Union Hall is an experiment in how fast, real, rich and deep culture can get at warp speed. It’s a quick-rise art center built for an instant city.
Staffed, outfitted, installed and, most important, funded, the 1,800-square-foot rec room on the first floor of the new Coloradan condos next to Union Station aims to be everything a creative-friendly neighborhood needs: an art gallery, live performance venue, miniature movie theater, meeting hall and more.
To be sure, it’s different then anything currently on the local landscape, billing itself as “the first dedicated and permanent non-commercial, non-collecting, exhibition space integrated into a private real estate development in Denver.”
What that really means is that Union Hall exists as something between community-minded corporate philanthropy, a clever way to market a new residential development and, on its first outing, a very solid host for exhibitions, thanks to its debut show of paintings by Brooklyn artist Deborah Brown, that continues through June 29.
The place is promising in other ways, as well, due to its backing from the Coloradan’s development team, lead by locally-based East West Partners. Union Hall is structured as a non-profit, but it is getting a significant early boost from an operational fund that receives one-half percent of each sale of the building’s condos. That will add up: the project boasts 334 units and it’s selling well, with a two-bedroom going for $770,000-$1.2 million.
East West has a history of assisting cultural nonprofits, using a similar fund to launch PlatteForum in the mixed-use Riverfront Park project that it created in 2002. PlatteForum is an artist residency program that works with at-risk youth in Denver; 17 years later, it is still going strong.
This time around, East West decided the cultural need was different. Just a decade ago, the area around Denver’s Union Station was an underpopulated zone of open railroad tracks and light industrial warehouses. Since then, and through diligent urban planning, scores of apartment and hotel towers, retail centers, restaurants, bars and other amenities have quickly popped up, drawing tens of thousands of people to a place that was virtually abandoned. Many of the newcomers are actually new to the city, part of the wave of transplants that have pushed up Denver’s population in recent years.
What the rebirthed neighborhood lacked, however, was structural support for culture offerings that could serve the fledgling crowds and connect them to the offerings of artists, poets, curators musicians and more. Baseball and beer are easy to find in the area, but there was no black box theater.
“If you are new to the city, you don’t know where to start,” said East West Managing Partner Amy Cara.
Union Hall is meant to serve as a “culture concierge” introducing creative customers to creatives. It’s a boost for the arts and a good business move all-around: The Coloradan gets a prestigious, in-house venue for its residents, artists get a subsided place to show their work and a way to find customers, and the freshly built area gets a chance to become an actual neighborhood where folks share more than expensive restaurant meals and tips on the best gyms, baristas and dog groomers.
Because East West is in the business of creating new buildings, not producing exhibitions, it turned to the local art consultants NINE dot ARTS to manage the programming at Union Hall.
NINE dot ARTS CEO Martha Weidman is serving as executive director, and special projects curator Arielle Myers is curating the exhibits. It’s a bit of an evolution for the firm, which is better-known for its work procuring art for hotels, corporate offices and other commercial entities.
But NINE dot ARTS’ ability, and expertise in the exhibition part of the job, already appears ample. The Deborah Brown show is a stellar effort and a good sign of what could be to come.
Brown is a significant figure in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, working as an artist, gallerist and organizer as that area has morphed over the past decade from cultural outpost to one of the more significant centers for art in the U.S. She’s been written about, collected and respected for a while now.
Her recent paintings, exhibited under the title, “A land more kind than home,” manage to be accessible and challenging at the same time. For the most part, they are lush, wilderness landscapes populated with plants, flowers and birds, but also naked women and more than a few dogs. Viewers encounter them from a distance as figurative works.
But they get their power from Brown’s free and heavy brush stokes and her abandonment of detail. She layers on oil paint in overlapping and colliding colors, restrained enough to provide us with a picture of individual human spirits communing with nature, but reckless enough to keep her vague figures on some wild adventure in the woods. There’s both a serenity to the works and a tension; they are instilled with a sense of uncontrollable nature, rendered through indistinct lines and globs of contrasting paint, but at the center of things are these nude explorers taking it all in, alert but calm. They belong there and they don’t.
It’s worth noting that the debut show at Union Hall includes paintings of unclothed women. There’s certainly nothing obscene about them, or different than what is shown regularly at galleries and museums.
But it’s the sort of subject matter spaces with corporate identities shy away from in a city like Denver. It’s not the stuff you see, for example, in the lobby of Republic Plaza, the downtown skyscraper that exhibits a series of art shows each year to entertain the public and keep the building attractive to tenants.
Union Hall has its own corporate connections and a role in the business of development, but there’s no reason to believe the programming will be too careful, and that’s a welcome sign for the dancers, musicians and performance artists who will be invited to show their work there.
“Anytime you’re in the space of art, you can’t be worried about who you are going to offend,” said Cara.
Union Hall is flexible enough to handle a variety of things. The exhibition walls are movable, the floor is vast and giant black curtains open and close easily to allow in abundant sunshine or create the sort of dark cave performers often need. That will make it a solid resource for existing arts groups around the city who currently lack a well-established, and affordable, place to produce events in that part of downtown.
Union Hall has some daunting tasks ahead. It will have to establish, and market itself, in a neighborhood no one thinks of as a cultural hot spot, and it will have to carve out a unique identity, serving both the residents of the building and wider audiences, a semi-public, semi-private role that’s unproven here. As a concierge, it also hopes to alert people near and far to other cultural opportunities in the area and it recently hired Valeria Serrano as gallery manager to oversee that as part of her job.
And it will have to expand its support system, luring other funders to the cause. Nonprofits, legally, need to have a variety of funding sources. There’s a model for that, as well, in PlatteForum, which has grown largely independent from its original benefactor and receives wide community support.
“We are already in conversation now with foundations large and small,” said Cara. “The concept is getting positive feedback as a nonprofit.”