Posted: July 01, 2011
Executive edge: Laura Merage
Artist and philanthropist aims to connect community and culture through her nonprofit galleryBy Lynn Bronikowski
Photo by Jon Rose
Laura Merage takes five minutes out of her busy day at Denver's RedLine gallery to quietly reflect on her life.
"I think ‘Wow!' I came from a developing country as a woman and look where I am now," says Merage, 52, who at age 15 left her Tehran, Iran, homeland to pursue an education in the United States. She would go on to become an artist and philanthropist and found the 20,000-square-foot nonprofit gallery that encourages art education and community involvement.
In 1974, Merage, the youngest of six children, left her parents to join her brothers in California, where she would become the first woman in her family to go to college, earning a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Southern California. Later she earned a master's in art from New York University.
"I really have to give my parents credit for going through those difficult times and making the difficult decision to send me here. Even though my father absolutely hated the idea of sending me away at that age, he had to agree that education was still more important," Merage said. "Every once in awhile I imagine what would have happened if they didn't let me go. What would my life be like?"
Merage, the mother of two grown children, has been married for 33 years to David Merage, who co-founded Chef America Inc., a national food manufacturer known for inventing such products as Hot Pockets. In 2002, he sold the company to Nestle. Together the couple founded the Merage Foundation, which provided the seed money for RedLine. It opened in July 2008 at 2350 Arapahoe St.
"I saw this neighborhood as the next area that artists would be moving into, and I wanted to be part of it," said Merage, who houses her own studio at RedLine. "It's a community that I wanted to engage in to build a nonprofit that works with the community and schools and artists. Art is my passion. It's not something that I choose to do; it's a need that I have. I am very fortunate to be able to do my art, and I don't think I would be a whole person or very healthy if I wasn't doing my art regularly."
The name RedLine stems from Merage's desire for artists to literally cross a red line and lose their inhibitions to create.
"We feel that education is not healthy if it does not include art, and a community is not healthy without art," Merage said. "So we wanted to create a place that is not a gallery, not a museum, not a co-op but something that brings together all of those for the community."
RedLine houses resident artists who must engage in community activities as part of their two-year residency. RedLine also houses exhibitions such as the "Design for the Other 90%" exhibit, which is coming from the Smithsonian Institution and runs July 8 to Sept. 25.
"Part of our mission is to do cutting-edge exhibitions, and we aspire big," said Merage, explaining that the upcoming exhibit brings together low-cost objects designed for 90 percent of the world population who live in poverty.
"The beauty of these objects and this ideology is so amazing that it has blurred the lines between design and art," said Merage, pointing to such exhibit objects as a straw that filters water and a pump that allows women in developing countries to pump water to the crops.
"This is really what RedLine is all about - pushing the envelope and blurring the lines."
Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer in Denver.