The arts and culture landscape surrounds us every day. It buoys and challenges our thinking. It illuminates our most sacred moments and our largest gatherings. It was built and is maintained in the Denver metro area in no small part by the passion and purpose of women.
They are the tradition keepers, the ecosystem warriors, the nurturers of our heritage and the visionaries of our path ahead. You will hear in their individual stories many common threads. They speak of work with purpose that connects their community. They talk of the core of relationship that bolsters their work and defines their sense of self. They find meaning in their role as bridge from past to present and from old to young. They understand the role that culture plays as unifier. They have all, in their own ways, evolved into their lives and led their organizations to evolve as well.
Here are just a few of their stories, representing the thousands of women who do this work every day as creators and collaborators.
Daphne Rice-Allen, board chair of the Black American West Museum
Influenced by her artist and educator parents, Daphne Rice-Allen has been contributing to arts and culture her entire life.
Her mother piloted the first Black history course for Denver Public Schools in the 1970s. She would take her class to Paul Stewart’s Barber Shop to see his burgeoning collection of Black Western artifacts, sometimes with her daughter in tow as well. This barbershop collection would ultimately become the Black American West Museum, one of the few museums in the country dedicated to cataloging the history and contributions of Black Americans to the founding and development of the American West.
Rice-Allen recalls growing up with her sisters in a house full of creative endeavors from singing to painting to sculpting. This foundation, she says, encouraged her as an adult to be one of the early volunteers for what is now the Colorado Black Arts Festival. Her love of the history education her parents encouraged led her to work for a time in her career at the Black American West Museum, returning to serve on the board of directors in 2011.
In that role, she finds herself surrounded by the people and places that underpin the far-to-often neglected American history of the founding of the West. In the museum, Rice-Allen is at home with the Buffalo Soldiers, miners, farmers and ranchers and early residents of Dearfield, Colorado, one of the first black-founded and black-owned towns. The museum building itself stands as a monument to Black Americans’ contributions and struggles in the West. Rice-Allen and the board have worked for years to raise funds to renovate the new museum home, previously the home of Dr. Justina Ford, the first licensed Black female physician in Denver. Ford was refused appropriate recognition and licensing for years and ran her medical practice from her home.
“I stand on the shoulders of these people who developed the West. It’s simply put, American history,” Rice-Allen said. “I’m just proud this museum is still standing, still educating, still sharing these stories after 50 years. And I’m proud that we continue to break the barrier between American history and Black American history. It is really all one.”
Tammy VerCauteren, executive director of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies
A little more than two decades ago, Tammy VerCauteren spent a good deal of her time buying lunches or dinners for farmers and ranchers who were willing to talk. She slept in her car and dedicated countless hours to learning about their lives and livelihoods.
These were the farmers and ranchers whose help she needed to conserve grassland birds. Without her commitment to understanding their reality, she knew she wouldn’t move them a single step toward understanding hers. She worked for over a decade on this effort, which has produced significant gains for birds and the ecosystems to which they contribute.
When she started in her role doing outreach for the Prairie Partners program of what is now the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, the organization was housed in an old trailer at Barr Lake in Brighton. Today, the conservancy has a restored historic home on the property and environmental learning center for inspiring people of all ages in nature. The conservancy’s work now stretches from Montana to Mexico. The reach is needed to study and conserve the migratory birds on which it focuses. It’s educational offerings for children and adults alike have grown by leaps and bounds.
It is this sustained focus on science, education and land stewardship that VerCauteren holds as her mantra.
“At the end of the day, you really can’t change the behavior of animals. It is truly the decisions that people make that will decide whether we have these birds for generations or we don’t,” that is why our strategies to conserve birds and their habitats involves people, she said. “In all the work I’ve ever done, I have found that taking a moment and stepping into other people’s shoes is what makes change. It factors into how I lead because it’s how I’m wired.”
Grace Gillette, executive director of the Denver March Powwow
Though she came from a family of leaders in the Arikara tribe of North Dakota, you could not have convinced young Grace Gillette that she would one day oversee one of the largest powwows in the world.
In keeping with her upbringing, Gillette sees the job as a sacred duty. Both the preservation of a way of life for her people as well as an opportunity to help those outside native culture to gain renewed respect and understanding.
What began in a small auditorium at the Denver Indian Center as an opportunity for disconnected Native American families, now typically features more than 1,500 dancers from 100 different tribes, 38 states and three Canadian territories. Gillette herself got involved because her daughter liked to dance at the small powwows the center held nearly every weekend. Gillette would make her daughters outfits and volunteer to gather “giveaways,” special gifts of food or other items given to dancers and special guests.
As the tiny powwows grew, Gillette continued to volunteer moving with them as they moved to larger venues and eventually settled on a standing event each March. The selection of March filled a space in the powwow circuit and also helped parents make the cultural connection for their children who had graduated and moved on to college and work. The powwow found its current home in 1990, when it registered its largest crowd to date and a record-for-the-time 54 drum groups competing. Happening well before the advent of digital marketing, one of Gillette’s roles as volunteer marketer for the event was to mail out more than 9,000 posters each year. These posters found their homes in community centers, across reservations and throughout Indian Country. Some native homes still have framed versions of these posters hanging on their walls and going back decades.
Gillette agreed to take over the newly created job running the powwow in 1992, leaving her beloved job with the City of Littleton but unable to say no to the call to contribute to what she believes to be a way of life. Today, she has seen her work and the work of many honored on the BBC and in the exhibits of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and the Library of Congress. But her real joy is the powwow itself, watching the dancers and drummers coming together and watching her community celebrate the traditional ways.
“I have found out not all strong leaders are good people. Me in particular, I am a descendant of a long line of chiefs and I learned from them that to be a good leader you have to be humble. You have to put the needs of other people first and you’ve got to be truthful,” she said. “When I think I might get an attack of self-importance, I think about the fact that right now, since the first powwow I attended with my daughter, we have great-grandchildren on the dance floor from those original programs. And I’m humbled to be a part of that.”
Claudia Moran-Pichardo, executive director of Museo de las Americas
Claudia Moran-Pichardo came to Denver, newly married and without knowing anyone. She had left behind her career as an archaeologist in Mexico with the intention of picking that work up again when she settled in her new home. But those intentions were formed before she found her place at Museo de las Americas.
One of only a handful of Latino art museums in the country, Museo has developed a reputation as a museum dedicated to the community, both the community of the Americas writ large, but also the distinct and individual countries and cultures that make up that larger community. For Moran-Pichardo, it was a place to find what her purpose could look like in her adopted country.
Her passion for archaeological study closely aligned with museum work and she found herself working at Museo, particularly in the area of education and then pursuing her own educational advancement through her masters in museums and field studies at the University of Colorado. When Museo former director, Maruca Salazar, approached Moran-Pichardo to help with succession planning for her retirement, it took a long time to sink in that Salazar wanted her to be the next to helm the museum. But by 2017, Moran-Pichardo did take over the museum’s leadership, a role she could not have imagined for herself when she was still living and working in Mexico. Five Four years later, she continues to nurture both the existing museum as well as her vision for seeing it replicated in other places across Colorado where Latino communities could and should have the same connection. She has also joined the effort to see the last available space on the National Mall become and American Latino Museum.
“The role that Museo plays in the community it is really important for my personal values. It is a space where you can have all kinds of expressions through art and it bring Latino art and culture from all communities and many different angles,” she said. “We often have artists who exhibit with us, and no matter how well known, they tell us that the way they were able to connect with their community through the exhibit was special. Every time we create one of these collaborations, it makes me happy. That has never gotten old. I don’t think it ever will.”
Nora Burnett Abrams, director of MCA Denver
Nora Burnett Abrams took over the leadership of MCA Denver in the halcyon days of 2019 when people still crowded indoors for events and exhibits without a thought to social distancing or wearing a mask. Even before the public-health imposed shutdowns, Abrams was focused on expanding the museum’s reach beyond its existing four walls into the community and into new audiences.
The pandemic put that effort into overdrive.
Since April 2020, the museum has offered over 80 virtual programs, reaching beyond their typical museum audience and engaging a host of new communities who might not have thought they were interested in experiencing the potentially daunting moniker “Contemporary Art.” The museum has shifted its retail offerings for sale to more fully support local makers. And they have even experimented with paid ticketing for virtual events, a category of new revenue to support the museum’s mission that has been a point of struggle for many arts and culture organizations during the pandemic shutdowns.
But this swerve into a different lane isn’t anything new for Abrams. She left her traditional museum career path behind in New York more than a decade ago. Moving from a more historically laden, tradition-heavy environment in the museum space, to one that more easily rewards risk and change alerted Abrams to how much she thrives in that environment.
That part of her nature is suited well to the current moment when risk taking and adaptation are the only means of continuing outreach missions, not a special add-on that would be “nice to do.” Far from the platitudes reminding us all this broken time is the right moment to create change, Abrams has dedicated her staff and their work to enacting that change.
“MCA Denver has a long track record of trying to puncture the perceived pretentiousness of art museums. We have always worked to make the connection for people that art and artists provide an incredible lens for looking at and reflecting back to us the world that we are a part of,” Abrams said. “Everything we do is about helping the viewer to process, think about, reflect upon their own lives and the world. Honestly, that’s how we achieve relevance and connect ourselves to the hearts and minds of the people who engage with us.”