And They're Off

The spectacular show The Collectors Vision marks the first exhibit presented under the auspices of Denver's new Museum of Contemporary Art. And though it's been a very long time coming, this show on the mezzanine of the 1999 Broadway Building has proven well worth the wait.

The idea of a museum dedicated to contemporary art has been kicking around Denver at least since the 1970s. In 1971, when the Denver Art Museum moved into its new home on the 14th Avenue Parkway, it had no department for contemporary art and no full-time curator for the topic. During the 1950s and '60s, the museum made do with the efforts of volunteer curator Vance Kirkland. But by the mid-1970s, a DAM support group, the Friends of Contemporary Art, began to demand--at times rancorously--that the museum pay more attention to the current art scene, not just in Denver, but internationally.

Partly as the result of FoCA's efforts and partly due to pressure from the DAM's own staff, then-director Thomas Maytham hired Dianne Vanderlip in 1978 and charged her with establishing a contemporary-art department. Immediately after being hired, Vanderlip made it clear to a standing-room-only FoCA meeting that the new department would focus on international artists at the expense of local ones. It was a bitter pill, no doubt, for the local artists who were the heart of FoCA. And though, over the past decade, Vanderlip has substantially softened her philosophy of excluding local artists, the DAM still does far too little for the local art scene.

What transpired after Vanderlip's hiring is open to interpretation. Depending on whom you talk to, FoCA either disbanded or was co-opted by the Alliance for Contemporary Art, a support group that Vanderlip founded on her arrival. Either way, a few displaced enthusiasts began to dream of starting a separate museum of contemporary art in Denver. Today, many of them have resurfaced as founders of the new museum. For example, wealthy art patron Sue Cannon, now the president of MoCA's board of trustees, also was a FoCA bigwig.

The current expansion franchise actually began life as the nonprofit Galleries of Contemporary Art in 1991. "Right now, all our paperwork, our bank account, everything, is under the Galleries name," says Cannon. "But a lot of people don't like it and felt that the word museum needed to be there." Hence, the working title of "Museum of Contemporary Art"--or, to be more specific, the "Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver."

A committee has been formed to choose a permanent name by the end of the year. But from Cannon's point of view, the first order of business is buying a building. "For a time we considered a museum without walls, where we would present shows in rented spaces," she says. "But I always felt that the first thing we needed to do was to get a building."

Many buildings were considered and rejected during the course of a five-year search, including such Golden Triangle landmarks as the Evans School and the Rocky Mountain Bank Note Building. The group finally settled on the Vulcan Iron Works building, on West Colfax Avenue across from the Auraria campus. According to Cannon, the purchase of that early-twentieth-century brick structure is "imminent."

Cannon says the ball won't really get rolling until the building is secured. At that time, she says, her group will launch a fundraising drive, seeking $7 million to pay for the building and convert its gutted spaces into galleries. Cannon envisions the museum as eventually being self-sustaining, with a gift shop, a restaurant and a coffee shop. Architects for the job have been interviewed, she says, but no firm has been hired. Also, a search committee is mulling the names of prospective museum directors and has already narrowed the list of potential honchos to five. "The director will establish the course of the new museum, so I hope we pick the right one," says Dale Chisman, a member of the new museum's board.

As one of the most respected painters in the region, Chisman has found himself not only at the center of the new museum but up to his neck in The Collectors Vision exhibit. He laid out the show, has two paintings included and, along with well-known Denver photographer Mark Sink, co-designed the exhibition's wonderful promotional poster.

That poster, a silkscreen combining geometric abstraction with gestural passages, was printed at Open Press by Mark Lunning and Bryan Boettinger. And Chisman, Sink, Lunning and Boettinger are but a few of the city's artists who've thrown their support behind the new museum. Sculptors Charles Parson and Bob Mangold and painter Linde Schlumbohm have joined Chisman on the board. Steve Eagleburger, Debra Goldman, Tree Laurita, Myron Melnick and Reed Weimer, along with a score of others, created special miniature artworks to commemorate the show's opening. Prominent dealers are also involved, including Elizabeth Schlosser, Robin Rule, Mary Mackey and Peggy Mangold.

Mangold organized The Collectors Vision, with some help from Rule. "Sue [Cannon] felt strongly that the first show should feature work from private collections," Mangold recalls. As a result, the show's material has been drawn from four individual collections: those of oilman Kenneth Whiting, former art dealers Paul and Nancy Hughes, interior designer Bryan Pulte and surgeon Charles Hamlin. "I wanted to show how collectors put collections together, to see how and what they collect, to understand the passion and the importance of collecting," Mangold says.

The show doesn't necessarily clue the viewer in to the aims of the four collectors, but it makes for a satisfying visual experience nonetheless. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say it's one of the best contemporary shows seen in Denver in a long time--every bit as interesting as the Options exhibits that have been mounted by the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department over the last two years. As in those shows, the local artists who appear in The Collectors Vision are integrated with nationally known figures.

After entering the sumptuous lobby of the 1999 Broadway Building, visitors must follow a series of somewhat confusing signs up a staircase to the mezzanine. That space has been finished much like the lobby--with literally tons of marble, slate, granite and steel. This created a problem, because polished stone walls make a lousy backdrop for art. (Some cynics might note that art doesn't stand up well to nature.) The solution was the construction of temporary white walls that line and define the spaces. These custom-made walls represented one of the largest single expenses associated with the show and are said to have cost nearly $20,000--paid for, as were all the exhibition's expenses, with money provided by an anonymous donor and by Norwest Bank. But the walls were well worth the expense; without them, the room, and not the art, would have captured all the attention.

The first space at the top of the stairs houses the paintings lent by collector Kenneth Whiting, along with a display of posters for sale. Of the four collections, Whiting's receives the sparest treatment, with only three paintings on display: a Fernando Botero still life, another still life by Aaron Fink, and a color-field abstraction by Paul Jenkins. The real standout is the Jenkins, an acrylic on canvas from 1984 titled "Phenomena: Battery Park Prism." In a sense, the Whiting selection serves as a sneak preview to the rest of the exhibit--much as the show itself provides an early glimpse of the embryonic Museum of Contemporary Art.

The remaining three collections are shown off in considerably more depth and provide the visitor with a much better idea of how art collections are put together. The first formal gallery, created through the use of those custom-made walls, is devoted to selections from the Hughes collection. Paul Hughes, longtime director of the recently closed Inkfish Gallery, always said he wouldn't sell any painting he wouldn't have in his own home. So it's not surprising to find in this collection the same names we know from all those Inkfish shows over the years.

The Hughes collection is broad-based and eclectic, boasting a 1940s Vance Kirkland watercolor of trees, a 1980s abstract-expressionist work by Lee Simpson and a pair of Italo Scanga's neo-expressionist sculptures, also from the 1980s. But as might be expected, the real strength is late modernist work--reductivist sculpture and painting from the 1960s to the present. A good example is Harry Bertoia's breathtaking "Untitled," a brass and copper sculpture from 1961, in which Bertoia mounted little metal squares in vertical rows on an upright metal pole. George Rickey also uses simple geometric shapes in the 1996 kinetic sculpture "Open Rectangles."

Squares and rectangles appear again in Herbert Bayer's "Opening (on Black)," an acrylic-on-canvas painting from 1973 that, with its rainbow of bright colors and black square in the center, constituted an important work for the artist. Squares of color are also laid one over another in the 1979 diptych "Untitled," an acrylic on canvas by Richard Anuszkiewicz.

The Bryan Pulte collection is displayed both in its own formal gallery space and in a broad corridor that connects that gallery with the Hughes display. Pulte has collected many significant local artists, and those locals--among them Jeff Starr, Lorre Hoffman and the late Wes Kennedy--hold their own even in the heady company of national figures like Bertoia and Rickey. Pulte's commitment to large-scale ceramic sculpture is particularly impressive; the show includes both the magnificent Scott Chamberlin sculpture "Thuja," from 1988, and a stunning multi-panel wall relief by Martha Daniels from the same year.

Winding back around to the corridor, the visitor arrives at two large galleries outfitted with Charles Hamlin's formidable holdings, which include some of the most talked-about pieces in the show. For instance, there's the incredible abstract-expressionist Anthony Caro sculpture from 1977, "Table PC CCXXXIV," a mass of found and forged steel that was allowed to rust before being sealed with varnish. And how about Helen Frankenthaler's "Fire," an acrylic on canvas from 1962? It's easy to understand how Frankenthaler went to the top of the color-field movement when one sees a painting such as this.

Other treats in Hamlin's collection include a pair of Dale Chihuly blown and cased glass vases from the "Indian Blanket Series" of 1966. There may be bigger Chihuly pieces around, but not many that were more important to his development as an artist. And don't miss those Dorothy Dehner bronzes, either--or that wonderful black painting by Matt O'Neill.

All in all, The Collectors Vision constitutes a remarkable start for Cannon's group, even if it was a bit of a no-brainer to put together. (After all, the collectors already did the hard work of selecting the art.) But a few problems need to be addressed immediately. For example, there is no guide to the exhibit. Admittedly, most of the artists are well-known. But others aren't--and it would be nice to know who they are. Then there are the identifying labels, some of which are incomplete, and some of which actually misspell the artists' names. The lack of a unified graphic design for the museum's publications and mailings doesn't help, either--for now, they're mostly cheap and ugly-looking.

Even if this new group purchases the Vulcan building tomorrow, the Colfax Avenue space won't be ready to host exhibits for some time. So Cannon and her colleagues plan to hold during the next year four more shows in temporary spaces--most likely at 1999 Broadway. The hope is that they'll all provide as much insight as The Collectors Vision.

The Collectors Vision, through October 31 on the mezzanine of the 1999 Broadway Building, 984-9956.

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