Rough Gems, a curatorial fellowship at Denver’s Union Hall, provides funding and gallery space for emerging local curators.
“You get completely submerged in the show’s themes while it’s coming together. It’s all-consuming,” says Rough Gems curator Shawn Simmons. “To curate is to fully step into this little world that you’ve created for the time being, and that was an important part of the process for me.” The process Simmons refers to is the curatorial fellowship program Rough Gems at Union Hall, an art gallery in downtown Denver. Since 2020, Union Hall has been offering three emerging curators a year everything they need to install an art exhibit—from funding to mentorship to marketing. The resulting shows are some of the most inspired, diverse, and engaging in the city.
Union Hall is a nonprofit, non-commercial art space founded in 2019. It’s housed on the first floor of The Coloradan, a high-rise condo complex in downtown Denver. In a building where two-bedroom condos go for $1.2 million, it’s an unusual space for a nonprofit art gallery, let alone one that specifically supports diverse, emerging artists and “experimental and thought-provoking work,” as its mission states. But then again, maybe it’s the perfect place.
In 2020, the original chief curator, Ari Myers, introduced the Rough Gems program. It’s a kind of short-term incubator for new curators. The Rough Gems application process is competitive. It opens once a year and asks Denver-based curators and curatorial teams to submit an exhibition proposal for a month-long exhibition in the Union Hall space. Three proposals are chosen, and the curators are given access to a wide array of Union Hall’s resources to realize their show. Curators and artists are awarded stipends. The curators receive mentorship and support in planning the show, use of the Union Hall space, help with installing and deinstalling, and marketing and outreach services.
Myers has since left Union Hall to found The Valley, a contemporary art gallery in Taos. Current chief curator Esther Hernandez, a professional artist in her own right, remains deeply committed to the program. “I don’t see a lot of opportunities like this in Denver with a clearly defined application process,” Hernandez says. “If you don’t already have connections with galleries, nonprofits and/or access to spaces to show art, it can be confusing to navigate that kind of opportunity for yourself.”
Navigating the art world, let alone the practicalities of mounting an art exhibition, can be daunting for new curators. “I think the name ‘Rough Gems’ truly encapsulates the heart of the program,” says Jennifer Nagashima, a past Rough Gems curator. “They helped me refine some of my rough edges and gave me a great insight into the process of curating an exhibition.” Nagashima’s show, Sacrum, which was on view from January 19 to February 11, 2023, showcased six artists working in a wide variety of media, from moving image to textiles. The theme of Sacrum centered on the human experience of being in the womb and how that experience might inform or reveal itself in our lives.
Nagashima found incredible support and inspiration through Rough Gems. “Union Hall does a great job of helping emerging curators understand the dynamics of institutional art spaces. Before I started the Rough Gems program, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what it meant to be a curator,” she says. “[Rough Gems] opened my mind and left me looking forward to new possibilities.”
One clear aim of Rough Gems is to provide new curators with the support of an art gallery’s infrastructure, but it’s much more than that. Rough Gems is a deep dive into what it means to be a curator and how to do that work responsibly. Good curating requires trust between the gallery and the curator and between the curator and the artists. It requires space and permission to experiment and risk—and support when you make mistakes. And it requires time to build connections—between the artists, the visitors, the gallery—and, even abstractly, time to craft connections within the concept of the show itself.
“My experience with Rough Gems has given me the affirmation that I am meant to facilitate and curate spaces that uplift and highlight artists who are doing intentional, powerful, and remarkable work,” says Nadiya Jackson who, with Florence Blackwell, curated the Rough Gems show The Ultimate Boon in February and March of this year. “I learned the key thing to achieving a vision is doing it with people that trust you to orchestrate the vision.”
Forging trust and deep connections between curators and artists is something Simmons also valued in his experience curating his show Against Nature this past spring. “My initial studio visits with the Against Nature artists not only helped me build a concept for the show, but also introduced me to the ideas and forces that drive these artists’ practices. Beyond the studio, these artists maintain other identities—as scientists, as activists, and as scholars—so it was fascinating to sit down and chat with them about a multifaceted topic like queer ecology.”
The exhibitions that are realized through Rough Gems often tell stories that don’t get told in traditional, white-walled galleries. While Simmons’s show Against Nature focused on queer ecology, past shows have explored topics as disparate as virga clouds, magic, empathy, and the aesthetics of domestic materials. The shows often feature queer artists, artists of color, immigrants, and artists with non-traditional backgrounds. “I think the program also brings in fresh discourse and new perspectives around curation and current topics,” Hernandez says. “It was a pleasure to work with Florence Blackwell and Nadiya Jackson to bring to life The Ultimate Boon because the work centered on stories around transformation of hardship into blessing.”
Persevering through life’s struggles to reach the “ultimate boon” was the theme of Blackwell’s and Jackson’s show, borrowing the concept from the writer Joseph Campbell. The ultimate boon, Campbell wrote, is what the hero achieves at the end of their quest. It is the prize, the pinnacle, the reward of the protagonist’s arduous journey. The work in the show centers on the artists’ journeys toward their own life’s rewards, but for Blackwell and Jackson, the curatorial process itself was their boon. They write:
As organizers who are underdogs in the arts, we aim to create a nurturing ecosystem for those whose stories have been overlooked or rejected in many cultural spheres. This open approach circumvents ghettoization and allows for a spectrum of experiences to coexist, reminding us that our individuality is shared by simply being of/in this world.
The words Blackwell and Jackson use to describe their curating philosophy are seen in the values of Union Hall—nurturing, open, individuality. They describe themselves as underdogs, and supporting underdogs is when Rough Gems truly shines. Hernandez says, “Curators will occasionally bring in artists who have rarely shown or have had limited visibility for some reason, and I love that the program is equally able to support these artists.”
The “some reason” Hernandez is speaking about could be partially due to abysmal state arts funding in Colorado. Colorado is the thirteenth-richest state in the country yet ranks forty-sixth in the nation for per capita state arts funding. If you spend a year or two in the Denver arts scene, the lack of funding becomes apparent. Denver artists have limited places to share their work and curators have even fewer galleries to pitch ideas to—and of course, funding for just about anything arts related is extremely scarce. This makes Rough Gems essential to the Denver arts scene.
Past curators also describe participating in Rough Gems as vital to their own futures. “Rough Gems reinforced that I love working in the arts and want to continue immersing myself in that space while learning as much as I can,” says Simmons, who is starting a PhD program in the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh. Blackwell, too, credits her experience as a Rough Gems curator with shining a light on her next steps. She tells me Rough Gems “absolutely” informed her future: “I plan to apply for graduate programs in art history to become a curator and scholar.”
Rough Gems is evolving as much as its alumni. In 2022, Union Hall launched an extension of the curatorial program. They’ve created a year-round workshop series on topics like art installation, shipping and handling, digital artwork, and more. “As the Rough Gems alumni community expands,” Hernandez says, “we are also interested in how we can continue to foster and support them in different ways. [We’re] holding space for new relationships and collaborations.”
Rough Gems isn’t just an accolade or a chance to put on a show. And it’s not just a program that deepens a new curator’s practice, expands their possibilities, and prepares them for the future—though it does this excellently. It’s a place for the underdog artists and curators. A white-walled gallery that doesn’t want to tell the same old stories and show the same artists. A place where risk and experiment are valued in a city that needs it.