New leader Charity Von Guinness has a bold vison for RiNo Art District

Charity Von Guinness can barely wrap her tattooed arms around the River North Art District’s many and pressing issues, from its unending construction boom to its dearth of affordable studios for artists, for whom the state-certified district was first named in the mid-2000s.

To be fair, it’s more than any one person can do, given the daunting complexity. But as she jumps into the high-pressure role of RiNo’s executive director, which 43-year-old Von Guinness started in August, she’s certainly going to try.

Seated on a wooden chair in a sunny, windy RiNo ArtPark on Tuesday morning, she mostly wanted to pose questions — many of them to herself, and largely about growth and collaboration in this hip, former industrial area that’s become a magnet for Denver’s young and moneyed transplants.

“How do we leverage that to benefit the whole community?” she said of the numerous condo, office and commercial construction projects in the district, which attracts about one million visitors annually. Just across the street, a pair of sky-blocking, high-rise construction sites layered her speech with constant sound of buzzsaws and metallic clanking.

“I’m absolutely aware of the (gentrification) critiques and am adamant about keeping the artists and makers here,” she continued. “But how do we work with these developers and historical communities to make this happen?”

She has her own ideas but sees her job as listening to people with better ones. Von Guinness’s work in the acclaimed, wildly diverse Miami art scene sets her up for a bit of a culture shock in our isolated, half-mountainous state. In Miami she was a decorated arts advocate and administrator who led nonprofit and free galleries and programs, moving to the center of a sophisticated creative sphere.

The challenges in Denver’s unsettled arts scene require a constantly shifting approach. That’s particularly true in RiNo, which spans a one-mile radius northeast of downtown, and which gathers the edges of Denver’s formerly working class Globeville, Elyria-Swansea, Five Points and Cole neighborhoods.

After earning an NYU art history degree, she started her art career in 2001 working with the late Christo and Jeanne Claude on their Gates Project for Central Park (readers may remember Christo’s still-controversial Colorado works, such as Over the River and Valley Curtain). She’s worked with many more galleries and arts nonprofits in New York, Philadelphia and Miami since then.

Her partner, artist Tom Buwalda, is still based in Florida with their three dogs and one cat. But they’re already under contract for a home in the Baker Historic Neighborhood in Denver and expect to be fully rooted in Colorado soon, she said.

RiNo Art District co-founder Tracy Weil, who’s stepping down as executive director but will remain on the board, praised Guinness’ spirit of experimentation.

“We set out to find a visionary leader who would be a champion for the creative community, a steward for thoughtful economic development and a collaborative partner to our members, and we found that and more in Charity,” he said in a statement.

What that means in practical terms is that Von Guinness is sure to rile a few traditionalists in the district. Although she has never used it herself, she’s interested in inviting Google’s Waymo self-driving car program to conduct R&D work in RiNo, and she wants to bring artists into the Wild West-like world of NFTs, cryptocurrency and other digital art platforms.

“I know it’s a controversial topic, but it’s not going away,” she said. “I’d like to equip artists to deal with it because there’s zero regulation there from copyright and other perspectives. How do you market or protect yourself now?”

Von Guinness’ drive is matched by a striking, frame-worthy presence that diverges from the buttoned-down image of most development officials, with elaborate tattoos and a boldly colorful fashion. And yet, she instantly stands out in Denver’s ultra-casual style scene. Her knack for visibility is an asset to RiNo’s careful image-tending; on Tuesday she was accompanied by a pair of publicists who represent the district, following her every move during an interview and portrait shoot.

In addition to criticisms about priced-out artists, the district has suffered public controversies ranging from the sexual assault allegations against the founder of the Crush Walls festival it formerly partnered with (they parted ways in 2021) to complaints about an ongoing lack of diversity in its street-art scene that obscures meaningful conversations around gender, race and class.

“These are huge, daunting issues, so of course there’s a learning curve,” she said. “It’s not up to the district to solve them. But it is up to us to funnel the money here back into the community in the most impactful way possible, support small businesses and provide affordable spaces for artists. … Public art is inherently political, so who are we giving power to?”

A new group of artists, she hopes. The Keep RiNo Wild nonprofit, which tries to provide affordable spaces for local artists, is up and running. RedLine Contemporary Art Center’s satellite location at ArtPark, which offers studios and gallery space, joins the recently acquired, 14-room Studios on Blake, a tax-subsidized project that sits just across the South Platte River from ArtPark. It’s full, and there’s a waitlist.

Von Guinness is also hoping to bolster the district’s revived RiNo Talks, Tools for Creative Artists and other free programming. Renovating former Denver Police Department substations into public incubator spaces, libraries and performance venues, as ArtPark has done, adds a sense of openness and neighborhood character. The invisible spine is formed by RiNo’s five-year strategic plan, released last year, and its recent circulation study that looks at transportation issues.

“We’re not victims of these people moving in. We’re not helpless,” she said.

Von Guinness will soon no longer be seen as a RiNo outsider. She’s already helmed September’s inaugural Art RiNo Festival and networked with the city’s arts and nonprofit leaders at galas, parties and openings. Now it’s time to go door-to-door talking to residents and business owners to find out what they actually need.

“The point of the arts and arts education is to solve the seemingly impossible problems,” she said. “In this district you’ve got chemists and graphic designers and doctors and artists all coming together to work on these problems. We’re not going to solve it from one perspective.”

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