I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with some Art District on Santa Fe staples; Georgia Amar of Georgia Amar Fine Arts LLC (AKA the Habitat Gallery), and her husband, and president of the Art District, Jack Pappalardo. They’ve been a part of the neighborhood since its beginnings, and thus were able to go into detail about not only setting up shop on Santa Fe Drive, but the entrepreneurial nature behind getting the Art District on Santa Fe off the ground.
How long have you been a part of the Art District? and what attracted you to move to the Art District on Santa Fe instead of perhaps another art district in Denver?
Georgia: Many artists end up with 3 expenses: a studio, a place to live, and a place to exhibit, either owning a gallery or giving commission to an existing gallery that displays your art. When we moved to Denver in 2002 I wanted to find a place where I could combine all three in one space.
Jack: We first landed on Platte St., right across from Paris on the Platte coffee shop, which was peaceful for breakfast and very social at other times of day. Georgia rented space at The Other Side Arts, which was right next-door, but that only lasted a month as she partnered with a tile-flooring store on Platte St. and started to create a gallery there. One day the co-owner declared that she decided to have a nervous breakdown and quit the store. Well, OK. No problem, Georgia immediately walked into a real estate broker office next door and asked to see a place where she could fulfill all three of her space requirements.
Georgia: We looked on South Broadway and in an area where the arts where just starting to congregate, and that was Santa Fe Drive.
Jack: Santa Fe was attractive as it was more affordable than South Broadway, but the deciding factor was we walked around and spoke to gallery owners and found them so friendly, sincere and welcoming. We were not viewed as competitors, but as desired new neighbors.
Georgia: It’s like the spice market back home in Morocco where I grew up. You want spices, you go to the spice market. You want art, you go to the art district. So, the more artists and galleries that moved to Santa Fe the better off we’d all be.
Jack: Right. So we checked out a first Friday art walk in January of 2003. There were two galleries open and about 20 people. Well, that changed fairly quickly, but that is how it began.
What was your motivation behind creating your own gallery here?
Georgia: I wanted control over selection and display of my art and artists, my lighting, my atmosphere and the culture that I created in my environment. Many galleries hang art on the wall and sell it and call that culture. That is not culture, that is a transaction. Culture is what is created by the engagement and conversation that stems from the art and the environment created in the space.
Jack: Our signature is that our gallery is always lively, friendly, welcoming and challenging. We do not encourage passive behavior at our gallery. Our choice of artists such as Blake Flynn, a gifted painter and an astute yet warm hearted commentator on society, reflects that.
Can you tell the world a little bit about the Habitat gallery and what can people expect to see there?
Georgia: My artists must be highly skilled and not be what I call ‘derivative art’, that is not be a copy of a copy of a copy. Our artists must be original thinkers and have great character and personality.
Jack, it says on Facebook you are a lawyer with a “soft spot for the artistic community.” What do you think gave you that soft spot, and what sort of things do you help the art community with?
Jack: Well, I’ve been married to an artist for 20 years now, so I understand a bit of what makes an artist tick, what their strengths are, their emotional ups and downs, what they prefer not to do, or perhaps what they should not do because it becomes a distraction from what they should be doing. I realized 20 years ago that my job is to provide an environment whereby the artist is not preoccupied with mundane tasks, such as administrative work and marketing for example, so if I can remove that burden to a certain degree it frees up the artist’s mind and provides time to focus on what they do. I realize that an artist requires time to reflect with an unburdened mind. So I take pleasure in helping relive some of the day-to-day concerns of our creative membership by recognizing what may be of benefit to the collective whole of the Art District and then simply doing it. I think I’ve gained the confidence of our members. If I recommend an idea or way of proceding it usually gets unanimous approval and support. That shows confidence in me and my fabulous and dedicated board and helps free up our creatives to do what they do best.
I’ve also been on the advisory board of Create Denver since its inception over three years ago and I’m very passionate about helping the creative community inn Denver by sharing the lessons we have learned in the Art District and pursuing some policy initiatives. I believe that a few important steps can be taken to provide long-term viability for our creative sector. These include a lower tax mill levy rate for properties that house creative business; innovative sales and estate tax breaks for the arts following a model used in Ontario, Canada; having an art rental section of local art at the Denver Art Museum as they do at the Hamilton Art Gallery in Ontario, Canada; and keeping more of our public funding for art here in Colorado by selecting more Colorado artists for public art. These initiatives have been proven to work elsewhere, but I must say it has been difficult to get people’s attention or willingness to change what they already do or to try something new and different. Denver has progressed in many ways, but in many instances things do not change quickly. I hope we can move quicker and bolder in the near future.
What is your favorite part about working in the art district?
Georgia: It is the community. They are all friends. I can walk around the district anytime and talk with my friends and colleagues. They are cool! We are so lucky to have so many creative and sincere people in a concentrated area. That is what an art district is supposed to be. It is a bit utopian, but it did not just happen nor will it just happen everywhere creatives are grouped. It happened here because we, the collective group, made it that way, starting by obliterating destructive attitudes and ego.
Jack: That is so true. I think one reason it works well is that we started as a small group, about 12 of us banding together out of necessity as we were in an area that was not known by many as a place for art – or a place to walk safely, rightly or wrongly, so we had to work together to change that perception. That founding spirit remains to this day. It probably helps too that we did this all ourselves, without City or developer ‘top-down’ help. We are a true organic art district and one of the best nationally. It’s pretty cool, although I think in a way we are confusing to those whose mission it is to help create and foster creative districts. No one but ourselves can take credit for what we have created. Maybe that’s why we typically don’t receive awards or full recognition from the arts nonprofits or governmental agencies. I think we may seem threatening to those whose mission and reason for being is to create and support creative districts since we have demonstrated that it can be done so successfully without their assistance or support.
Jack, what was your motivation behind becoming president of the district?
Jack: Geez. None actually. One day, a year into the life of the Art District, two members came knocking at my door, looking very serious. I thought, ‘oh no, what did I do?’
They sat me down and said that they think I should be the President of the Art District. When I’m asked, I answer, and the rest is history.
What is one thing you’d like to change or one improvement you want to see for the district?
Jack: I’m been working on improving our streets and sidewalks so that they are more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. I recently spoke about this recently on the Colorado Matters public radio program. Later that same day I received an email from Denver’s Community Planning and Public Works departments announcing a new study on how to improve pedestrian and bike traffic in the area. Amazing, and encouraging.
One possible plan is to remove parking and the bump-outs from one or both sides of Santa Fe Drive and widening the sidewalks. We’d like to see a new parking structure in the area to replace lost parking and fill the obvious need for additional parking to accommodate our large crowds during events and encourage visitors and customers all month. We have been working on obtaining a B-Cycle station in the Art District for the past two years and recently that was approved by B-Cycle. Those stations are expensive, and Denver Housing Authority has generously agreed to fund our station. DHA is doing some major capital improvement work near 10th and Osage and we are working with the City and DHA to obtain a landscaped, attractive and well-lit connector walkway from 10th and Osage to Santa Fe Drive. We presently fund a guided shuttle-coach on First Fridays to make that connection, but we need a full-time connection RTD bus and safe walking and biking routes to and from Osage and Santa Fe Drive, not only for our art patrons but to help connect what we are doing on Santa Fe with our surrounding neighborhood. I think that will happen in the next couple of years.
What do you think makes the Art District on Santa Fe different than other art districts around Denver?
Georgia: Our spirit, our art, our community. We are not your typical gathering of pretentious gallery owners.
Jack: And of course the concentration of creatives. Other parts of Denver have fantastic individual galleries and institutions, but we are the only true art district in the traditional sense due to having over 60 creative organizations (and those are the dues-paying members; there are plenty of other creatives here as well) within walking distance. We now have a good mix of complimentary businesses in addition to our galleries and artist studios. We have two coffee shops, over a dozen restaurants, a yoga studio, live theatres, martial arts and dance studios, two radio stations, nationally known architects and corporations, and a growing collection of music industry players. Heck, a new top-flight beer brewery just opened in the Art District, so I guess we now have a whiskey distillery, two brew pubs and an urban winery. They are all legitimate and contributing creative industries. It’s a healthy and vibrant community in the Art District and it continues to grow and improve.
What are some other galleries you like checking out (not only in the art district) and who are some other artists you’re on to these days?
Georgia: Kara at Vertigo has consistently hosted quality exhibits and installations. Niza Knoll has some excellent juried shows, such as last summer’s Warhol—themed exhibit, and her recent African art exhibit was first—rate.
Jack: Brianna Martray’s installation at CORE was so refreshing and is now being installed at DIA. Marie Vlasic’s art is intriguing. Monica and Tyler Aiello’s recent exhibit at Space. Mel Straw at Sandra Phillips Gallery. Rik Sargent’s sculpture pieces. Photography at John Fielder ‘s Colorado and Denver Photo—Art galleries. Special exhibits at Museo de las Americas and the Center for Visual Arts. I must confess that my favorite museum is the Museum of Nature and Science. I love earth science and astronomy, so that’s my favorite place to go. And the Toy Museum in Lakewood is a blast.
Georgia, as an artist, what or who are you biggest influences?
Georgia: No one specifically; I respect and admire all the great masters in all different mediums. When I walked through the Uffizi museum in Florence I felt at home visiting with my friends.
What can people expect from a Georgia Amar piece?
Georgia: My art, in different mediums, is something for people to discover fully as they live with it. It reveals itself over time, and the art has a life of its own. The magic begins when the light source is dimmed gradually, destabilizing colour and becoming more brilliant as the light source diminishes. My art engages when you want to be engaged, and leaves you alone when you don’t want to. Like me.
You can find Jack and Georgia daily at the Habitat Gallery on the second floor at 828 Santa Fe Drive. You can also learn more about the gallery on their website at www.habitatgallery.com. Jack is also a frequent contributor to the Art District Facebook page.