIY spaces across Colorado.” Some $93,000 of that went to over thirty spaces in and around Denver through Meow Wolf’s DIY Fund, potentially ingratiating the company with the city’s underground. But while $93,000 sounds like a nice chunk of change, it’s not much when split among thirty venues in a pricey metropolis (Benjamin paid Wayne more in 1992). Meow Wolf raised $158 million last year alone for planned expansions in Phoenix, Austin, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C.
Some Denver artists aren’t thrilled about Meow Wolf’s imminent arrival and twenty-year, $60-million lease. But Padilla stressed the company’s “tremendous community engagement efforts and artist curation” in its Denver funhouse, which includes the work of over one hundred Colorado artists, half of whom “identify as women and people of color.”
But what does it mean to have one’s artwork represented in a branded corporate installation? It is the existential question that Wayne and Garth face when confronted with a commercial television stage set simulating Wayne’s parents’ grungy basement. It’s what Guy Debord, in his 1969 Situationist International #1, called “recuperation”: capitalism’s seamless, anonymizing assimilation of underground politics and aesthetics into toothless mainstream product.
Meow Wolf itself has been accused of profiting off artists while not crediting or appropriately compensating them. And artists who have worked on previous Meow Wolf projects in Denver reported having to sign not only non-disclosure agreements but also contracts forfeiting intellectual property rights in order to receive payment for their work. Four Meow Wolf staff members, including two in Denver, have filed lawsuits against the company alleging discrimination against female and gender-nonconforming employees. Early investors who bought Meow Wolf shares through crowdfunding have considered a class action lawsuit after the company surprised them by exercising a forced buyback clause. Meow Wolf today looks almost nothing like the DIY collective that once found kindred spirits at Rhinoceropolis.
Denver’s DIY artists have been evicted by the fire marshal, priced out of an arts district, promised affordable live-work housing that never materialized, and forced to navigate complicated city bureaucracies to apply for modest financial support towards improving buildings they do not own. They’ve engaged in asymmetrical rental warfare with cash-rich real estate developers, tech startups, microbreweries, and commercial weed growers. Now, even former allies in the DIY fight for survival have seemingly gone full corporate beast mode.
Of course, not every artist in Denver takes issue with the arrival of Meow Wolf. Surely, some are eager to work with the company. That’s their prerogative. But it is sobering to remember that Meow Wolf’s five-story, 90,000-square-foot hulk of a Denver facility will have no studios for local artists.