GOING, GOING--GONE

The assembled items told many tales about the DAM of yesteryear--an institution that for most of its 100-year-plus history has obviously been the exclusive province of enthusiastic amateurs. It appears, in fact, that director Lewis Sharp, in charge since 1989, inaugurated the first professional administrative regime ever at DAM. In years past, the social connections of donors were sometimes more important than the quality of their donations. And somebody at the museum was doing a fair amount of wishful thinking: Among the assembled pictures in the auction were a fake Rembrandt Peale and a fake Albert Pinkham Ryder. (DAM's famous fake by the real Rembrandt wasn't included, having long since been deep-sixed.)

The vast majority of the auction lots were authentic, of course--and made up of the kind of middling material that is easily found not only in galleries but in the better antique and decorator shops around town. But that wasn't the case with everything. Selections in two categories in particular, modern prints and (that old bugaboo) Colorado art, seemed to raise many eyebrows. In the same way that questionable choices in the past illustrated problems from the museum's history, these choices highlighted some present-day curatorial weaknesses.

The Modern and Contemporary department, for example, decided to dispose of prints by well-known artists such as Fernand Leger, Josef Albers, Bernard Buffet, Alexander Calder and Robert Rauschenberg. And its reasons are readily apparent. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a print department at DAM. The museum has never actively collected prints, and there is no print expert there. But wouldn't prints be the ideal solution to the many gaps in the DAM collection, especially in the expensive world of European and American modernism? After all, it's unrealistic to think that DAM could fill every vacant slot with paintings, which are just too expensive. It would hardly be shocking to find DAM acquiring prints in the future--and at that time, curators might regret having gotten rid of some of these.

Clearly more troublesome was the disposal of a good deal of what was left of the museum's Colorado material. And the pre-auction estimates calculated by Christie's with the advice of the two relevant departments-- Painting and Sculpture and, to a lesser extent, Modern and Contemporary--pointed out the low regard DAM has for art made in its own backyard. The typical Colorado lot went for twice the posted estimates. Some, like the 1956 Mary Chenoweth block print that came out of Vanderlip's department, sold in heavy bidding for approximately eight times the low end of the insulting pre-auction estimate. Rather than deaccessioning the work of this important and influential modernist, Vanderlip might have chosen Chenoweth for a show in the Close Range Gallery. Apparently not.

These same kinds of concerns surround choices made by the Painting and Sculpture department. Curator Lauretta Dimmick could well occupy her time organizing a scholarly show of the work of Denver impressionist Charles Partridge Adams the way the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts has with the contemporaneous work of Dennis Miller Bunker (a show that travels to DAM next month). Instead, a wonderful circa 1887 painting by Adams, "Mount Sopris Near Carbondale--Summer Light," was subject not only to the insult of deaccessioning but, like the Chenoweth piece, to the injury of a laughable pre-auction estimate of $1,000 to $1,500. Surely there were people at the auction who would have bought a dozen at that price. The actual selling price of the painting, $10,925, was ten times the low end of the estimate.

The fact that the pre-auction estimates were so boldly exceeded makes several points. First and most obvious is the fact that those at the museum who made these decisions are completely oblivious to the biggest trend in the local art market of the last decade--the rediscovery of the historic art of our region. Not only are there galleries that focus exclusively on this kind of thing, but many contemporary galleries have also entered the market. And if DAM lacked regard for Colorado art, the city's collectors, dealers, speculators and scholars responded with a similar vote of no-confidence in the museum's appraisals.

One deaccession decision made by the museum inadvertently puts the institution square in the middle of another debate--this one over the place of public art in our city. Almost from the 1971 opening of DAM's current home--the distinctive building designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler--the corner in front of the museum was marked by a large minimalist sculpture, "Untitled (Environmental Fan Sculpture)," by Robert Behrens, an artist who worked briefly in Denver. The sculpture was commissioned by the museum for the site, but because Behrens donated his time, DAM only sprang for the cost of materials. It's understandable why this piece sold to a prominent local collector for just $1,380--few people would have the space to display the piece, which is the size of a small house. Today, in place of the fan sculpture, is a garden installation by Meg Webster. This is progress?

One thing the DAM presumably wouldn't get rid of, if it had the choice, is the 1981 "Solar Fountain," by internationally known artists Larry Bell and Eric Orr, which sits on the barren lawn of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. But the DCPA, unlike the museum, hasn't yet reached the point of being professionally organized, and there the director calls all the shots. That enthusiastic (and autocratic) amateur, Donald Seawell, is not so careful about such things, and he's decided the fountain must go.

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