“We fund art,” David Moke tells us. And that’s indeed a great way to describe the work he does. Through the Denver Theatre District, Communitas Consulting and Understudy (an experimental arts incubator), David and his partners and co-curators Annie Geimer and Thadeaous Mighell have created a unique model to support and foster locally practicing artists.
Understudy may not be a common model for funding yet, but David has many years of experience working with artists and in our conversation he shares valuable insights that are relevant to artists anywhere, like how to build your network, find your community and ways to work with organizations such as his.
Can you give us a brief overview of your background in the arts world and what your current roles are with the Denver Theatre District, Understudy and Communitas?
I used to work in the music industry, street teaming for record labels. That eventually turned into me getting a job with Warner Bros. Records when I was still in high school. I went on [Vans] Warped Tour as a 17-, turned 18-year old, on a bus with Gym Class Heroes, and realized how much I hated touring. When I came home I kind of realized I love art, I love music, I love this world, so we’ll see where it goes.
When I was at school at the University of Colorado at Boulder and after college I managed bands while helping produce music festivals. I used to work with DeVotchKa and a handful of others. I then became part of the DIY scene which really introduced me to what it was like to be a part of the art scene. And being a part of it allowed me to see how I could support art, because I had no musical or artistic talent in me. I don’t like making art, I don’t like making music, but I like supporting people who do.
Through the DIY scene I met some friends and we threw a music and arts festival called Black Top in September 2012 on the street next to the arts complex. And it really made me realize how much more I wanted to help out the creative scene locally, not just bands, but emerging artists.
In 2013 I left the band world and started working at the Denver Theatre District. I’m the director of programming for it, so I kind of oversee a lot of our activity – art installations, logistics, marketing – but really, my job is one of three or four people who keep this thing running.
For a while we’d been looking for a physical space, a space to kind of program ourselves and do our own thing. And that is where Understudy came in right after the Ghost Ship fire tragedy in Oakland. Understudy is an experimental arts and culture space and in a location the city wasn’t using at all. It wasn’t even used for storage. They tried to rent it out, but what could survive? There’s no good loading zone and it’s 700 square feet including a bathroom. So we took it over, and it’s fully funded by our signage revenue that we get as a beneficiary.
My role at Understudy is definitely more on the marketing and contracting side, and we have two other partners – Thadeaous Mighell and Annie Geimer – who do a lot more of the curatorial and working with the artists.
We host a new artist every month and do cool things. It’s really cool to have an organization that can run a 700-square-foot room to let artists truly experiment.
What about Communitas?
So Communitas is my company with my partner Annie Geimer. It’s basically a way for us to work together on projects as independent consultants. It’s a catch-all for all of our clients to fit under. She works with Meow Wolf and I work with History Colorado, Denver Theatre District and a few others.
You mentioned you got started in the art world because of your love of both music and art. Can you tell us what continues to motivate you?
I like the idea of being able to help and support people, particularly creative people, because I wish I could do what they do. I wish I had the skills to create art or knew how to code so I could do creative technology art. But this work allows me to feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives.
One thing that’s nice about the Theatre District is we are well-funded, so I can actually fund things appropriately, when other groups might sit there and be like, How do we afford this? I can do it. It may take time to save some money, I might bring in some partners, but I can still do it.
I do what I do, and I love what I do, just because Denver is such an interesting creative hub. We are that oasis in the desert. We have an international airport, which makes it really accessible to people.
How exactly does your funding work and how does that trickle down to the artists?
The Theatre District is the most interesting model. We are a beneficiary of the advertising sales from our media partners. So we work with all the media companies – like Outfront Media, Branded Cities – who go and sell billboards. They work with us and we get 15% of the net revenue from all their signage sales in a specific boundary. It was a plan to bring signage downtown and have Theatre District be a beneficiary.
So myself and my partners, we take that money and we spend it to fund what I call “artistic and cultural programming.” And when I say we do arts and culture, it means we can do things people might not consider an arts organization doing. We are fully autonomous with that funding. We do have partners and we work with a lot of stakeholders, but because we make that money on our own, it’s a really solid way to allow us to do things that the other groups, like the city, couldn’t.
We fund different, smaller things like Understudy, which has a new artist every month showcasing art. Sometimes it’s visual, next month it’ll be a musician, a dancer and a fashion designer doing something together, with the closing party being their big installation.
When it comes to taking our funding and giving it to artists, substantially, the bulk of our money goes to artists. We try to keep admin as low as possible. There is no office. We share an account with one of our stakeholders. We don’t advertise. We mainly try to spend it on creatives or, of course, the things that are associated with artists like permits. We’re a group who can help incubate artists or creatives in different ways.
How do artists hear about you?
For Understudy, they go to our website and reach out. And anyone who comes in and talks to us about the space, which is usually how I like to start it, I tell them, Send in a proposal. Whatever you do that’s creative, we would be interested in hosting you.
What are some of the ways you work with the artists? Do you mainly provide stipends?
There are multiple ways. The thing is we fund art. And that’s one thing artists have trouble finding, is funding outlets. You have to be creative in finding funding streams.
Our funding comes from a portion of advertising sales and we can go and give an art stipend for Understudy as well as cover all the hard costs of the space – the utilities, rent, everything else. It grew over time as we were able to allocate more money directly to the artists. Currently we offer up to $7,000 to local creatives. We’ll also help pay for an opening party on top of the stipend we give. That all comes from us figuring out what artists need the most, but also sitting there and saying, We value art.
When it comes to digital art and commissioning that stuff for our screens, we used to commission an hour program every month and we would show the art. We would pay artists market wages for their art, and what was nice was that we were working in realms where there wasn’t a lot of funding, so it made it really easy for us to step in and find these people and support them. And since it was digital, they’d send us a file, we’d send them a couple of hundred bucks, and it was great.
Now you’re starting to get into, what do artists and creatives really need? Money is there, space is definitely there, and exhibition space. Also, many supportive resources that may not be monetary too.
How can artists get the most value while working with organizations like yours?
I think the first thing is, we will respond to every cold email and cold call. I think sometimes people think, Oh, they’re not going to respond to me and they won’t accept the proposal. Never hesitate to reach out.
The second is, really know what you want to do. It’s okay— especially in an experimental space, to not have everything fully fleshed out, but definitely don’t be like, Here is my art, would you like to host it? It should be more like, I’m working on this thing now or I have this new art practice or I’m trying out this new medium. For a group like ours, it helps us understand where you’re going. We want to see where you’re going, not what you’ve done, because we’re more forward thinking. People who do things like digital art, our goal is to reach out to all of them right now.
Artists should also show up and check things out, talk to a curator or gallery owner in person. It’s way better than ever sending an email. I think that’s a big thing too. Because one, there’s that little bit of personal relationship and two, you can probably distill things better.
When you approach a group like ours, most likely, your idea is going to have to change based on logistics or just how things work. And sometimes the [Theatre District] arts complex wants to join in, help select art and help be a part of that. I think as an artist, it can be tough to be there and be like, Are these groups going to impact my art, are they going to have suggestions? But frankly, these are the groups that have some real money and more opportunity. So it’s okay to sit there and figure out how you can work together.
And this ties into collaborating. On your Communitas website you say you work with “a vast network of brilliant weirdos.” How did you develop your network and what are your strategies for strengthening your community?
There are so many different ways to become part of the community and I think it really depends on where you live and where your community is.
If it’s a digital community – maybe you’re a digital artist or someone who is going to just live online in a lot of ways – it’s finding the right message boards and where these people live on YouTube and Vimeo.
When it comes to building up resources like in Denver, first show up and see what’s out there. Then figure out what the missing resources are that you can help provide. When I became a part of the DIY space, I helped basically pay for some things. I helped with my expertise on the business side. You start to figure out how you fit in.
With a lot of people who wanted to get involved in the music scene when they first came to Denver, I would always tell them, I know it’s expensive, but if you can, go buy a PA system. Because everyone at some point needs to borrow a PA system, and if you have that – even if it’s not great and you got it secondhand – if people know you have it, all of a sudden you become a resource for the community and then you’re asked to come out and support or help. A projector could be the same thing nowadays. Whatever your art, if there’s something physical that another creative could utilize, buy it and then just start letting those people know you have it.
I think the biggest thing is figuring out what you can contribute to that scene and then just jump in and do it.
So adding value and being present.
Adding value, being present, but it’s also like, if you’re not very outgoing, that’s okay too. You don’t have to be that I’m-going-to-everything-every-night person. Especially in a market of Denver’s size. You’ll still see the same people over and over again. So you don’t need to go to everything. You just need to go to things that you’re really excited and passionate about. Not just things you’re going to because you think you need to be there, because then you’re not going to put your best self forward.
You’ve had an important impact on the local arts community. Have you seen that impact translate nationally?
It’s really neat to be in a place like Denver where all eyes are on us right now in a lot of ways. It’s a really young town. Creatives either have an eye on it or are interested in keeping an eye on it.
We have things like the Supernova Digital Outdoor Animation Festival, which is curated and run by my buddy, Ivar Zeile, but the Theatre District is a very core partner and I help produce it. Supernova literally takes over as many screens as possible and just shows digital art for hours on end, one day in the early fall. What’s really neat about something like that is, if you’re an artist who makes digital art, usually that art only lives in a few places, generally online – YouTube, Vimeo, maybe you’ll get a commission by an Adult Swim or someone out there doing something kind of cool. But generally, you’re not showing your art to wide audiences.
So to have this opportunity to come and put art on a big screen— we’ve had people fly here just to see their art on that screen. And then while they’re here, they’re meeting other people who have flown out here, including the jurors we fly out, and they develop relationships. They also do work with the colleges doing lectures, doing shows.
Another example of just how I see things really spreading is with the Theatre District Model itself. Atlanta just built their theater district. They have a huge film industry, so they’re able to take this model and say, What if we also use this to facilitate filming, which is even easier in the theater district than it is anywhere else in Atlanta?
When you work with all these artists, are there certain skills or traits that the most successful ones have?
For groups like ours, I think the biggest thing we’re looking for is openness and flexibility. We look for people who have more forward-thinking ideas and are able to understand that people may push them in a direction they’re not used to or they’re not thinking about. We like to see people who are pushing not just themselves, but maybe their entire art practice or their community.
You get a lot of people out there who just submit their art to anywhere they think hosts art. Don’t just randomly find every coffee shop and gallery and pitch your art. At least have gone to that gallery before and reference something in there. Understudy gets a lot of two-dimensional artists with “cold-call proposals,” and my first question to everyone who reaches out is, Have you seen the space? Because if they had come in, they would’ve seen that we don’t have a lot of blank, white walls. It’s unique. It’s more about installation and figuring out how you’re going to reach 100,000 people outside of the space, versus whoever comes inside the space.
So knowing what you’re walking into, regardless of what it is. It’s like, Have you ever done something like this before? An example is sometimes I’ll have to blow up art really big. Either it’s a billboard or for other reasons. And if we’re going to have to build something really big, I need to know, Do you understand it has to be of a higher quality? I can’t use a low-quality JPEG. It’s just not going to blow up well.
So I think for me, it’s really about, Is this thing going to work?
And then when you’re already working with artists, what are the biggest challenges you have working with them and what are the ways they can improve?
Knowing there’s nothing wrong with having constraints. Sometimes artists want to have every opportunity in the world. Unlimited budget and unlimited space. But once you start having some sort of restriction, that necessity, I think, can bring a lot.
So one thing I really try to do is— and really, my curator team does this better than I – encourage you to find a balance between how experimental and open you can get, but also noticing who your audience is.
I think as far as frustrations go, they have to do more with materials and technology. A lot of artists are very clever with some of their ideas but it’s almost like, the technology is not fully there yet, you know? So asking, Is this actually feasible?
I also think critiques are important. We don’t have a lot of people covering art as far as media goes, so there is something to be said about having the community sit there and challenge each other in a positive way. To say, I like this, but I really like your sculptural work, see where that goes. I think being open to critique is something that’s tough for everyone, but it’s probably one of the best things we can do as a community to grow our art scene right now.
Generally, I like most artists. It takes a lot for me to really not want to work with someone. For me, it’s more about, Is the artist living their vision and being able to do what they do?
Are there certain trends you’re seeing take shape right now in the Denver art scene? And what are you seeing coming down the line that can change that for the future?
That’s a great question. Right now, there’s a lot going on in multimedia. You start to see the technology really come into stuff and I think that that’s not just a trend locally, but you’re also seeing it nationally.
Murals are also a big thing and, in fact, it’s almost impeding certain artists because it’s like, We love what you do, can you make it a mural? And honestly, that’s a skill. There’s a big mural festival in Denver called Crush Walls. And when Crush happens in September, if it’s your first time doing a mural, you’re partnered with someone who’s done it before. It’s a collaboration, so one, there’s actually a final product and two, you learn. It’s a good trend to see because a lot of people who, frankly, were working on the fringes of the contemporary art and fine arts world are now getting good market rates for their art. Some of the pay per square footage is so much more substantial now than it was in the past for them. It’s really exciting.
Earlier you mentioned artists are having success selling their art through Instagram. Have people shared some of their best practices with you and what’s working well for them?
Instagram is actually a big trend, especially if you’re a two-dimensional artist. You can post a picture on Instagram and reach a much wider audience. You can start to foster a digital collectors’ base of people outside of your boundary who are just checking to see what you’re putting out there. If you’re posting it online, on Instagram, anyone can see that. But if it’s in a building in Downtown Denver, you have to go visit that building to see the piece.
The gallery world and culture isn’t really the same anymore. It’s hard to be a commercial gallery, particularly in a city like Denver that doesn’t have a very vibrant collector base. It’s a relatively small pool. So you’re seeing galleries either fully shut down or close and focus on a digital presence only, which is the new hot thing: nomadic art galleries. People are thinking, Maybe we don’t need our own white walls and can go into someone else’s space. Maybe it will be very non-traditional.
Even more exciting are the places that can afford to have a physical space that becomes experiential. So instead of us being worried about how much wall space we have, it’s a transition to, Let’s make something people want to come into and experience. And I think it’s what people want. You’re starting to see the “Meow Wolf effect” where everyone’s paying for these immersive or experiential experiences, where there’s a cool selfie station. It’s taking this idea into the gallery realm in a way that can support artists. Plus, I think you’re seeing a lot of artists have fun thinking about how they can take their work and make it an installation, to take it in a different direction.
In one of our past conversations, you suggested artists should keep a low overhead so that they can produce more art. How are you seeing skyrocketing rents in Denver affecting artists?
That’s a great question because no one’s quite figured it out and I do think it’s tough out there. I am starting to see a lot more upcycled materials, especially in the proposals we get for Understudy. It’s like, I can only afford rent or material – I can’t afford them both.
I think keeping a low overhead—it depends on the type of art you do, but maybe there’s a coworking or maker space you can share and utilize their resources. For example, in Denver, there are a few places that have vinyl printers. So if you want to go and make your own vinyl graphics for your gallery show, you do that for basically whatever their membership costs and have access to it for free.
Do you feel it’s easier nowadays for artists to live in cheaper places and work online?
Yeah, unless your art is performance-based, you pretty much can do it anywhere, right?
I think digital is where it’s at. The thing about digital is you can be national and still live in the mountains. If you have internet, you can have an incredible art practice and do amazing stuff all over the world. Android Jones is based out of Lyons, Colorado. He’s one of the preeminent projection mappers and a huge artist. He can have this incredible art practice and do stuff all over the world because he’s got internet, he’s got space for his studio and when he does need to fly somewhere, DIA isn’t that far away.
There is something to be said about working and living anywhere. There is also the question of, How do you afford to be an artist? Where is that money actually coming from? Because to reach a level where you’re full-time and making money off your art can be nearly impossible.
I think the other thing is, Denver also has suburbs around it and they are wonderful opportunities for artists because these municipalities have grown so much, they’re figuring out their own art identity. Places like Westminster are putting together a 1% for art program, which means all of a sudden, whenever they do a building, 1% of that money has to go towards art. Whether it’s a lobby or it’s out front or it’s on the side of a building.
So it’s knowing these other places exist and that there are more opportunities out there.
Are you finding artists are familiar with those percentage for art programs?
It’s funny because once artists find them, those people can get a ton of gigs. There’re certain organizations that, if you crack that code, they’re going to only want to work with you for a million reasons.
It can be tough to find those sometimes, but it would be really good to remind artists not to just target the big art cities, but also ask, What are the other art cities? What’s going on at the state level versus the city level?
The resource guides are few and far between out there, but realize that the way governments and cities work are generally the same. The way a lot of granting organizations work are generally the same. It’s more about just putting the effort in to go and find them.
Breweries I think are a wonderful resource – for comedians, for musicians, some visual artists, depending on what they’re doing. Maybe they’ll commission a mural, maybe they’ll do a can design.
Really think about, Who are people where art is part of their business operations and could allocate money towards us? Before it was like, I’m going to paint this, I hope someone buys it. And now it’s like—what if you do it like John Fellows? He’s done some interesting brand partnerships. Really think about who fits in with what you’re doing and ask, Where does my art fit best?
When it comes to learning how to do “public art,” they can be very big spends, but for a project like an airport, they’re not going to want to work with someone where this is their first project. But generally, cities will, and sometimes it’s as simple as a mural or a $5,000 pop-up project. Those you find through cities, arts and culture agencies. Or seeing what’s posted on some of the call for entry boards. Utilize those to gain experience and definitely keep an eye out if there’s ever a resource fair that’ll tell you, Come and we’ll teach you, Here is how you properly propose your art for public art and what to expect.
Any closing thoughts?
Ask yourself, What is your end goal? Why do you do what you do? It just comes down to knowing who your audience is and what you want. Keep yourself happy, figure out what you’re doing and how to be able to continue to create, but in a way where you’re not feeling like you’re going to have to give up everything. A good example of that is, there was a music producer I worked with, and he was going to sell his computer to pay rent. I said, If you sell that, how are you going to perform? How are you ever going to make music again? It was one of those moments where rent was more important. Try to avoid getting into those situations by having a day job. Do those things if you need to. Don’t let it get to a point where you’re not going to be able to create because it’s really hard to come back from that. Sometimes that will put you in a great spot to make your best art, but I’d rather never see an artist hit a low that bad and then feel they need to come out from it.
I think the big thing is, think of yourself as a creative. Sometimes artists don’t think of themselves as artists. You may have another job that maybe is your current identity, but you’re still a creative.
Think about how you take that element of you and make it into something you want to do. Don’t lose the fun in making whatever art you make, whether you’re a chef, musician or someone who does a Shakespeare solo piece. Find that thing, do it and find that community.
If you realize you’re not going to make it your living, figure out how you can still be a part of it, you know? And keep it like that. Maybe that’s the right direction to go. Some of the happiest people I know never made it as a band, but they’re still able to go to an open-mic jam night and just have fun with it. That community is what they wanted.
Interview edited for length and clarity. Images of animated screens and Roemer art courtesy of Third Dune Productions. All other photographs by Kim.