DENVER (CBS4) – The 2019 Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Awards will honor Coloradans who set a standard for others especially in the arts community this month including the executive director of a nonprofit gallery that gives people with disabilities the chance to create their own work.

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“Art and creativity is one of the few things that anybody, and I mean anybody, can participate in,” said Damon McLeese, the executive director of Access Gallery and the recipient of the “Arts & Society” award from the foundation. “It’s one of the few things that have control over, a lot of people that we work with don’t have a lot of control.”

McLeese has worked with people who have disabilities since he was 13. For more than 20 years, he has lead the Access Gallery, a social enterprise and nonprofit that focuses on young adults who have graduated from high school. He says they have so many decisions made for them, art is one of the few opportunities for them to have independence. It has also become a needed source of income for a community who is often unemployed.

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“Damon McLeese is an extraordinary leader in our community who brings together the arts and honoring, serving, creating opportunity for people with disabilities,” said Gary Steuer, president and CEO of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

The foundation has presented these awards for 34 years but only recently created the “Arts & Society” category two years ago. The awards come with a $35,000 cash prize that can be spent by the recipients in any way they choose. Many of them do their work without expecting much in return, so the money awarded can make a difference in their personal life or they can allocate any amount to help their cause or other charitable work.

“Damon is somebody who has been in the trenches doing this work for decades and doing an extraordinary job,” Steuer said. “He’s recognized that one of the things that was needed was not just creating a place for people to make art but also creating economic opportunity for all the people they work with.”

McLeese was busy on Thursday helping artists complete work for the next show they have scheduled at the gallery. Their current collection highlights superheroes in various art forms. One artist made a coloring book based on a superhero he imagined himself. Another made figures out of tape for all his favorite comic and video game characters. A third artist was making another dragon, this one she sowed with yarn. Her passion for the fictional creature has lead to many pieces including drawings of dragons next to famous landmarks.

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The artists can sell their work through the gallery and collect a large amount of the proceeds to help them cover their expenses as adults. The experience in the gallery also can lead to more traditional jobs by showing their dedication and skills set to future employers.

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“We were solving the wrong problem, the problem wasn’t the disability, the problem was that they were poor,” McLeese said. “Disability isn’t the issue, economic disparity is the issue.”

The artwork on display in the gallery can range from $5 to $5,000 depending on the piece. There are small items made by artists you can purchase from a vending machine but the gallery does also get requests for commissioned work. A third of the budget for the gallery comes from the sales by the artists, it used to only be five percent.

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“It’s really quite an honor, I was quite blown away,” McLeese said. “I’m in good company.”

Steuer says this year all of the recipients are working at the intersection of art and social change. In addition to McLeese, Segna Nenguid of Colorado Springs will receive the “Artist Award” and Anthony Garcia of Denver will receive the “Community Service in the Arts Award” at the same ceremony later this month.

“The people working in these arenas didn’t often get the attention that they deserved,” Steuer said. “The arts were critical to the vibrancy of the community, to everybody of the community.”

The foundation has made the arts its focus and tries to highlight those organizations doing important work that may not otherwise get recognized. It identified a lack of support in the space because too often the arts are viewed as “Nice To Have” and not “Need To Have” by funding groups.

“The arts were valuable and important to every person in the community, every culture, every race, people from all income classes,” he said. “We felt there was a critical role we could play not just with our money, with our leadership, with a statement that the arts are important.”

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Part of the gallery’s success is in their location inside the Arts District on Santa Fe. Access moved there early on in McLeese’s leadership and it has helped give them legitimacy and connect with mentors. It has also helped the artists to bond with each other. People with disabilities often feel isolated after high school because they do not have a job or college to create that experience.

“We are a part of this community, the people in this neighborhood know us,” he said.

You can see the work done by the gallery during the First Friday Art Walk in the Arts District on Santa Fe on May 3 from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The gallery is located at 909 Santa Fe Dr.

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McLeese hopes partnering with other nonprofits will allow the gallery to grow. Not only finding a larger space for a more accessible and inclusive center but also incorporating more forms of art. Another step toward is goal of making everyone think differently about disabilities.

“When somebody comes into the gallery and I have no idea this work was created by someone with a disability, then I feel like I’m doing my job,” he said.

 

Shawn Chitnis

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