An arts scene’s benefactor is leaving Denver, prompting changes in venue and funding

Deer Pile and Suspect Press have for the last five to six years been going about the business of supporting Denver arts and making them accessible.
9 min. read
Deer Pile operators Ben Kronberg (left) and Johnny Morehouse in their performance space above City O’ City, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty; dan landis; diy; city o’ city;

"Ben Kronberg (left) and Johnny Morehouse at Deer Pile, above City O' City, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Up above City O' City, two stories off the corner 13th Avenue and Sherman Street, a clutch of like-minded organizations quietly operate out of the old building's dozen or so little rooms.

In rooms 204 and 213, Deer Pile and Suspect Press have for the last five to six years been going about the business of supporting Denver arts and making them accessible. In practice, what they do as a venue and a magazine is very different, but at the heart of both are the same values.

The other thing they share: enormous support from Dan Landes, who just sold City O' City and announced he's taking off to Mexico.

So now what? Landes is one of the founders of Suspect Press and has used City O' City as a means of supporting the quarterly literary magazine. He's been letting Deer Pile use about 600 square feet rent-free, knowing the DIY venue will drive business downstairs.

At Suspect Press, it's a blow to the business model, but little else will change. At Deer Pile, it's the perfect time to execute a long-discussed move.

"We’re going forward pretty fast. It happened pretty quick, but we were already on that tip, already going in that direction," said Johnny Morehouse, Deer Pile's manager. "If we were going to get a new space, we wanted it to be a little bit more conducive to everything, definitely wheelchair accessible."

Deer Pile operators Ben Kronberg (left) and Johnny Morehouse in their performance space above City O' City, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The crew that runs Deer Pile, which also includes Birdy's Jonny DeStefano and Christy Thacker and comedian Ben Kronberg, had already set their sights on something bigger where they can grow into a business. There are a couple places on the table, but nothing has been locked down yet. What's next, Kronberg said, is "Transition. Evolution. Growth."

"It’s a new chapter," he said. "In this particular space, there are limitations as far as accessibility and things like that. So we’re just using it as an opportunity to find something new. ... He was subsidizing the space because it was symbiotic to what he was doing downstairs. Now that he’s not, it’s changed the relationship. Also, it was not like he was kicking us out, but it was like, you can continue doing this here, but this is the case and if you’re gonna be spending money on rent anyways you might as well have a different situation that’s more beneficial."

Tonight, Deer Pile will host a fundraiser as its first public step toward a move. There will also be a GoFundMe and, possibly, investors to help monetize the venue — without changing its mission.

Meanwhile, Suspect Press has launched a Patreon, through which it's now accepting donations to help it through this transition and beyond.

Suspect Press Senior Editor Josiah Hesse (left to right), Editor In Chief Amanda E.K. and Art Director/Comix Editor Lonnie Allen in their headquarters above City O' City, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

"I think we saw it coming — not Dan selling everything and moving to Mexico — but I think we knew from the beginning that the funding we were getting from City O' City wasn’t going to be a permanent institution of our business model," Suspect Press Senior Editor Josiah Hesse said. "... We’re used to this. I mean, it’s always been one step forward, two steps back. You get an exciting new advertiser or another new source of funding and you lose another one or two, or you get a great designer and you lose him or her. After five years, we’ve got a lot of experience weathering difficult times, and we’re still growing."

Lauren Roberts, who along with Jennifer Byers now owns City O' City, said the plan is to continue business as usual at the restaurant and keep supporting the things that Landes supported. They won't be quite as involved, but they will stay connected.

"We will maintain a relationship and support suspect and other local artists and nonprofits as much as possible," Roberts said. "We really believe in what Suspect does and what it means to Denver."

Suspect Press has had sponsors from the beginning — businesses who give a couple hundred dollars here and there, Hesse said. It's raised advertising prices as it brought on a staff that now includes Hesse, Editor in Chief Amanda EK and Art Director and Comix Editor Lonnie Allen, and that advertising can be pretty aggressively targeted to a specific audience. Suspect Press distributes 5,000 copies of each issue to carefully selected Denver spots that include coffee shops, bars, tattoo parlors, dispensaries and vintage clothing stores.

Paying contributors who number about a dozen per issue remains "the primary priority." After that, it's paying the printers, paying then rent and then paying the editors. Hesse and EK estimate they put in about 20 hours a week.

"Not to say that losing City O' City isn’t a pretty big blow to our operation, it’s just we’ve got a couple more legs underneath us," Hesse said. "It’s not a death sentence."

Suspect Press Editor In Chief Amanda E.K. in their headquarters above City O' City, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

It'd be pushing it to say a death sentence for Deer Pile or Suspect press would be devastating to the city of Denver, but it would definitely be a gut punch to the artists of all genres who live and work here.

Suspect Press is free. Admission to Deer Pile is free. There's a competitive selection process to be published in Suspect Press, but EK says she reads every submission and that writers who impress her can become regular contributors. At Deer Pile, they're open to just about everything and everybody.

"We learned as we saw stuff that we didn’t like — not that we didn’t like it because it was bad but because something just didn’t fit," Morehouse said. "We never kicked anyone out. Anyone who wanted the space, if they got it, they got it. That was the coolest thing about making this what it is. Someone could come in and just have a lecture about, I don't know what, avocados or something, and they could be paired with a punk rock show right after."

The Fine Gentleman's Club — comedians Chris Charpentier, Bobby Crane, Nathan Lund and Sam Tallent — was a staple there from the start and for years to come. The Shit Your Pants improv show became a staple, too. When Kronberg was splitting time between Denver and New York, he'd perform at Deer Pile in between gigs at bigger venues like the Oriental Theater. Hesse says Dave Chappelle once popped in and offered to pay someone $1,000 for their dog.

Deer Pile's Johnny Morehouse in the performance space above City O' City, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Supporting performance and printed arts, both Deer Pile and Suspect press are part of an ecosystem.

"You know, there’s lots of different venues that specialize in specific types of entertainment ... but this is a space where all those can commingle, not just because they’re eclectic, but because they’re at different levels and stages of development," Kronberg said.

"Some things are very new and raw, other things come in here polished and practiced. And I think that — having the mix of all those elements is essential in an arts scene to bring people together, to make musicians aware of artists, to make artists aware of comedians. Because we're all kind of doing the same thing, where we’re pursuing this thing that doesn’t always pay off but sometimes it does, but at the very least it’s a soulful experience to be able to do it."

It's important to note that the people who run spaces like Deer Pile and Suspect press are almost always artists themselves, in one way or another. They know what it's like trying to make it, or even just to find an outlet, and that's why they do what they do largely for free. The team at Suspect Press have day jobs — Hesse as a freelance journalist, Allen as a graphic designer. Publishing other writers and artists is their passion project.

"I think we also do it because we want an outlet for our own work, and this is a way to do that. But I also think we do it because we can’t not do something like this," EK said. "It’s mostly, I would say, pro bono, voluntarily hours, and we love it. It’s our baby. It feels like the dream come true."

And without organizations that support art at a grassroots level, a city's art scene would die on the vine, taking a chorus of voices with it.

"I think it’s mostly important for the city, to Denver, to have something, to have options that ... give people a voice," Kronberg said. "And I think people in this city need a voice and to hear other people’s voices and all the different ways that they use their voice and communicate."

Ben Kronberg (left) and Johnny Morehouse in Deer Pile, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
What's next and how to lend a hand:
  • Deer Pile tonight hosts a fundraiser featuring Food Talks with Adrian Mesa, Strings and Things with Phil Norman, Alphabeat Soup with Grant Blakeslee, Sightseeing with Mas Hacienda, Get Schooled by Jay Gillespie, Recess with Justin Franzen and friends, Detention with Ben Kronberg and the Cronies, and Music Lessons with Mythirst. 7 p.m.-1 p.m. 206 E. 13th St.
  • Deer Pile's final event at this location is Cartoons and Comedy at 10 p.m.
  • You can make a donation to Deer Pile via its GoFundMe here.
  • You can make a donation to Suspect Press via its Patreon here.
Suspect Press Art Director/Comix Editor Lonnie Allen in their headquarters above City O' City, April 26, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Correction: Christy Thacker's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. The spelling has been corrected. 

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