Close to CU Denver’s campus, the RiNo Art District is getting transformed—yet again. Local, national, and international artists descended on RiNo from Sept. 14 – 20, painting and spraying murals as part of CRUSH Walls 2020. Now in its eleventh year, the art festival turns the streets and alleys of RiNo into a public open-air gallery. To learn about CRUSH, we spoke to CU Denver graduate Alye Sharp MPA ’14, community outreach director for RiNo Art District. “This year has certainly been a lesson in turning lemons to lemonade,” she said (more on that later).
First things first. RiNo stands for River North, because the area is located north of downtown along both sides of the South Platte River. Artists moved into the neighborhood after industry moved out in the 1980s and 90s, leaving empty warehouses that were perfect spaces for live-work arrangements, especially for creatives. In 2005, a group of artists banded together to create the River North Arts District, which was later branded with its RiNo name and rhino logo.
While CRUSH typically includes in-person events and workshops, the art festival’s main focus is the wall art. Since it takes place annually, most murals stay for less than 365 days. This means the area is a perpetually changing art installation that everyone can enjoy. Sharp explained how the process works and how the pandemic affected the art. “Artists are matched with local property owners and given complete creative freedom and during these difficult times, we expect some very powerful work,” she said.
Remember lemons into lemonade? Sharp and her colleagues had to work differently this year, learning how to accommodate 100 artists and hundreds more participants while maintaining recommended social distancing guidelines. “This year, we worked hard to adapt so that artists could safely work and still come together as a community,” she said. Sharp and her colleagues at RiNo Art District focused on the educational aspect of CRUSH. “Additionally, much more virtual content was included in this year’s festival, including a fully interactive map that helps attendees navigate the event,” she said.
Sharp’s time at CU Denver helped her tackle this year’s CRUSH festival. She was drawn to the Master of Public Affairs Program because it included an experiential Capstone project. “The real-world experience I had doing an internship and capstone paper with the Art District on Santa Fe prepared me for continued experience in the nonprofit arts world,” she said.
Of course, no experience could have prepared her for planning an arts festival during a pandemic, but the health crisis turned out to have some positive influence on CRUSH 2020’s art and artists. “I think art is important now, more than ever. Art touches our lives every day in many ways, whether it’s a movie on Netflix, design in a magazine, or a mural you’re walking or driving past on your commute,” she said.
Hopefully, the new murals in RiNo will help people during this difficult time. “Art can communicate powerful messages and elicit strong emotions in its own language—but also it generates a certain intangible joy for both the creator and observer,” Sharp said.