K Contemporary is currently Denver’s most exciting commercial art gallery. In just five quick years, owner Doug Kacena—obviously, that’s where the “K” comes from—gathered a roster of the city’s most adventurous art makers and produced a slew of memorable and completely free.
As K’s reputation grew, so did the artists he represented, including Denver-bound stars such as Suchitra Mattai, Daisy Patton, Jonathan Saiz, Andrew Jensdotter, and Melissa Furness.
More than that, Kacena has figured out how to make a gallery a good citizen in their community, partnering with several non-profit organizations and taking gallery art out of downtown K and onto the streets. . A great example: When the pandemic shut us all down, Kacena rented one of those big billboard trailers and drove the art down the streets of Denver and Boulder. It was a simple joy that brightened up a dark moment.
Now he’s pushing the city’s artists further, putting up winning exhibits at art fairs across the country that have drawn attention to the often-overlooked work of Colorado creatives.
I asked him how he was doing. (This interview, conducted via email, has been edited for clarity and length.)
Q: I must say that these five years have been difficult for galleries in Colorado. Many have come and gone, or simply moved to an online-only business model. But here you are, half a decade and thriving.
A: I believe in the magic of art, in the power it has to affect change in the individual and in our community, and in the importance of standing before it and being present.
This period allowed me to think differently about the role of the gallery in our community, to see why we were doing things. Was it the best way to engage our community and support our artists or were we doing it a certain way because that was how it had always been done? When put in a box, you can see the edges more clearly. Then you can play around with those self-imposed edges and boundaries.
As a result, we’ve taken more risks with our programming, including running more projects outside the gallery walls. Pop-ups like “#Art Finds Us” and Carlos Martiel’s “Black Bodies-White Lies” increased the accessibility of artworks at a time when people felt isolated. We are also grateful for the opportunity our expanded online presence affords us. This changed the landscape of the art field, allowing a Denver-based gallery to participate in an international art field.
Q: I want to ask about the relationship between gallery owners and the artists they represent. I think it’s a mystery to most people. Can you break it down? Like, who’s the boss in this arrangement?
A: I absolutely view the relationship with my artists as a partnership. Every artist is on a different path, and my work can range from helping an artist create a studio development strategy and connections with cultural institutions to helping artists dream big. As an exhibiting artist, gallery owner and collector, I am particularly well equipped for this role. I do a lot of translation and I approach the relationship with the question: “How would I like to be represented as an artist?
Q: It must be difficult. I write about artists every day and they can be – how to put it nicely – a little commercially unfocused.
A: Owning a business is never easy, but helping artists create meaningful work is beyond rewarding. For me, having the chance to work in a creative field is not so much a career as a life choice or a vocation.
Q: What I love most about K Contemporary is the high level of exhibitions you produce. K never looks like a retail showroom; exhibits are more like curated museum exhibits.
A: My job as a curator is to create the context for the objects to resonate best with the person standing in front of them, while honoring the intention of the artists and their work. It’s a dance – a flow of energy, emotions and ideas – and I’m setting the stage for that experience.
Q: There is a public service in these exhibits. People who never even buy art can take advantage and profit from it.
A: I believe that truly engaging contemporary art appeals to you with its aesthetics to have a deeper conversation and awareness. Our artists tackle a wide range of challenging topics in their work – from race, identity and post-colonialism to environmental issues and sustainability.
I look at the gallery (in an 1880s building) as a church, the artwork as a prayer, and am the mad monk who lives in the back and drives it forward, making sure it is accessible and inclusive.
Q: Can you give advice to future collectors?
Fall in love with art. Look for something that engages you and piques your curiosity. Discover and exchange with artists. I find that at some point people stop collecting art and start collecting artists. Visit galleries, museums, art fairs and events and find what speaks to you.
Art is a doorway to self-discovery. It requires us to be aware of ourselves and to establish a meaningful relationship with the world around us, to be present with ourselves and to understand what is presented to us when we look at something.
Q: I consider K Contemporary to be a Colorado gallery, but looking at your listing I see that you have increasingly incorporated artists from different places.
A: One of the gallery’s goals has always been to bring important and challenging national and international contemporary art to Denver. I had the honor of working with artists like the monumental sculptor Viktor Freso from Bratislava; interdisciplinary artist Angel Ricardo Ricardo Rios, living in Mexico City; mixed-media painter Ken Gun Min from South Korea (now based in Los Angeles); and Cuban performance artist Carlos Martiel (who recently performed at the Guggenheim Museum), among others.
Q: I need to ask about art fairs. K Contemporary caused a sensation at the Untitled Art fair in Miami last January. It is not easy considering that there are thousands of high-quality galleries by your side.
A: It was an incredible honor to be named one of the top 10 booths at Untitled Art in 2021. Art Basel, Untitled Art and Miami Art Week are such an important international stage for art. So many eyes are on the work – curators from all the major museums, collectors, institutions and anyone who is excited to see what is happening in the art world. Our participation over the years is a way to introduce the world to our artists, their dynamics and the important work they create.
Q: Looking back five years, what was the happiest moment for you?
A: I find so much joy in this work. I am full of gratitude every day for the privilege of doing what I love, helping others earn a living, and bringing something beautiful to the world. Every time I sell a painting and help support an artist is a joyful moment, but there are some experiences from the past few years that stand out.
- In April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, we launched “#Art Finds Us”, a mobile art experience featuring the work of gallery artists Shawn Huckins and Daisy Patton. It has brought us great joy to support artists and bring art into the community at a time when people were housebound and unsure of what the pandemic would bring.
- In August 2020, we partnered with curator Marisa Caichiolo and the Biennale of the Americas on “Black Bodies-White Lies,” artist Carlos Martiel’s performance projected onto buildings in Denver. Martiel has exhibited at the Venice Biennale and at the Guggenheim Museum. It was a real highlight for the gallery to bring this level of art and dialogue to the community during a difficult time.
- Watching the development and trajectory of an artist like Suchitra Mattai has been a joy, including placing her work in the permanent collections of the Denver Art Museum and Crystal Bridges and witnessing her monumental success at the Untitled Art event. of last year in Miami.
- I worked with Artists Network to create and host the Art Bound podcast. It gave me the opportunity to have in-depth conversations with artists to deconstruct the myths and misconceptions of the art world and share what it really means to live the life of an artist.
Q: What local galleries do you go to? What are your favourites?
A: Denver has such a vibrant art scene. But, if I had to narrow it down, some favorites are Redline, Friend of a Friend, Leon, Rule, David B Smith and Robischon.
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