On a cold and snowy day recently we had the pleasure of meeting with Ivar Zeile, owner and director of Plus Gallery–one of Denver’s premier progressive contemporary art spaces–to discuss the gallery business, the Denver art scene in general, and his ardent involvement as Creative Director and Lead Curator for the Denver Theatre District’s cutting-edge LED screen-based Denver Digerati platform for digital and motion-based artists.
1/1: First off, tell us a little about Plus Gallery.
Ivar Zeile: Plus Gallery has been around for over 12 years now, which is kind of extraordinary to me personally! […] I modeled the gallery after a good friend’s space that I was supporting in a different state. I got involved as a collector primarily, and through the process of working with a gallery and seeing how that functions it got me very interested in doing it myself. […] I always say we started at the right time because the competition then was way less severe, but that allowed us to infiltrate fairly readily. My goal was always to bring what I considered to be challenging contemporary art into the fold [not] necessarily because it sells, but to celebrate artists that are pushing the envelope within the local community.
1/1: When you select work, are there any specific ideas/ideals you look for?
IZ: What I look for right now really is something that strikes me in a unique way […] then I have to look at the next factor, which is: Where does [the work] reside in my stable of artists? […] I’ve always been interested in having a program that touches on a vast level of genres with each artist individually pushing the boundaries within that genre. […] The other big factor for me these days is the personal qualities of the artist and their dedication to their careers. Having worked with a lot of emerging artists–an emerging artist is an unknown quantity and you want to support them, and if you’re able to when they do succeed, it’s a pretty amazing experience, but part of my protocol is saying, “Do I feel like that artist is dedicated and willing to put up as much of a fight [against] market conditions as we [the gallery] are?”
1/1: What other qualities do you look for in your relationships with artists?
IZ: [O]ne of the most important things for me is the trust of the artist and their understanding of how the art business functions. And then also knowing that we’re a very particular type of operation. All galleries are completely different; not all artists fit within a gallery context so if someone’s approaching me, I have to say, “Are you really the right fit for a gallery?”
1/1: Are all of your artists Colorado-based?
IZ: It used to be around 65-70%, but with several of them leaving–like Xi Zhang is a great example. His career is based solely in Colorado [but] he left earlier this year on a three year hiatus to Milwaukee. Is he a local artist? Of course! […] He just happens to be elsewhere. I kinda have to look at a number of our artists that way. If their career is based in Colorado, then it doesn’t matter necessarily that they’re physically here or not. […] Jenny Morgan would be [another] example. We’ll always consider her to be from Denver and family, even though she’s moved to New York and isn’t leaving anytime soon!
1/1: Considering when you started, how do you think the gallery scene has changed?
IZ: It’s become super, super robust! […] Within the last few years it’s definitely exploded across the board. […] It’s hard for me to keep track of everything that’s going on within it, although I try to largely because of my role with the Denver Theatre District and Denver Digerati. My question is always, “Does the scene support that number of artists and operations?” […] It does seem like Denver is much stronger and larger of a scene than probably anybody realizes or gives it credibility for.
1/1: From our standpoint as well, it’s a bit overwhelming trying to keep track of everything!
IZ: Overwhelming is a good way to look at it. I give a lot of lectures to university classes and when you realize how many universities have art programs and just the sheer scale of the students that are emerging into the market, it’s pretty extraordinary. How does a scene contain that? The online world today allows everybody to have a presence, but to try to push it all into a system of galleries, I think, is very, very challenging.
1/1: You got started in a different scene, though–the film scene to be exact. I’d venture to guess that’s your favorite medium?
IZ: [Laughs] Overtime that has changed to the extent that I focus more outside of film, but I have to say that a lot of my passion for art started with film. I used to run an arthouse movie theatre at my university that led to being a projectionist in the art house movie scene for a number of years, then started working the Sundance Film Festival both as a reporter and a staff person. […] If I had all the time in the world, I’d be spending a lot more time engaging with film than I’m able to now, but Denver Digerati provides a very unique component for my life that brings film into visual art in a unique way that I can definitely dive into as a curator and as somebody that can support it.
1/1: How exactly did you get involved with Denver Digerati?
IZ: When I was asked to join the Mayor’s Commission for Cultural Affairs, […] Ginger White was at the time just a member of Hickenlooper’s team relating to arts and culture–now she is [Deputy Director] of Denver Arts & Venues, and she’s been a huge, huge advocate for the art scene in general–we got along really well, so she would always tap me into opportunities. […] The Denver Theatre District was just forming [around 2008]; she contacted me to meet David Ehrlich [Executive Director of DTD] [who wanted] to get some input on what it is they intend to do. […] Basically, all of my input into that first meeting led to him basically coming back to me and saying, “I think we’re gonna take your advice and look for a creative director. Would you be interested?” The position was so unique and the opportunity so different that I said, “Yeah! It looks like a challenge and an interesting thing to do.”
Initially, the directive was to place artwork on billboards in the downtown area. […] [B]ut once it shifted to putting content on the LED screens, all of a sudden it was like nobody’s ever done this before, and there’s all sorts of directions that we can consider! Working with that context we knew that it was going to be motion-based artists, although not exclusively. Initially, we did some compositions with just static images that would rotate […] [but] our first big project was with Create Denver Week [also a Ginger White project]. When we launched that–I’ll never forget that evening–I just had all sorts of lightbulbs going off in my head! […]
There wasn’t a whole lot of oversight in terms of the work we were putting on the screen; that’s part of what I really like about the project. I’m conscious we’re operating in the public realm; […] I’m not going to bring something that I think would offend the public […] because there’s not necessarily a good reason or need to. But there are boundaries in which really credible and cool motion-based art can be put up in public, and you want to grow that in a meaningful way that really makes a statement.
So, the next year we curated a program for the same Create Denver Week […] and the results of outreach for that program were really inspiring. We had artists from all over the world that agreed to let us show their work, and when we put it up on that screen–it was fascinating! So, that’s when we decided that what we were doing was unique enough that it should have its own entity. So, Denver Digerati was really born a year ago, after that second program.
The “digerati” aspect dawned on me when I was at MediaLive at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. This was a gathering of digital artists and somebody used the term digerati that night, and I was like, “Denver Digerati–that has a good ring to it!” It doesn’t entirely encapsulate what we’re doing because not everything we’re involved with is digital, but the emphasis within the program is on how artist’s are using digital tools to transform art in ways that have never been done before.
1/1: That said, how big a role do you think digital art will play in the future?
IZ: I believe it’s gonna be major! You’re never going to lose the other forms of art and other genres and approaches to art-making, but there’s no doubt in my mind that within a decade the entire landscape is going to shift exponentially because everything in our world is shifting due to technology.
Technology is coming into a zone where it’s accessible; the learning curve is always going to be pretty massive, but it’s also going to be more open to new directions and to people wanting to experience them. […] [Digital art] will probably just become a more robust genre that the world is able to understand and support. What little I’ve dabbled in it so far makes me so excited that I would think it’s a matter of more momentum building, more opportunities, people experiencing these artworks in different capacities, both online and in the real world.
1/1: How has the public reception been?
IZ: Initially, our first event we drew a huge number of people […] [T]he overall result was great enthusiasm! Trying to build on that […] what we’ve really shifted towards is this focus that public art is changing–or we have the means to change it through the use of screens that have never been used for artwork before. […] I think the goal currently within our program is to find a way to have a system or a screen that is devoted to art.
[T]he challenge right now is that we get a percentage of screen time on the LED screens. It’s not enough for the public to be aware of it or be faced with it all the time, but if we can implement a location or get involved with a system that wants to place art onto a screen full-time, that’s a total game changer. It’s something that the public itself can, I think, both support and interact with in any capacity, and that’s really where a lot of our attention is going right now.
1/1: Would you consider what you do with Denver Digerati to be a kind of street art?
IZ: I wouldn’t consider it street art in that it infiltrates the street differently. […] Someone walks by and they can see our work infiltrating the screen, and they can choose to pay attention or to ignore it [but] I think digital artists or motion-based artists just have a different set of principles to work with; and our [Denver Digerati’s] use of them fits within a protocol that is structurally unique to anything that exists. [Laughs] I’ve never really considered that question before!
1/1: I was thinking about the recent Colorado Crush graffiti art event. Some very notable graffiti artists and muralists came out en masse to paint a number of alleys in this neighborhood.
IZ: To me, what’s fascinating about that is that street art has grown so much from artists using the street illegally to now using the streets and buildings that–I don’t want to say it takes away from the original–but it expands it into something that, after awhile, settles into the public consciousness differently.
It’s almost like the [Broadway Triangle Art Wall] project across the street–I’ve never seen anybody do that! It’s based on street art–it’s utilizing currently street artists to be put forward, but it’s the unique protocol of wanting to change that and provide something to the community that is set up in a different way. To have artists work on it in the studio–in advance–and then to have the artist receive the work back at a later date, that’s just a totally different thing!
1/1: It’s a neat concept! The artists are commissioned to produce works for public display; but they get them back to sell or whatever, concurrently making room for the next batch of artists to do the same.
IZ: The fact that they paid the artist is really cool because within Denver Digerati one of our protocols is to say […] we have to ask artists for permission to use their work […] and most artists are apt to do that because that gives them better exposure, but at the same time we want to make sure that we’re paying artists for works. […] It’s the only way we can reasonably support this system and get something back from it that’s a unique product.
1/1: Any other projects/exhibitions you’re looking forward to?
IZ: I’m looking forward to ALL our exhibitions! Next year is Xi Zhang’s solo exhibition which is super, super exciting. We are introducing a couple digital artists next year. Kristin Stransky was one I was recommended to take a look at her work [which] fits really well within this protocol that is consuming a lot of my time now. I’d like to be able to support that in a gallery context and not worry about whether it can sell or not.
We are looking at some major level grants for Denver Digerati that would allow us to expand our programming dramatically. […] If those come through, it’ll change everything! So, I tend to put a lot of effort into that because within my own programs–as exciting as it is always–I like to feel that the way to push the envelope is to work with something that hasn’t been done before. And that’s really where the Denver Digerati platform keeps me more enthused than I think it’s healthy [laughs]!