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PlatteForum Capping Decade of Arts in Denver with unGala

Current residents Kwende "Memetic" Kefentse and Ian "Pho" Swain work with ArtLab teens.

Middle school students from the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation paint with former residents Hollis+Lana.

Former residents Hollis+Lana work with middle school kids from the Colorado I Have A Dream Foundation.

In the Central Platte Valley, PlatteForum established Denver's first artist-in-residency program in 2002. About 70 artists have since worked at the organization's Riverfront Park facility, and thousands of at-risk kids have taken part in its outreach programs. It's celebrating its 10-year anniversary with the decidedly unconventional unGala on Saturday March 9.
After Judy Anderson traded Seattle for Denver in 2002, the longtime artist and academic helped launch the PlatteForum, Denver's first artist-in-residency program and one that also has a youth outreach component. As the organization enters its second decade, Anderson remains at the helm, and describing what it does is as tough as ever.

"It's a hybrid organization," says Anderson, the organization's Artistic/Founding Director. "It's not a school, it's not a gallery, it's not a museum. We're an artists community. Artists communities support artists as they create work."

To this end, PlatteForum has to date hosted more than 70 artists-in-residence, running the gamut from painters to poets to musicians, as thousands of students have participated in its programs. 

These artists have to be willing to work in an open environment for a couple of months and engage with the K-12 students who participate in PlatteForum's programs.

"There are a lot of artists who would rather work in a room with the door shut," says Anderson. Not here. You're there to work on your art in an open environment, often alongside the at-risk kids who likewise embark on artistic endeavors here once or twice a week during day-long Learning Labs.

"The artists turn into the creative spark for the students," says Anderson. "We provide the artists and the activity and we partner with a school for a youth organization for two months at a time."Middle school students from the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation paint with former residents Hollis Lana.

Artists, who hail from Colorado and elsewhere, are chosen by way of a competitive annual application process that's currently underway for 2014. Professional local artists and students and faculty from MSU Denver also chip in as mentors for participating students.

"It really works," says Anderson. "We support the working artist, the university scholars, and we have older students working with younger students."

Currently, students in the PlatteForum's Learning Labs are working alongside Canadian DJs and musicians Kwende "Memetic" Kefentse and Ian "Pho" Swain on their own musical projects. The DJs are working on creating beats and writing songs and helping the students do the same.

 "They've been learning about the history of music," says Anderson. "They're working in teams and creating new songs with old beats. The artists aren't teaching them, they're doing it with them at the same time. It's not teacher-student. It's peer-peer."

This is especially important in an era when funding for arts education has been slashed at many schools, argues Anderson. "Learning through the arts lets you work the creative process to discover who you are."

The Learning Labs program is complemented by PlatteForum's year-long ArtLab, which accepts about 15 high-school students as interns each year. ArtLab interns are paid for their work, up to 30 hours a week in the summer. The program won the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the country's highest honor for out-of-school arts and humanities programs, in 2011. 
"The artists aren't teaching them, they're doing it with them at the same time," says Judy Anderson, Artistic/Founding Director of PlatteForum. "It's not teacher-student. It's peer-peer."

Last year -- because "so many adults wanted to do it," says Anderson -- PlatteForum launched its first paid program, Make: $49 gets you cocktails, conversation and professional arts instruction. Next on tap is poet Andrea Moore on 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday Feb. 21.

The development of Riverfront Park was PlatteForum's "genesis" in 2002, says Anderson. Developer Mark Smith of East West Partners established the Riverfront Foundation, which provided PlatteForum with its initial funding. A fee from every unit's sale funds the Foundation, which in turn funds a number of nonprofits.

To celebrate 10 years in the Denver arts community, Anderson and company are throwing a party on March 9: the unGala at the Infinite Monkey Theorem. It will be PlatteForum's first-ever fundraising gala, and Anderson promises gorillas and roller-derby girls.

"It's going to be wild," she says. "It's not your mama's gala. There will be no chicken dinner."

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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