Museum Qualities

In the last few years, two groups have emerged in Denver, each intent on establishing a museum of contemporary art as an alternative to the Denver Art Museum. For a long time the two groups were unknown to each other. (If only the Ocean Journey crowd had been so circumspect.) But both came out of the shadows this past summer. Now gossip is flying concerning the birth of a new museum--and likely as not, the fur will be flying before long.

The first group--for convenience, let's call them the artists--held a successful wine-tasting in August to launch their effort, which they dubbed CoMoCA, the Colorado Museum of Contemporary Art. This group includes several well-known area artists such as Dale Chisman, Mark Sink and Lawrence Argent, along with arts advocate Marina Graves. Scott Chamberlin, who played an important role in the group's founding, dropped out even before the fundraiser.

The other group--we'll call them the collectors--was forced by the artists' wine-tasting to reveal themselves or risk playing perpetual second fiddle. And these wealthy enthusiasts aren't going to stand for that, even if they haven't chosen a name for their not-yet-planned institution. The group includes heiress Sue Cannon; the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District's Tier III chairman, John Woodward; and Artyard gallery director Peggy Mangold. Also involved are a number of Cannon's well-to-do friends.

The artist group and the collectors' group have joined forces in the last few months. Word on the street is that big money has been lined up (we're talking millions here), that an existing building has been tagged for the site of the museum, and that there will soon be a museum board.

But the alliance of the two groups has been strained. Even at this very early stage, discouraging words about the museum have begun to leak into the rumor flow of the art scene--for instance, the idea that only new art, not more than ten years old, should be displayed. Another proposal now being debated would exclude regional art and focus instead on international currents. These discussions, at times acrimonious, may lead some of the original participants to bail out.

Maybe it's these philosophical disagreements that have resulted in the air of secrecy surrounding the proposed museum. But all this furtiveness is really wrongheaded. Don't those behind the would-be museum understand how to use publicity? If the facility is to be launched at all--and that's a big if--it will have to rely on public support. And you don't build a public amenity with a petty fiefdom that operates behind closed doors.

If those who dream of a museum of contemporary art really want to know how to run a railroad, they should take a look at how the Denver Museum of Natural History is packing them in for its Imperial Tombs of China exhibit. In the first three weeks alone, more than 65,000 visitors have made their way through the exhibit and nearly 100,000 more have bought tickets. The show is this winter's Asian blockbuster--last year's was the exhibit of Mongolian art and artifacts at the Denver Art Museum--and by now even the most casual Denver exhibition-goer is invariably beginning to feel like something of an expert in the history of Asian art.

Imperial Tombs economically surveys some 2,500 years of Chinese dynastic history. The 250 articles in the exhibit are on loan from more than a score of museums, including the Imperial Museum of Beijing and the Nanking Museum. Many of the artifacts, including figures and vessels in bronze and terra cotta, are considered national treasures and have thus never left China before. The stop in Denver is one of only five in the U.S.

The exhibit was organized by China's State Bureau of Cultural Relics and by Wonders, the ambitious Memphis city agency that first gained international renown when it organized the Ramses II show (presented at the DMNH in 1988). Serving as guest curator for the exhibit exclusively here in Denver was Chuimei Ho, a Hong Kong native and adjunct curator at Chicago's Field Museum.

The hiring of a consulting curator is just one of the special features that separate the Denver version of Imperial Tombs from the exhibit presented in the other four American venues. Other made-for-Denver elements include the text panels and the photographs that are used to explicate the artifacts. Nancy Knepper headed up the museum's interpretive team, and the whole thing was laid out and put together by exhibition designer Dave Pachuta.

Imperial Tombs is installed in three major segments, each on its own floor. The show begins on the third floor, continues on the second and comes to a somewhat abrupt conclusion on the first. The powers that be at the DMNH obviously had some trouble fitting this exhibit into the museum's available spaces. In fact, viewers may spend more time traveling between the show's parts than they will in the show itself.

This space problem may have led to the decision to begin the show at what is surely the end: The court furnishings of the Shenyang Palace. Most of this imperial court furniture from the Qing Dynasty dates from the period of 1736 to 1795, making it the newest stuff in the show. Other items in this section include lovely silk embroidery, cloisonne animals and birds, and lacquer-and-gold-leaf furniture. There are even giant ceremonial parasols and fans that were carried by members of the emperor's retinue.

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