Thursday, April 26, 2012

Denver Art Museums - Part 1

By Charles Kessler

“Once Upon a Time” race to support the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
I went to Denver to see the new Clyfford Still Museum (which I'll discuss in detail in another post) and discovered a city that's sunny (averaging 300 days of sunshine a year), young and pedestrian-friendly, with lots of bars, restaurants and street activity -- at least in Downtown Denver. During my two days there, I came across a large festival promoting the legalization of marijuana, and a scavenger hunt race in support of the Matthew Shepard Foundation where college-age kids dressed in costumes. People took it all as an everyday occurrence.
Daniel Libeskind's 2006 addition to the Denver Art Museum.
All the art museums, except the Museum of Contemporary Art, are part of a large Downtown Cultural District that includes, among other things, Civic Center Park (originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1913 and currently undergoing renovation); the seven-story Denver Art Museum (designed by Gio Ponte of Milan and completed in 1971); The Denver Central Library (Michael Graves, 1995); two buildings by Daniel Libeskind, a 4-story addition to the museum used for contemporary art and a condominium across the plaza from it (both completed in 2006); and the recently opened Clyfford Still Museum (designed by Brad Cloepfil and his firm).
Interior, Libeskind's 2006 addition to the Denver Art Museum.
The new Libeskind wing for contemporary art is an absolute disaster, not so much as architecture, although a case can be made for that, but as a museum. That it's so over-the-top flashy wouldn't matter so much if the interior was reasonably suitable for exhibiting art; but the architectural conceits make it impossible to install work properly.  Walls tilt and go off at odd angles (often creating useless spaces); light is wildly uneven; and a flamboyant stairway and atrium unnecessarily take up a lot of room and are major distractions. I can't talk about the quality of their 20th-century collection because nothing looks good in that space.
1971 Denver Art Museum.
The original fortress-like museum (above) is no great shakes either, but at least its seven floors are serviceable as exhibition space, if dark and graceless. Their collection, however, is first rate, especially their Asian, Native American, and Pre-Columbian art. In fact they have the best collection of Costa Rican Pre-Columbian art I've ever seen -- who knew? They're also supposed to have a major collection of western American art, but I know and care little about it, and can’t judge. The rest of their collection is hit or miss.
Pre-Columbian art study collection.
Northwest Coast Indian Art with a c.1850 Tlinget house partition in the back.

Like a lot of museums now, they make a great effort to reach out to people and educate them about the art. Every floor has at least one "activity center" -- a cozy living room type space with videos, books and other materials where the public can sit and learn about the art, or simply rest up. The guards are very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. If I asked them a question, not only did they know the answer, but they would ask me what I saw and make sure I didn't miss any of their favorites. Nice.
One of several "Activity Centers" at the Denver Art museum.
Despite all this, and despite a popular Yves Saint Laurent retrospective (until July 8th), there weren't a lot of people there. I'm beginning to think that I'm biased by the crowds attending New York museums. In comparison to those hordes, nothing appears well attended.

Interior of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver.
The Denver Museum of Contemporary Art is located on the other side of Downtown, in LoDo, Denver's hip historic warehouse district. It's only about a mile or so from the other museums and is easily reached via the free 16th Street shuttle bus. It's another difficult space, not anywhere as bad as the Libeskind addition, but still difficult because the ceilings of the central galleries are proportionally too high, and other spaces, which go around the periphery like a corridor, are too narrow to easily function as galleries.  The MCA is more an alternative space or kunsthalle than a museum because they don't have a permanent collection. They do have a terrific roof cafe/bar with a happy hour Fridays that lasts until 10:00. Now that's something NY alternative spaces could adopt! Hear that New Museum???

1 comment:

James said...

Hi – Will you please post a link to your Blog at The Denver Art Community at Our members will really love it.
Members include: Denver Art Galleries, Art Enthusiasts, Artists, Art Collectors, etc.
It's easy to do, just cut and paste the link and it automatically links back to your website. You can also add Articles, News, Photos, and Videos if you like.
Email me if you need any help or would like me to do it for you. I hope you consider sharing with us.
Please feel free to share as often and as much as you like.
The Denver Art Community:
James Kaufman, Editor