It’s possible you walked right by it — tucked away under some stairs at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.
It used to be an Indian clothing store, but for the past year or so, it’s transformed into an art gallery and right now it’s made itself a little harder to miss. With a new technicolor paint job and a giant pair of eyeballs staring out from the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, The Next Stage Gallery is demanding the attention of passersby — a goal the gallery will be able to keep pursuing now that it’s got itself a five-year, $1 lease.
(This is different from the other Denver art gallery under a flight of stairs. The other one you’re thinking of is Understudy, which in partnership with the Denver Theatre District operates in the Colorado Convention Center.)
The current exhibit at The Next Stage — a project made possible by a partnership between Denver Arts & Venues and the University of Colorado Denver College of Arts & Media — is being presented by Meow Wolf and comes from the minds of local artits Molly Bounds, Derrick Velasquez, Laura Shill, Diego Rodriguez-Warner and Dmitri Obergfell. It’s called “Special Guest,” and it features a stage, a talk show area, costume props you can wear and a camera that broadcasts the goings on outside the arts complex.
“Really what we want this space to be is about the intersection of arts and technology — in short,” said Peter Dearth, operations assistant for Denver Arts & Venues.
So they plan to partner with people who want to put on those types of programs. The last one, for example, was a collaboration with Opera Colorado in which gallery visitors could get an immersive virtual reality experience of a performance of the classic opera “La Boheme” and do things like hold a tablet up to an augmented reality poster to learn more about costume design.
“‘La Boheme’ was only here for six days, and that can be pretty expensive,” said Jeff Lambson, curator for The Next Stage and CU Denver’s Emmanuel Gallery. “… A lot of people love opera, but how do you introduce different communities to that? The idea was: How do you give it a life beyond those six days?”
In addition to being tech-forward, The Next Stage is meant make the arts and art spaces (like the Denver Performing Arts Complex) more accessible. Lambson said he’s learned through research that once you get people into these spaces, they’re more comfortable returning — and that’s especially true if you get them in as kids.
“Performing arts can be expensive and not always accessible to everybody, and also some of the performances are short-lived,” he said. “So the idea was the space would be collaborative — involving our students and arts professionals, making it more accessible to the public. Our goal is to always keep it free.”
With Lambson at the helm and with support from Arts & Venues, The Next Stage is actually a student project. The idea was hatched by CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell and Arts & Venues Executive Director Kent Rice over lunch.
“They were really starting to push their CU In The City program, which is trying to get CU students out working within their fields outside the classroom,” Dearth said. “So they’re like, ‘Well, what can we do with the Arts Complex and CU In The City?’ Kent offered up the space. I offered up the money from my program.”
It cost $25,000 for a CU design-build class to transform the old clothing shop into a gallery. From there, arts and media classes were tasked with programming it with exhibits that include video, augmented reality, virtual reality and interactive elements.
“Since then, they’ve had whatever teacher’s class was working in the space curate and it was kind of hodgepodge, but CU has since hired somebody (Lambson) to run their Emmanuel Gallery on campus and curate this space as a full-time job. So now it’s a lot more curated seasons and we know what’s going to come up for months in advanced,” Dearth said. “That paved the way for Meow Wolf to really get a presence in here.”
“Special Guest” will be at The Next Stage through the end of the year — inviting you in for some impromptu karaoke and cosplay or, if you’re a comic or musician, to perform there — then the future is wide open. They’ve got at least five years to do this thing, and they’ll be looking to partner with other creative institutions from across Denver. Among the future plans is another virtual reality experience, this one with the Colorado Ballet.
“It’s growing,” Denver Arts & Venues COO Mark Heiser said. “Part of the goal was to try to help activate the complex in general, during the day and such, and we still need to work on that.”
The Next Stage hours are 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and 12:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.