LOST AND FOUND

The public made unprecedented expenditures on public art and public buildings last year in Denver. But you wouldn't know it to look around.

The biggest plum, both in terms of cost and lost opportunity, was Denver International Airport, born of the dreams of former mayor Federico Pena. The site plan and buildings at the $5 billion airport include some marvelous details--like the Fentress-and-Bradburn-designed tent roof--but the complex falls apart as a whole. Literally.

With regard to the art that "graces" the new airport, a lack of continuity is the least of the city's problems. Of the $7 million originally slated for public art at the airport, Denver spent just over $5 million. But some pieces already commissioned, notably a monumental sculpture of a horse by Luis Jimenez and a fountain by Doug Hollis, will most likely never be installed.

So what did the city get for the money that was spent on art at DIA? Very little. Only a handful of the pieces can be considered first-rate: "Dual Meridian," a knockout installation by David Griggs; Betty Woodman's masterful ceramic "Balustrades"; "America...Why I Love Her," a popular pair of multimedia pieces by Gary Sweeney; "Kinetic Light Air Curtain," the propeller installation in one of the train tunnels, by William Maxwell and Antonette Rosato; and finally, the controversial (at least with the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, which has refused to accept it) "Great Hall Floor," a terrazzo floor with metal inlays by Ken Iwamasa and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith.

Most of the rest at DIA is of little visual interest, though both "Notre Denver," Terry Allen's stupid bronze gargoyles in suitcases, and "Deep Time/Deep Space," the amateurish installation in the inbound train tunnel, by Leni Schwendinger, deserve to be mentioned for their utter lack of artistic value. It's a good thing the mayor's airport-art subcommittee went on a national search for artists. If it had limited its sights to local artists, it would have been stuck with the likes of Griggs, Woodman and Sweeney. (Sweeney, a Continental Airlines baggage handler, has since left town.)

Another new city project that dates back to the Pena administration is the Michael Graves-designed Denver Public Library, attached to the old 1955 Central Library by Burnham Hoyt. What's left of the old library has been absurdly dubbed the "Burnham Hoyt Room." Shouldn't that be "wing"? And wouldn't it have made more sense to rename the historic building for a figure important to the history of the DPL such as founding city librarian Charles Dudley or that great branch builder John Eastlick, rather than for the architect who designed it?

If the DPL really wanted to honor the memory of Burnham Hoyt, maybe Brian Klipp, the Graves collaborator who headed up the redo of the historic building, should have taken a more refined and less brutal approach to his interior changes. The recently opened "Burnham Hoyt Room" already looks in desperate need of redecoration--and its fourth-rate modernization looks all the worse when set against the brilliance of Graves's new wing.

And the public art at the library is about as exciting as the Dewey Decimal System. Looking at the seventy-panel mural that runs along the mezzanine level of Schlessman Hall, viewers may wonder what Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha's studio assistants were thinking when they created the piece.

Another major public project downtown was Coors Field, which almost didn't open last spring owing to the baseball strike. The traditional ballpark design by Brad Shrock of Missouri-based HOK Sport--who was not licensed to practice in Colorado when he carried out the work--is only an average effort. But the attempt to get along in LoDo architecturally--plenty of red brick and green iron--is a success.

Because Coors Field was not a city project but rather a metro-wide one, there was no obligation to include public art. Laudably, the stadium district authority did so anyway, bypassing the morass of the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film to create its own process.

All three ballpark art commissions were given to local artists, who carried them out with varying degrees of success. Erick Johnson, whose excellent, ceiling-hung sculptures relieve the interior of the tragic Colorado Convention Center, struck out with "Bottom of the Ninth," a lackluster metal-and-neon wall relief mounted on the exterior of the stadium. "The West, the Worker, the Ball Field," a monumental outfield mural by Matt O'Neill and Jeff Starr, is quite a bit better, though a good deal of the promise implied by the preparatory prints remains unfulfilled. The best of the Coors Field pieces--the home run, if you will--is Lonnie Hanzon's gateway folly south of the stadium, "The Evolution of the Ball."

Follies have enjoyed quite a run around here lately--and no, I'm not talking about real estate speculator Dana Crawford getting a lifetime achievement award last summer from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (That wasn't a folly; it was a joke.) Instead, I'm referring to a functionless architectural form, like Hanzon's gateway. Library architect Graves even included two arresting follies at the DPL: One lines the Acoma Plaza entrance and another sits in the middle of the Western History Room.

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