Denver is looking for artists to decorate a jail visitation room for its latest public-art commission, but the unique project demands more than the usual gallery painter or sculptor.
The city’s selection panel wants artists who are “comfortable working with Denver County Jail staff and incarcerated residents,” according to the request for qualification, “especially artists who have worked or taught inside jails or prisons in the past or were formerly incarcerated themselves.”
But the artwork is just part of a bigger effort by city officials to create a more pleasant, humane environment at the Northwest Denver facility. The jail is the only one in Colorado, and one of only a few in the U.S., moving back to face-to-face visits after 18 years of on-site video conferencing.
“When you have only a digital connection through video visitation, it’s not the same as being able to hold your child or hug your loved one,” said Denver Sheriff Elias Diggins, who led a 2017 committee exploring whether it made sense to return to face-to-face visits.
“If we structure contact visits the right way, it absolutely would be a benefit to the people in our custody and their families,” he said. “Art goes hand-in-hand with that.”
That’s good news for inmates and friends and family of people who are incarcerated at the jail, at 10500 E. Smith Road, which is one of two for people serving shorter sentences. It also underlines the role of art in mental health, with its ability to turn sterile or anxiety-inducing environments into more welcoming spaces.
“Deprivation of a person’s freedom is their punishment, and the environment should not further punish a person, so we want to change that,” Diggins said.
The $14,000 budget for the project is on the modest side of Denver’s public-art commissions; some are in the tens of millions and doled out to multiple artists, owing to the city’s 1 Percent for Public Art Program. Established in 1988, it requires 1 percent of any capital improvement project over $1 million to be set aside for the inclusion of art in the design and construction of the project.
The current request for proposal is part of that program, and related to the interior visitation-room improvements at the jail, according to Denver Arts & Venues.
This art-budget may seem small in comparison to $158 million construction projects such as Denver City Jail, but its role is just as vital. Artists should envision a piece or pieces “created in response to feedback given by the Denver County Jail communities and should transform the contact visitation space from a ‘surveillance zone’ to a ‘healing zone,’ ” officials wrote.
So what does that mean? In this case, the city is looking for artists to use color, pattern and subject matter and consider biophilic design strategies in their creative work — or ones that connect people and nature in built environments. Denver Public Art officials cited examples such as artist David Griggs’ tall, moodily lit Havana Lanterns, which were installed outside the jail in 2014.
While the return to face-to-face visitation has been in the works since 2017, its progress was stalled by the pandemic, said Diggins, a Montbello native and longtime mental health advocate. Committee members, including jail officials, visited Las Colinas Detention Facility in San Diego to see an example of jails returning to face-to-face visits after digital-only contact, he said.
“Art is part of it. … We’re going to return in a very limited way in the beginning, but we know this can work in our environment because we’ve seen it play out (in other jails),” Diggins said.
The deadline for submissions for the project is 11:59 p.m. on Monday, April 10, and applications can be submitted at denverpublicart.org/for-artists/#opportunities.
More information and applications for public-art projects are available at denverpublicart.org.
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