Denver’s historic Holiday Theatre will be transformed into a hub for cultural activity in the city’s Highland neighborhood under a plan announced today by the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The former movie theater, built in 1914, would become a showplace for concerts, film, lectures and artist conversations starting in December. Eventually, it will house studios where artists could work as well as full-time apartments for creatives and rehearsal space for smaller arts groups. Rents would be below-market.
The move is a game-changing departure for the MCA. The satellite facility will allow the organization to develop a range of programming beyond the gallery exhibitions it is known for as a staple of downtown’s fine-arts culture, and take a more community-minded approach to its operations.
MCA director Nora Burnett Abrams describes it as an “opportunity to live our mission, to advance it, to live our values and to flex our creative muscles in ways that we haven’t been historically able to in our current building.”
Located on 32nd Avenue across the street from North High School, the Holiday Theatre is an ideal outpost for the MCA’s growing youth programs, according to Abrams.
Other uses for the building will be developed over time and in partnership with artists and cultural groups that already exist in the neighborhood. She envisions other groups using it for workshops, rehearsals, performances and more.
The MCA’s takeover of the historic structure — actually a complex that includes a 400-seat theater, retail and 15 apartments — is part of a burgeoning plan to save city landmarks from being swallowed up by the rapid development taking place in and around Highland, an area of Denver commonly referred to as Northside.
The museum will rent the space, also at below-market rates, from a new entity called the Denver Cultural Property Trust, which purchased it in late August for $5.1 million.
The trust is an arm of the local development company Continuum Partners, headed up by Mark Falcone, who also happens to be a philanthropist of note and a long-time financial supporter of the MCA.
Falcone said he formulated the trust after Abrams alerted him to the fact that the theater was for sale and the MCA would be interested in occupying it, separate from its headquarters on Delgany Street downtown.
“The MCA has this lovely building, but in some people’s eyes, it’s a little intimidating,” said Falcone.
With the new facility, “the MCA has an opportunity to present in a way that is even more accessible and can reach certain audiences more easily than getting people to come down and enter this beautiful temple to fine art.”
The arrangement happened quickly, Falcone said, because properties are snapped up with little time to spare by investors known for developing them into the pricey, residential projects that have sparked a decade of gentrification in the area.
The idea is to operate the property in a philanthropic manner, using revenues only to cover costs rather than make a profit. That will keep its space affordable for nonprofits and artists.
The trust is currently organizing itself, though the plan is to create a board of directors to oversee the enterprise. Continuum is known for developing forward-thinking and architecturally-sensitive projects, such as the Belmar Shopping District in Lakewood, Market Station in downtown Denver and Block A at Union Station, which includes the Born Hotel.
The trust will act as the landlord to all of the tenants at the Holiday Theatre, most recently used as a worship space by the Highlands Church, which moved to other quarters in 2020.
The apartments are currently occupied by tenants who will be permitted to remain in their homes. Only when they move out will the units will be made available to artists, Falcone said.
While the annex does give the MCA more space for activities, Abrams characterized it not as an overhaul of the operation, but as an extension of work it already does. In addition to a rotating schedule of visual art exhibitions featuring regional and top international artists, the MCA is known for its progressive teen offerings — it has a program for youth titled “Failure Lab” — and for its colorful Mixed Taste lecture series, which pairs experts on diverse topics that have little to do with painting or sculpture. Examples include “Walt Whitman and Whole Hog Cooking,” and “Tequila and Dark Matter in the Universe.”
The MCA also has used its sleek headquarters on Delgany Street, designed by world-class architect David Adjaye, to host a weekly warm-weather concert series. Artists have complemented work on display there by presenting spoken word, performance pieces and other related presentations.
Additionally, the museum has conducted off-site programming in schools and at other locations, including some events at the Holiday Theatre. Still, fully annexing the new building is a significant departure, at least in terms of reputation, expanding the MCA’s physical presence beyond downtown and pledging it to multiple levels of community programming. Critically speaking, it belongs to an elite class of Denver cultural institutions with multimillion-dollar budgets; this move commits it to a level of grassroots programming more frequently produced by the city’s small, low-budget nonprofits.
It also moves the mighty MCA into a neighborhood full of strife over gentrification. The rap on Highland is this: Development has changed the area’s demographics, pushing out lower and middle-income residents, many of whom identify as Latinx and Chicanx, and making room for whiter, wealthier Denverites — a class of people the MCA has a history of serving.
Abrams said the museum is sensitive to the fact that some may see it as an awkward neighbor. But, she said, partnerships with the community will help to overcome any image problems. The museum plans to set up a diverse advisory board to steer operations.
“The opportunities for partnership, for engagement with stakeholders who are either from or currently live there, that is also very exciting and that really became more of a driver as the project got underway,” Abrams said.
Additionally, the move commits both the museum and the Denver Cultural Property Trust to long-term stewardship of a cultural treasure.
The apartment building was built in 1914 and the theater was added in 1926 as the Egyptian Theatre, part of a wave of Egyptian-themed businesses after King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922, Highlands Church founder Rev. Mark Tidd Tidd told BusinessDen.
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