River North Art District Grows Up



Oh, RiNo. Remember when you were just a kid? When the galleries and studios  were sort of, like, hey, let’s put on a show? We still remember, when Brighton Boulevard was still gritty and industrial, demonstrating to Denver residents that there were still plenty of places that made things – including art.

The River North Art District has grown up – and out. It has flexible boundaries stretching into various neighborhoods that now sport apartment buildings, brewpubs, distilleries, and lots and lots of restaurants and murals. It is a wonderland of entertainment.

And, there is still art, but RiNo now has a business improvement district and a general improvement district and initiatives that work to convince developers to build worthy buildings – and sometimes that works. RiNo’s first open studio-open door tour, in early 2006, attracted some 1,000 visitors, curious and hungry for the real thing.

This past week, the parents of RiNo were honored by a support group at the Denver Art Museum. The Contemporary Alliance, now with a new name but a 40-year history, gave the DAM “key” award to Jill Hadley Hooper and Tracy Weil. There were other “parents” involved in the building of RiNo, but Hooper and Weil were passionate about nurturing the arts in RiNo, back when land was cheap and the neighborhood still had an edge. (Pictured above: Tracy Weil (at left) and Jill Hadley Hooper.

The redevelopment of an old taxi dispatch center, by Mickey Zeppelin, turned into a building for design and arts studios, and then grew to include apartments and lots of amenities, from offices to a food hall.

Weil said that development in the area began in 2007, but the real estate bust in 2008 brought things to a halt. Since then, however, growth has boomed. And though Brighton Boulevard still seems to be under construction, it sure seems wider, though sidewalks seem skimpy in spots.

As for Hooper and Weil, they are still busy making art. Hooper, who was gallery director at Ironton Studios and Gallery (now a distillery) and is a noted painter and illustrator, now has work in Goodwin Fine Art. Weil, who established Weilworks – part gallery, part work space, and part residence, is opening a show there of his work on Nov. 2.

By now, everyone knows the line about how artists move into a neighborhood with cheap rents, and then the rest of the world wants in, making it too expensive for artists. We went though that in lower downtown, and last year Highlands’ galleries felt the same burn. Pirate, Edge and Next moved to Lakewood, though the Bug Theatre is still operating on Navajo Street. It still irks me to see the “Navajo Art District” sign on West 38th Avenue, since the district pretty much flew the coop.

Santa Fe Drive also is going through changes, though there is a push to protect that stretch of galleries, studios and arts-related enterprises (though CHAC needed to move farther south for more gentle rent). Here’s a link to a story on how the La Alma/Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association is working to help shape development (including a proposed eight-story residential and retail building):


4 Replies to “River North Art District Grows Up”

  1. RiNo is definitely a mixed bag. When I moved back to Denver in 2015, I bought a loft in an old building on the boundary of Ballpark and RiNo. I loved the grittiness, the local street art, the mixed uses, and the new businesses. Now, the pace of development has accelerated, and the instant apartment buildings have popped up everywhere, out of place and out of scale. And, 18 months after occupancy, they look like frat houses. There’s still cool street art, but now it is curated, and I do miss the preponderance of local artists. I try to love the change, but it just seems to be voracious investment to glitz up a pretty great neighborhood to make it attractive to hipsters.


  2. I opened Purple Door Studio in 1989 – lucky to have space behind a dumpster in the ally between 35th & 36th (between Walnut and Larimer). Through the years Purple Door migrated through this industrial block from 36th St down to its final Denver location at the parking lot on 35th. Whole block underwent new ownership and became home to Exdo Events Center and Tracks. The neighborhood grew up around us just as Mary said – artists came and went. Our landlord was a saint, putting up with our noise and dust, and he kept on supporting us until, like all the others, we sadly had to move on (to Boulder!). I get it. Denver’s been good to us, and we have to accept change. One day while working with the garage door open, a beach-ball flew inches past the blade on my grinder, and I said “well, I get the hint – we’re outta here”. But we’re forever grateful for our humble beginnings. When I drive past the old Purple Door Studio, I can’t find the door through Tracy’s colorful mural – we’ve been painted over! But our soul is still there. There are wonderful ghosts floating throughout our old neighborhood. Now, with Phil’s closing, it’s official! Thank you Mary for your blog – I look forward to following it.

    Liked by 1 person

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