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Denver may be about to lose an art collection that was a fixture in the Capitol Hill neighborhood for nearly twenty years.
The Turner Museum was housed in a home at 773 Downing Street until last year. Its founder, Douglas Graham, owns hundreds of lithographs and other works by the nineteenth-century English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. For years Graham, whose home doubled as the museum, sponsored concerts and dinners that allowed Denverites to enjoy his art collection in a casual setting.
But the Downing space wasn't big enough to show everything in the collection, and Graham sold the house last year. Frustrated that he was unable to display as much as he wanted to, he put most of the work in storage in a Denver warehouse. Now in his mid-seventies, Graham has relocated to Sarasota, Florida, for health reasons. Although he would like his collection to stay in Denver, he says he hasn't had much luck in finding a new location for it. Several towns in Florida have expressed an interest in having the Turner Museum there, and Graham may give the collection to one of those cities if a site can't be found in Denver.
"I've found much more interest in having a museum here in Florida than I have in Denver," he says. "I'd much rather have it in Denver, but I couldn't generate the necessary support."
Graham's life story combines elements of James Bond and Henry James. He was born to a Scottish father and Hungarian mother and grew up in Hungary, where his father served as a British diplomat. He attended the London School of Economics and went into the British secret service just as the Cold War broke out.
In 1956 Graham was arrested for spying in East Germany and was imprisoned in the Soviet Union. He escaped from a concentration camp there and walked more than 1,000 miles to West Germany, living off food he found in farmers' fields. A few years later he immigrated to the U.S. and took a job on Wall Street. A 1966 Turner exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art inspired him to begin collecting the artist's work.
Turner created more than 30,000 drawings, watercolors and engravings over his lifetime, as well as thousands of lithographs. His misty landscapes had a big impact on other artists--he's been called the father of impressionism--and many of the first artists to paint the American West, including Thomas Moran, were greatly influenced by Turner. (Graham's collection also includes several works by Moran.)
Graham moved to Denver in 1972 after his doctor told him the pollution in New York City was affecting his health. He worked as a stockbroker in Denver for several years. In 1977, eager to share his collection, Graham opened his Capitol Hill home to the public and founded the nonprofit Turner Museum.
The museum was a popular spot for chamber-music concerts and gourmet dinners. Graham says he tried to create a unique experience for visitors, letting them view the art, listen to fine music and dine in a nineteenth-century setting. "We approached a museum through a different angle, appealing to all five senses," Graham says.
Several friends of Graham's have been trying to find a new location for the museum. They'd like to buy the Fisher Mansion at 1600 Logan Street, but so far the $950,000 price tag has been an obstacle. "We'd like to start a new museum in mid-town," says James Smith, a Denver real estate broker who has been looking for a museum site. "We'd like to set up different wings for Western artists, as well as Turner."
Graham says he's talked to several Denver foundations, and they've told him they could help the museum financially once it had a site. "If we had a location, they'd help in the transformation and renovation," he says. Graham believes the Fisher Mansion could become a popular spot for weddings and parties, making the museum self-supporting.
"The mansion has been sitting there empty for years," notes Graham. "They spend $100 million for a new stadium. This is a small amount of money compared to that."
A 1994 proposal to move the museum to the former Denver Dry tearoom fizzled because of funding problems. Now Graham says Denver's time is running out. His highest priority is to have the works back on public view. "Every collector's dream," says Graham, "is to have their collection displayed to the public.