Denver's art scene soars with new galleries, events
By Gene Sloan, USA TODAY October, 2007
Clark Richert recalls the cultural wasteland that was Denver in the
1960s when he arrived from Kansas City. "I basically went into shock
when I walked into the Denver Art Museum," says the 66-year-old artist,
sometimes called the godfather of Colorado contemporary art. "It really
was almost non-existent when compared to the (art museum) in Kansas
Lounging at the back of Denver's well-known Rule Gallery, which is
showing his work through early November, Richert says that for a while,
there was only one gallery in Denver exhibiting contemporary art — a
pretty pathetic showing for one of the biggest cities between Chicago
and Los Angeles.
"When we wanted to see art, we'd go to Colorado
Springs," Richert says, chuckling.
Not only is the gallery scene exploding — witness the
crowd of gallery hoppers milling about Richert's large-scale geometric
paintings — but this weekend brings the opening of Denver's much-awaited
new Museum of Contemporary Art, a $15.5 million showplace for
cutting-edge international works that already is drawing national
attention. And it's just the latest major cultural landmark to make its
debut in the fast-growing city, which suddenly finds itself on the map
for more than just its sports teams.
Watch out, Santa Fe. There's a new art mecca taking
shape in the Rockies.
"We may not have the critical mass of a New York or
Los Angeles," says Lewis Sharp, the longtime director of the Denver Art
Museum, as he leads a visitor through its much-ballyhooed, $110 million
building that opened last October. "But it really is remarkable what is
Sharp is eager to show off the striking new structure,
designed by international architecture star Daniel Libeskind — an
explosion of angled, titanium-clad shapes that dominates the south side
Like Frank Gehry's swirling Guggenheim Bilbao museum
in Spain, the sculpturelike construction is an instant icon for the city
— and one that many hope will spawn a similar surge in cultural tourists
(the so-called "Bilbao effect").
"It started out as an expansion for the museum, but
then it grew into something much more ambitious," says Sharp, pausing in
one of the building's oddly angled galleries, which have drawn praise as
well as scathing criticism. (The New York Times called them "tortured
geometries" that make it "virtually impossible to enjoy the art.")
The Libeskind building sits next to an older museum
building designed by Italy's Gio Ponti and across from the Michael
Graves-designed Public Library — a triumvirate of star power sure to get
an architecture lover's heart racing.
But Libeskind's building, his first completed in the
USA (he also designed the still-in-the-works Freedom Tower at the World
Trade Center site in New York), also is notable for what it holds. The
museum has long been known for its collections of American Indian,
Spanish Colonial and pre-Columbian art and now has room to show off its
collections of modern and contemporary art.
Two soaring new floors of 20th-century works by the
likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha are as impressive as any west of
the Mississippi River and an unexpected cultural find for visitors who
have come to the Mile High City expecting little more than
Western-themed historic sites such as Buffalo Bill's gravesite and the
Victorian home of "unsinkable" Molly Brown.
Sharp goes even further. "You can go anywhere in the
world, and you won't find a room with a better collection of abstract
expressionism than you see here," he says, walking into a gallery with
works by Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell.
Smaller venues flourish, too
Denver's art cred also is getting a boost from the
blossoming of several smaller institutions, such as the year-old
Laboratory of Art and Ideas in Belmar, a venue for short-term
contemporary art installations, and the 4-year-old Kirkland Museum,
nationally known for its jam-packed collection of 20th-century furniture
and design by the likes of Ponti, Paul Evans and Alvar Aalto.
Visitors also are discovering the Dikeou Collection, a
little-known jewel that opened in 2003 in a downtown building. Curated
by Denver-born, New York-based artist Devon Dikeou, it houses a
spectacular array of cutting-edge contemporary works by Momoyo Torimitsu,
Vik Muniz and other stars — not the sort of thing one expects in the
USA's 21st largest metropolitan area (pop. 2.6 million).
Standing between two of the collection's best-known
pieces, a pair of giant pink inflatable bunnies by Torimitsu, Dikeou
says the looming arrival of the Libeskind building, in the works for
years, pushed the art scene forward.
"It's like when you ski with better skiers, you get
better," Dikeou says. "I think it really inspired the city to reinvent
One of the biggest reinventions has taken place in the
gallery scene, particularly the monthly First Friday art walks, which
have morphed into citywide to-do's since they began five years ago.
During the event earlier this month, an almost unmanageable 5,000 people
turned out on Santa Fe Drive, the city's densest gallery area, packing
the sidewalks and spilling into the street. Some showed up in
fantastical costumes, from pirate outfits to medieval garb to monkey
suits, resulting in a surreal, Carnival-like atmosphere. One artist
drove a motorized alligator sculpture down the street, flames shooting
from its rear.
"It's a grass-roots social event," says Jack
Pappalardo, owner of Habitat Gallery, where it was so crowded, one could
hardly move. "It wasn't planned."
This month's First Friday coincided with the city's
first Arts Week, a celebration that included events at more than a dozen
museums and performing arts venues — yet another sign of the city's
growing gusto for the arts.
Becoming 'a fun place'
Denver, of course, is no New York. Its offerings still
are modest compared with the major art meccas on both coasts. But
Pappalardo, who came to Denver five years ago after living in New York,
Toronto and Atlanta, says he never has seen a scene take off quite like
here. "In Atlanta, you'd never get 5,000 people out unless it's a
football game," he says.
Even before the art scene started to soar in recent
years, the city had begun to transform. Its downtown is in the midst of
a decade-long comeback, fueled in part by the emergence of the
now-vibrant LoDo entertainment district.
The roots of Denver's cultural emergence go back as
far as 1988, when voters in the city and surrounding counties passed a
0.1% sales tax to fund cultural organizations, something that is rare in
major cities. The Scientific & Cultural Facilities District tax raises
$40 million a year for local art, music, theater and dance
organizations, and natural and cultural history sites.
Many also credit popular two-term mayor John
Hickenlooper, who has supported the arts at every turn. The onetime
brewpub owner, celebrated for helping to revive LoDo in the '90s, is
unabashed in his view that world-class cultural sites make a city
"As we put these huge investments into our cultural
facilities, we have simultaneously seen the emergence of downtown as a
fun place," he says, sitting in his art-filled City Hall office. "They
feed on each other."
Hickenlooper is responsible for perhaps the biggest
cultural coup — the announcement three years ago that Denver will become
home to the Clyfford Still Museum, which will house the majority of the
famed expressionist's work.
While Still had no connection to Denver, his will
called for his 2,400 works to go to a U.S. city willing to build a
museum for them, and Hickenlooper lobbied Still's widow to make that
It was a multibillion-dollar cultural bonanza. A
single Still painting recently went for more than $20 million at
auction. The museum, scheduled to open next to the Denver Art Museum in
2010, will have more than 800 of them and, like the new Libeskind
building, could become a national destination for art lovers.
Hickenlooper says Denver is unusual among major
American cities in that people move there not for jobs but for the
quality of life: the nearby mountains, hiking trails, the relentlessly
sunny days. They're the kind of people who expect a vigorous cultural
scene, he says.
Increasingly, they're getting it.
At the new Contemporary Art Museum, which opens
Sunday, executive director Cydney Payton says visitors can expect "star
power" — at least, that's the name of the David Adjaye-designed museum's
first show. And, indeed, it'll have works from seven international
stars, from Canadian David Altmejd — darling of this summer's Venice
Biennale — to Kenyan Wangechi Mutu.
"If you're an art junkie, you'll need to come to
Denver just to see this show," says Payton, smiling. "Denver is (now)
worth the trip."