Q&A: Artist Derrick Velasquez opens a gallery in his basement

Derrick Velasquez is an artist, curator, activist, underground philanthropist and, now, a gallerist. He recently opened an art gallery in the basement of his house in West Denver.  It is an unusual, but quite serious, space and his first show, a solo from Portland-based artist Jamie Knowlton, is one of the most interesting exhibits on display in the city right now.

The gallery comes along at a crucial time in Denver’s evolution. Real estate prices have reached catastrophic levels as the city booms, and the spaces where artists live, work and exhibit are disappearing. At the same time, the art scene is better than ever and demands the room to show itself off.

What’s the solution? Maybe radical alternatives like the Velasquez basement. We asked the owner to tell us what he is up to down there and to give us some more info on the operation he calls Yes Ma’am Projects.

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Ray Mark Rinaldi:  So, Derrick. The first thing I would say about your basement is that it’s just a basement. Like, under you house in West Denver.  Why did you turn it into an art gallery?
Derrick Velasquez: I went to Portland, Oregon (where Jamie Knowlton is currently studying for her MFA) to do an artist talk at a university, and went out to some openings with Jamie. We went to a gallery that was having its last exhibition that some former PNCA students ran out of their garage for two years. I thought I could do this since I have a garage and basement. I went for the basement because it was an excuse to start working on a neglected area of my house – there is basically a one-bedroom apartment down there.

RMR: To be honest, it’s kind of an awkward space. At least as far as art galleries go. What’s the challenge of showing work in a place with low ceilings, ventilation ducts and plumbing everywhere? Did you have to do a lot of work?
DV: I have been to a number of these kinds of spaces all over the country (garage, basement, apartment, odd backrooms). They exist in cities that require these kinds of spaces out of social and economic necessity specific to showing non-commercial art. There really isn’t much of a challenge with the space. In fact, it is set up for maximum efficiency. It’s manageable in size (perfect for solo shows or two-person shows), the lighting is bright and even, which makes it easy to photograph, and 5 to 7 works are all that are needed to make the space feel right. Along those lines, the “right feeling” conveys that, yes, you are in a basement and not some pristine gallery – I would never want to hide this fact and would love to see some seven-foot paintings in the space,

Yes, work…three straight weeks of cleaning, sub-flooring, flooring, painting, electrical and painting. But it should be really easy to maintain going forward.

 

RMR: But you are super serious about the whole thing?
DV: As serious as I have time for. While I haven’t decided the entire mission of the gallery just yet I have some goals of showing a lot of work from outside of Denver and bringing in a lot of guest curators from inside and outside of the region to organize the space. While the work may not always be serious, it’s a serious endeavor that will have multiple layers of focused intention, from the gallery itself to the artists that are shown.

RMR: It’s such a straight-forward operation, but it’s hard not to look at it as some sort of revolutionary act. A flip-off to all those galleries and museums who present their showrooms as sacred spaces. What are you really doing here?
DV: I think necessary acts are a different kind of revolution and this one presents itself as a fairly quiet undertaking. I’m not particularly adversarial in my nature, though maybe it operates within more of a punk ideology of subversion and direct action. I’m not even thinking about any of the other galleries or museums and hope that those kinds of institutions support and show up to the openings. Simply put, the most radical thing one can do in this current economic and political state is present opportunities for artists to show their work.

RMR: I think it would be annoying to have an art gallery in my house. Like, it would be cool to say that you have one, but kind of a pain in the ass to keep it clean and have strangers in your place all the time.
DV: Other than openings, the gallery will only be open by appointment and I have a back entrance to the space to close off access to my house. I would be happy if people had enough interest in the exhibitions my project space presents to come to openings or make appointments. Within a larger context, I think ownership of space is the only “loophole” for artists or galleries to remain in Denver, so I’m taking a leap with that and trying to maximize the potential of the space I own.

 

RMR: I love the first show, Jamie Knowlton’s “Will You Be Coal, Or Will You Be Waves.” Now that you’re a gallerist, can you give us the sell job that will make us want to buy her work? Just a few sentences, and please do not fill it with a lot of gallerist bullshit.
DV: I chose Jamie’s work for the first exhibition because it is challenging and stunning. The title of her show sets up an apparent paradox between two materials that seem opposite.  But the way Jamie depicts queer, pregnant or non-conforming bodies shies away from any kind of binaries. I will paraphrase someone’s words from the opening, she uses beauty as a scalpel to make some deep, deep cuts.

RMR: What’s the plan going forward? What kind of gallery will it be? Will I be able to afford anything?
DV: It is a project space so whatever compels the curators or myself will be a go, and I think there will probably only be about four shows per year with some flex in there. Fortunately, commercial-capitalist art gallery standards are not within me as a gallerist. While work will be for sale, I don’t have intentions of taking large commissions and am actually paying the artists or curators money to produce the show and come to the openings. I would hate for an artist to go broke making and shipping works with a small chance at sales and I will do this as long as I can afford it. As far as pricing, I will respect the artists’ price points and give advice if needed but, yes, potentially affordable.

RMR: Can you tell us a little about YES MA’AM PROJECTS and how this fits in
DV: Yes Ma’am Projects started as an anonymous artist grant whose aim was to give away no strings attached money to individual artists in the state of Colorado. No grants like this exist and the city/foundations will only give “grants” to non-profit spaces without supporting the actual artists who make those spaces. I gave away $3,000 dollars to this cause over two years and took a break but want to bring this back. I have a killer out-of-state juror already and just need to get the process going. I think as a gallery, there is a similar aim but with a broader reach. First, fund artists. Second, bring in solid art and curation from outside of Colorado. We (the Denver art scene) really need to start reaching out to other places. Galleries like Leisure and dateline do this with a freedom and brashness that other galleries and institutions do not. They have been my inspiration for a few years now.

RMR: How do people visit?
DV: Yes Ma’am Projects is in my house so there are openings that are by “invitation only.” Anyone invited is allowed to bring friends, of course, and I hope the invitation list grows to all who want to see some art. Otherwise a curious audience can email [email protected] to make an appointment and I’ll probably make you some tea or coffee if you come by. (More info at the website.)

Bonus question – Art and gentrification, is the gallery going to be a problem?
By being in a non-commercial space, limiting exhibitions and openings, and by being “off the beaten path,” I hope I’m not adding to the problem. This is a topic I’m deeply concerned about and deal with in my own art work. Denver has gotten beyond this question and developers don’t even care or know where artists are moving. The invasive nature of the crap architecture and a lack of affordable space is forcing non-city approved art and culture to decentralize. To me, the “RiNo Art District” is as good as dead and I want to find ways to ensure that doesn’t happen again. If my 300 square-foot basement gallery that is occasionally open becomes a problem, I will shut it down.

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