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Meet Damon McLeese of Access Gallery in Art District

Today we’d like to introduce you to Damon McLeese.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Damon. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I volunteered to be a camp counselor at a Muscular Dystrophy Association Summer Camp when I was 13 years old. I have been working in and around the disability community ever since. I volunteered for several more camps until I was old enough to get hired. I worked at Easterseals Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Village for a couple of summers. After college, I worked for Colorado Special Olympics. Twenty-two years ago, I was hired as the Executive Director of what then was known as Very Special Arts Colorado and have been the Executive Director ever since. I honestly did not expect to be the director for this long, but I found my happy place in the arts. The organization has been through several iterations since then. We opened the first Access Gallery in 2001 near Coors Field then we moved to our current location in the heart of the Arts District on Santa Fe in 2007.

During the time, we have moved from primarily an arts education and technical assistance organization to a full-blown social enterprise. We had historically done a lot of programming in various schools, and during the last ten years, we hosted a summer job program for students with disabilities getting ready to transition from high school to whatever comes next for them. The vast majority of our students do not go onto college, and people with disabilities are facing a 70% unemployment rate – that is not a typo 70%. If you happen to be blind or on the autism spectrum, the price is closer to 90%. During our summer job program, we worked on typical high school job skills. Then the summer would end, and we would go back to the school-based programs.

Then a funny thing happened. Some of our summer program students kept showing up at the gallery. In spite of our best efforts, they were still not getting jobs and were not more ready for the “real world” at 21 when the schools stop serving them than they were at 18 or 19. Or, they would get crap jobs pushing carts at Walmart during the holidays. One day I had an “aha” moment, and I realized that we were solving the wrong problem. It is fine and noble to teach people with disabilities about Picasso, but if they could not afford the bus fair, it did not matter.

In 2015 we stopped making employees. It was the fact that they were poor. We shifted all of our energy into creating avenues for our students to make money with their creativity. We run the gamut from selling $5 art out of our Artomat machine to hiring students to make art for corporate clients and everything in between. We went from selling less than $10,000 a year to more than $60,000 last year and are on track for nearly 1/3 of our budget coming from sales this year.

I know we will not change the 70% unemployment rate overall, but we are making a huge difference for the artists we work with at the gallery. I see people’s lives changed every day by merely giving them access and a safe space to create.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Yes and no.

Personally, the most challenging time has been the last two years or so. When we made the switch to the social enterprise model, I found that while we were very good at creating art programs, we were not, in fact, social workers. Our model changed from seeing our young artists people once a week or every other week to seeing them several times a week. We got to know them on a much more personal level. We realized that not only was the disability not the issue, but there were also many unmet needs. Issues of bullying, homelessness, immigration, and safety would often come up.

As a staff, we were trained artists and program administrators. We tried to find emergency supports. We once found out that one of our students was living alone because her mother was in the hospital. She was ill prepared to live alone and needed support. I found that navigating the disability support systems was more than challenging. While we were succeeding in getting money in the pockets of our clients, we were not an organization that could deal with some of the more significant issues facing a young person out of high school with a disability and no job.

The other big thing that I have been proud of over the last few years was our Granny Does Grafitti program. After my mother passed away, I was frustrated with the creative options for her near the end of her life. In fact, I was angry. I decided to look at the issue from an artist lens and not knowing any better decided that teaching people with Alzheimer’s and dementia to do street art. I realized that at my core, I believe that access to art and creative experiences are as important to eight year old as it is for an 80-year-old. I have spent a good part of the last two years working in the realm of Creative Aging and have been amazed at how far we have to go.

Quite after the fact I realized I was absorbing a lot their trauma and was on the fast track to burnout. I ended up throwing out my back while moving into our new home and was out of the gallery for six weeks. Being the primary driver and fundraiser that put the organization in a hard position (at the time we had a staff of 2, and we were supporting 10-12 of our artists). I realized as I was healing that I had burned out. I had the desire to help, to make a difference but was exhausted emotionally and physically. I had been driving the organization so fast to help these artists I forgot to take care of myself. I was able to identify many of the issues that led to my burn out and started to take care of myself and realized that I either needed to leave, we needed to close, or we needed to change how we dealt with those things that were so important but outside our realm of art and arts education.

In 2018 we entered into a formal partnership with Easterseals Colorado to provide much of the administrative and case management we were lacking, and we as an organization have started providing arts programs to Easterseals. It is a match made in heaven, and we can better serve all the people in our organization.

Please tell us about Access Gallery.
Access Gallery is a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to economic opportunities through the arts for people with disabilities. We operate a gallery in Denver, showcasing emerging and established artists. We host nine shows per year. As a social enterprise, we sell art to increase economic opportunities for people with disabilities. We have Colorado’s first Artomat Machine (a retired cigarette machine dispensing art for $5), we will paint a portrait of your pet, your house or your sister. In addition to the retail work in the gallery, we also work with businesses and corporations to make original art for their board rooms, offices or entryways.

We focus on the issue of economic opportunity for people with disabilities. I got tired of making employees and started making jobs. I am incredibly proud of this organization, the volunteers, staff and board members that have made it possible. But mostly, I am proud of the artists I have seen grow up and find their creative voice. This is truly a long game.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Being on a bicycle, going further and further away from my neighborhood. I have always valued the sense of adventure that a bicycle can provide. I still feel that way every time I hop on a bike.

Pricing:

  • We sell art for $5 from a retired cigarette machine called an artomat.
  • We will have an artist paint a portrait of your pet, your house or your mom for $80.
  • We can provide original affordable art for your business using your collateral material – telling your story.

Contact Info:

  • Address: 909 Santa Fe Drive
    Denver CO 80204
  • Website: www.accessgallery.org
  • Phone: 7208782226
  • Email: damon@accessgallery.org
  • Instagram: #accessgalleryco


Image Credit:
Jim Darling – Personal photo

Getting in touch: VoyageDenver is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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