What has Eight Tentacles and Wants Denver Residents to "Heart" Local Art?

A: The Octopus Initiative, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver's unique, new lending library.
At most art museums, there’s a pretty strict “no-touch” policy. The rules about walking out of the building with the artwork are even more stringent.

But those stuffy traditions are being tossed to the wind on the first floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, where a door with a squiggly looking logo leads visitors to a very unique conservation room.

“Most museums hide their conservation in the basement, but we’re putting it out there for the public to see,” says Nora Abrams, MCA Denver’s Ellen Bruss Curator and Director of Planning.  

Formerly the “Open Shelf Library,” MCA Denver’s new Octopus Initiative room is outfitted with 16 art storage racks that pull out to reveal 150 two-dimensional pieces of artwork ranging from collage and mixed media to drawings and paintings.

The Octopus Initiative allows Denver-area residents to borrow art for free. Photo provided by the MCA.

If a guest sees something they like while perusing the racks, they can enter into an online drawing for a chance to borrow the piece during a 10-month lending period, assuming they meet a few criteria.  

In three years, when the Octopus Initiative is fully implemented, it is going to be a library stocked with 300 commissioned pieces of original modern art.

How to Borrow Art

If you live in Denver, then you can participate in Octopus Initiative. Yes, you read that right. The initiative opened March 15 to anyone with (1) a Denver metro area zip code and (2) a valid email address. If you meet those criteria, all you have to do to participate is sign up for Octopus Initiative on MCA Denver’s website.

After creating an account with an email address, password, username, and zip code, users are logged in to the initiative and can begin “hearting” their favorite pieces of art online.  

On the 15th of every month, twenty participants will be chosen lottery style, with an algorithm museum staff “have no control or influence over,” says Abrams. These randomly selected winners get to take their favorite piece of artwork home for 10 months.

The first twenty winners were announced Monday. I wasn’t on the list, but I’ll try again next month because my odds of nabbing something aren’t actually that bad. With 1,500 registered users who have liked over 7,800 pieces of art, my husband, a statistician, informed me that I have a 1 in 75 chance.

April’s selection of artwork is currently available to view online or in the museum, with pieces created by six local artists: Suchitra Mattai, Molly Bounds, Chris Oatey, Sierra Montoya Barela, Derrick Velasquez, and Laura Shill.

In three years, when the Octopus Initiative is fully implemented, it is going to be a library stocked with 300 commissioned pieces of original art. Photo provided by the MCA.

The artists were selected by MCA Denver’s curatorial team during a long vetting process. “We could have done a juried selection or an open call, but instead we spent a lot of effort on the curatorial process,” says Abrams, to make sure commissioned pieces would be museum-quality work.

Octopus Initiative is “a monthly release of works into the world,” Abrams continues, meaning that every month, twenty more Denver residents will be taking home artwork.

I’ll be “hearting” all twenty pieces again this month. “There’s no limit on how many you can like monthly,” Abrams says. And the more pieces you like, the better the odds of winning.

Sometimes more really is better

MCA Denver launched its Octopus Initiative with 150 works, all created by Denver artists. “Artists are being commissioned on a quarterly basis, so there are new works coming in as others go out,” Abrams explains.

“The hope is for it to really feel like a dynamic space,” she says, adding, “The goal is that over a three-year period, we will have commissioned twenty artists in the city to produce 25 works each, to form an inventory that can be sent out into the world.”

None of the artwork is for sale. “We didn’t want to get into the business of selling art,” Abrams reminds.

For Art Lovers and Artists

Adam Lerner, MCA Denver’s director and chief animator, was the one who came up with the idea for Octopus Initiative.

"The Octopus Initiative grew out of us asking what we could do to support artists,” Lerner says. As Denver experiences a massive boom of growth and prosperity, artists are finding it increasingly challenging to live in and work in city limits.

“This is a way to make sure our local artists aren’t left behind,” Abrams adds.

The initiative, which was modeled on university art borrowing programs, has “developed into something that also gives a whole new dimension to our relationship with our visitors," Lerner says, noting that, “"By supporting artists and distributing their work throughout the city, the Octopus Initiative is central to our vision of making sure the new Denver values art and artists."

Adds Abrams, “It would be wonderful if more people came into the museum because of this, but really we just feel like this is part of our creative purpose.”


Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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