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Seizing The Opportunity to Educate the World

How an inner-city kid from Chicago used art + cannabis to take Denver by storm in celebration of black love, black art, + black lives.

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The Black Love Mural Festival may seem like a simple play on Black Lives Matter efforts, but it is much more than your typical mural walk. It is the evolution of years of effort on behalf of its curator, Robert Gray. Gray is more commonly known by his brand, Rob The Art Museum, a concept that came to him during some of his earliest visits to art museums in the midwest. Rob’s life journey has taken him across the country, all in the pursuit of living a life that allowed him to enjoy cannabis and give back to his local and global community. 

Who is Rob The Art Museum?

Robert Gray, founder and curator of Rob The Art Museum, is originally from Chicago, Illinois. When he was in his early teens, he moved to Milwaukee. “I’m from Chicago, but I claim that I’m from Milwaukee, because that’s where a lot of my friends were when I grew up as a teenager,” Rob explains. It’s also where Rob was first introduced to contemporary and fine art, thanks to a newly built art museum, the same one that was featured in the Transformers movie series. 

“Milwaukee is really where I got into art. That’s where a lot of it started. I would try to get away from the city, running around, doing shit I wasn’t supposed to, and it was when they first built the art museum…it was this big beautiful white art museum that looked like a boat right off the lake. So when they built it, I was like ‘this looks cool, let me go try it.’”

Not only did he notice the beauty of the art he was enjoying, but he also found respite in the lack of familiar faces. “Milwaukee was a small city…Like if you go to Walmart, you’re going to see someone from middle school, high school; you’re going to run into someone. So this was like the one place I never ran into someone who was from where I was from. So it was like a different scene. it was very peaceful… But I always wanted to smoke blunts and be in an art museum at the same time. And I never thought it would be possible.” 

This idea would stick with him and eventually be the seed that grew into Rob The Art Museum. “It was always in the back of my head [and] that was kind of like where Rob The Art Museum started. I wanted people to have the same emotional reaction that I was having. I was having a spiritual reaction, a physical reaction, an emotional reaction when I was seeing these beautiful pieces of artwork, and it was like my first time really seeing any contemporary art…growing up in the city, we had art programs but it was like children’s art. Paint and paper. That was art, but I really never saw art like fine art growing up where I came from.”

The impression it left on him left him wanting to share those feelings with others. “So I was walking in an art museum and was like ‘Damn, I want to get this artwork out to my people who can’t afford–because it costs money to get into the art museum. If they can’t afford to get into the art museum, they definitely can’t afford anything on the walls. So how can I get this art out to the people? Rob The Art Museum. That’s kinda like where everything started. I was like ‘Oh, that’s funny. Like a double entendre with my name.’ But even then I did it like ‘I wish I could rob the art museum because I know that work is worth a lot. It doesn’t seem like they got top notch security either. I think a bank would be more difficult. Seemed like a good return on investment.’”

Chasing Promotions with No End In Sight

Rather than going through with this fantasy of robbing a museum, Rob ended up like many of us—in a job where he was simply chasing promotion after promotion. This led him from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to Kansas City. As he neared the age of 30, Rob realized his love of cannabis and his distaste for the promotional path meant he needed to reevaluate his pursuits. 

“My passions were weed and art, and I was in Kansas City, and it’s an 8 hour trip [to Colorado], and I’m over here buying weed in gas stations from people who looked like they smoked weed,” Rob explains. “I didn’t have any friends out there. But I was like he looks like he smokes weed, so I’m going to ask him, ‘bro you know where the weed at?’…One day I just packed up my bags and went to Colorado and just tried to figure everything out. That was three years ago.”

The Mile High Move

When he arrived in Colorado, Rob quickly joined the legal cannabis industry, becoming a budtender, but not before a life-changing car accident would further call into question his decision to move to the mile high state. “When I first moved out here, I was staying on the couch at my brother’s house just trying to figure everything out and one day after I got done smoking like a blunt, I just went to go get food. So I jumped in the car with my friend, she was driving, and we’re going up the way and a drunk driver came out of nowhere and hit us in a head on collision. I was really shooken up…So I ended up going to the ER, and it was a traumatizing experience because I didn’t have like anyone really out here with me. Me and my brother were going through some trials and tribulations…I didn’t have any other family out here. I was in the ER emergency room thinking I was about to lose my vision. And also thinking about being paralyzed because I just got into an accident. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore…

“So, long story short…I have a disability now where like my vision isn’t there in my right eye. It’s crazy that I’m involved in art and my vision is fucked up. And I was going to City, O’ City, which is one of the partners of this festival and the accident happened like right up the street [from Civic Park/City, O’ City]… It’s funny how this has all come full circle, and that’s how I started my trip off in Denver. I was about to go home. I was like ‘Fuck this shit man. I just got in the worst car accident of my life. I don’t have a job. Like, I’m not going to be able to get a job now being injured. I don’t have insurance.’ I was just going to give it all up and go back home and figure shit out.”

After the accident, Rob began smoking cannabis with a specific medical intent. “I was on prescriptions because I was in a bad car accident, all opioids,” he recalls. “Back home, I was smoking weed because, not because it was the cool thing to do but because I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t for a medicinal purpose at that point. Maybe PTSD, but I was smoking weed just like every high school kid did. And this was the first time that I needed it to like actually relieve this pain, this unbearable pain. So it is great to be in a legal state and have legal access to it.”

Cannabis as a Career

As a budtender, Rob quickly learned the legal cannabis industry had its issues with race. He says it was a great experience as far as learning, but the work culture was toxic, comparing it to working as a cashier at a bad McDonald’s. “I got called the N Word by someone my first time working there. So it was like fuck, this shit’s shitty. There’s racism everywhere. But I just rode it out. I addressed it with corporate, and they handled it how I expected so that was nice. But budtending wasn’t for me.” 

While corporate worked to fix internal issues, Rob found an opportunity selling concentrates for another company, Craft Concentrates. He recalls the experience being novel, giving he was selling weed on the phone legally, but it was a cold-calling effort and was hard to get accounts that weren’t already carrying the product, something he likens to selling cars. During his time with Craft, he was also doing humanitarian work on the side like park cleanups and feeding the homeless in places like Denver’s RiNO art district, which gave him a positive way to give back and an alternative focus to cold calls.

“My mom always told me that it’s important that you give back. And I feel like inside, if you’re taking from a community, you should give back to that community.” One day, Craft was going to move offices and throw away all of the food in the refrigerator. Rob asked if he could have it. Knowing he was a vegan, they questioned what he would do with all of the meats and dairy products, and he told them he planned to cook it and make meals for the homeless with it. After that, they started to take note of his efforts, making him Head of the Communications department, with the entire focus of giving back to the community. 

While this new opportunity was progressive for the cannabis industry, differing views on what “giving back to the community” actually meant, would lead Rob to end that chapter and, as he describes it, “circle back to smoking blunts in the art museum.” His pop up art shows were beginning to take off. 

Pop Up Art Shows

The Rob the Art Museum pop up art show is a cannabis-friendly, art event with vegan-friendly foods highlighted, non mainstream, undiscovered and underrepresented artists. It started a wave that would eventually take the efforts nationwide. 

“Now that I had a decent job [with Craft] that could fund my crazy ideas that I had, I used that money to rent an AirBnB because I wanted to make a cannabis-friendly art museum, and I couldn’t do that with the Denver Art Museum. So I rented out an AirBnB. It was four stories, had six different bed rooms, and I curated each room to be like a different theme.” Rob recalls approaching as many artists as possible on their Instagrams, only hearing back from about one in ten. They had a bunch of vegan food, good legal cannabis to enjoy, and he invited as many people as possible to see all of the art that he’d hung throughout the house. “We lost money the first time, but it was fun. People came out, and it was fun. I was like ‘I’m going to keep doing it.’” 

His friends could not believe he was going to do it again, taking all the time and money to coordinate the event. But Rob valued being top of mind regularly with the audience. “Consistency is key; I knew we had to keep doing it so that people would take it seriously,” reiterating that it wasn’t a “one off” event due to its somewhat random and unprecedented nature. 

Eventually, Rob ended up throwing one of the larger afterparties at the Indo Expo 2019 in Denver, inviting cannabis influencers to an art, cannabis, and smoke-friendly affair with good vegan food and good vibes. The next month, he repeated the event for his birthday party, telling his friends to come out and smoke with him since the AirBnB owner was allowing him to use the property. By March, they were actually focusing on art curation as the focal point of the event and starting to make a few hundred bucks each time. 

4/20, Private Events, & High Times

With April came the annual celebration plans for 4/20, and Rob’s intention to use the AirBnB came to a halt when he received a letter ordering him to cease and desist because the owner had listed the location’s address publicly. The event had to be private to allow consumption according to Colorado law, and Rob was forced to make very public statements that the event was cancelled. For those in the know, the event still went on, but in a much more private manner.

After this issue due to a technicality, Rob was invited to throw pop up events under his moniker around the country at High Times events. He traveled to Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and a variety of large metro areas, setting up his museum and spreading the brand nationally. Denver may have taken a backseat, but as he became more introduced to the art scene and the people within, a chance encounter at a Denver Dispensary would be the seed that became the Black Love Mural Festival months later.

Black Love Mural Festival (BLMF)

After efforts with High Times came to a close, the transition to Rob upping his art efforts in the festival scene was an almost seamless transition. He met Annie, the owner of IRL Art, and they exchanged contact information when he learned she worked with Meow Wolf. They did big festival installations at Far Out Factory, Sonic Bloom, Arise, Gem and Jam, and similar events. Rob eventually secured a spot working with her in October 2019, and became CMO of IRL Art in February. 

“Black Love Mural Festival started with being in festivals with [Annie],” Rob explains. “These are all her walls that we bought,” motioning to the black plywood board structures around civic park that were constructed in mere hours. Originally, the idea for the festival had stemmed from a park cleanup effort. One of Rob’s friends knew he was involved in park cleanups and asked for some help overseeing efforts to clean up after protests in Denver. During the cleanup, Rob invited a local artist to live paint a mural to help lighten the mood, and the idea to create walls that could be painted on while also protecting local landmarks came to fruition, initially dubbed “Protect The Park.”

“I didn’t know this was possible,” Rob explains of the mobile mural walls, “to take plywood and build into portable walls and have artists come out and do these big pieces, I didn’t know it was possible.” Originally, Rob had wanted to do a large scale art installation in small scale neighborhood parks to bring the beauty and influence of art into communities that wouldn’t otherwise see it. When the opportunity to take that approach and do it in the center of Denver happened, Rob couldn’t help but seize it.

After a quick pitch to local officials and the Mayor of Denver, Rob and his business partner hammered out a proposal and secured funds for the initial effort. “I want to make sure that black people aren’t blamed for what’s happening,” explains Rob of the motivation behind the festival. “Because, no matter who does the vandalism, no matter who does the looting, it’s going to fall back on the Black Lives Matter movement because that’s what everything is focused around… I want to put a black face to the good that we are doing.”

They pitched the idea as a dual-purpose initiative: for the city, they would protect the monuments using temporary structures to help minimize damage and vandalism. For the community, they would use the walls of these structures as blank canvases to showcase the love and art of Denver’s black community. Once approved, the structures had to be built. Rain and cleanups cut into setup time, leaving them less than 48 hours to have everything set up. Then, they set about recruiting artists, offering subsidies for supplies and starting a GoFundMe with the goal of raising $10,000 to pay all 30+ artists who have since become involved. As of the end of June, they have exceeded this goal. 

Asked how it is going, Rob offers a simple “Awesome.” He comments on the fact that this is the first art event he has been to—and for many of the artists participating—that was all black artists, saying normally there is that one token black person, or maybe not even a single person of color, which prevents the artists from being themselves. He’s proud they have curated artists ranging in age from nine to sixty years old, and artists walked up off the street after seeing the news coverage, wanting to get involved in a positive art community that was bettering Denver. 

As with everything that has taken him this far, Rob is seizing the opportunity to educate his peers and his community at large about the beauty of black culture as well as the ways humans can be better about treating one another equally. 

Opportunities & Education

When asked how he has gotten to this point in his life, and what his advice is to others regarding treating one another better, his answers are the same: Education and Opportunities. Whenever an opportunity presents itself to learn, do so. Learn about other cultures. Learn about new thoughts. Learn about personal trials and tribulations. Seize opportunities to grow, to learn, and to advance yourself and society as a whole. If you have the opportunity to lift someone else up, do so. 

Specifically, Rob speaks to the burden placed on people of color by those who are well-intentioned but lazy in their efforts. Wanting to learn more about the ways your black friends or co-workers may have encountered microaggressions or outright racism is healthy and helps acknowledge and change patterns of behavior, but there is a plethora of information available for you to get background information. Walking up to a black person and asking them to simply describe their plight is both burdensome and shows a lack of effort, contrary to the intentions of the question. 

Similarly, if you look around and aren’t sure of how you can better the black community, or any community, consider the tools in front of you. Rob mentions the trade of a carpenter, and asks the head carpenter to look around at his team; do you see any black faces? No, maybe try to hire some? Not finding any qualified candidates of color? Maybe create the opportunity for an apprenticeship or an internship where a candidate who is otherwise high quality could learn the craft and help to make the industry more diverse. 

Rob’s main point is: there is always an opportunity to help your fellow human and to learn more about one another, and we should seize every chance we can to lift one another up, regardless of color, creed, gender, or other generalizing characteristic. 

Create opportunities
for others,
even if they don’t exist.

The Black Love Mural Festival’s permit was extended through the end of July to allow for a longer display of the art and recognition of the black community. Rob is entertaining future ideas to not only bring the festival back annually, but hopefully to expand to other cities, and to preserve many of the pieces that were created in art galleries and museums, including those dedicated to preserving black art and history. 

Until then:
Educate yourself. Don’t just expect to be educated.


SEE IT LIVE IN DENVER, CO UNTIL JULY 30


Make sure to check out and follow all The talented artists participating in this fantastic event.

@sky_welkin

@plantladyproduction

@stephen_the_painter

@themuseumforblackgirls

@fa_eazy

@flowergirlcreative

@vibrant.love.artistry

@lindeezimmer

@VincentGordon

@toluwaob/@draunimoli

@tukeone

@key_air

@foliarian

@adore_regine

@visualgoodies

@Mi_moegram

@goodlooksvol.1

@bannedesign

@JavonTheUnique

@bakemono0504

@we_must_grow

@hieroveiga

@izaexvim

@keishamarieco

@liobumba

@ds3productions_art

PJ and Crystal

@keishapaintnjoint

@selah.v.art

@curatedbycharlie

@iishieii

Xavier Roscoe

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