High Hopes

Just in time for the holidays, the Denver Art Museum has raised the curtain on its seven-year, $7.5 million facelift. Judging by the crowds--more than 13,000 visitors showed up on the first weekend alone--many people have found it worth the wait. But we may have to wait a little longer for some of the mistakes to be corrected.

Perhaps the most significant change at the DAM is the creation of a new main entrance on Acoma Plaza directly across from the Denver Public Library. The emphatic entryway, designed by Denver architect George Hoover for the firm of AR7, is marked by an oversized metal canopy--an effect that gives it a highly sculptural feel and sadly leads it to compete with the nearby Mark di Suvero sculpture "Lao Tzu," which defines Acoma Plaza. A few weeks ago the "Lao Tzu" was cordoned off with plastic hazard fencing in glaring OSHA orange. It seems that pedestrians were bumping into the piece, despite the fact that it's painted a bright-orange shade almost identical to that of the safety fencing. The fencing is down now, with a final solution said to involve the placement of a circle of benches around the sculpture. Too bad.

Hoover's new Acoma Plaza entrance and a second, less ostentatious new entrance at 13th Avenue are aimed at visitor convenience, and they do bring the DAM half a block closer to the parking lots south of 13th Avenue that are jointly owned by the museum and the library. The famous stainless-steel tunnel entrance on the Civic Center is being retained--thankfully--but is currently locked. That forces everyone to use the new entrances and, perhaps, in the process, to discover an often-overlooked aspect of the museum: that the DAM is not just the iconic 1971 gray-glass-clad tower by Gio Ponti and James Sudler, but also includes a small adjacent 1950s building (originally the work of Burnham Hoyt) that connects to the tower at ground level. The new main entrance funnels visitors through this small building, which used to be known as the Bach Wing.

In addition to the new entrances, the 1950s building has been thoroughly redone both inside and out by AR7's Ranko Ruzic and rechristened the Rex and Caroline Morgan Wing. Large display windows have been cut into the structure, surmounted by handsome metal canopies, and they're a welcome addition. The building now embraces Acoma Plaza; before the remodeling, it turned its back on it.

Visitors are confronted with the thoroughly reconfigured interior as they pass through Hoover's new main entrance. First up is the new Schlessman Hall, which is used for special events. The room is decorated with a series of tapestries by Alexander Calder and the magnificent 1960s striped painting by Gene Davis that for decades hung in the museum's old restaurant. To the left is the new restaurant, along with the new gift shop. To the right is Ponti and Sudler's tower, with each of its seven floors devoted to galleries.

The lobby that leads, by way of a ramp, to the first floor of the tower seems forlorn and empty--those Barcelona chairs are sorely missed. Beyond the lobby, where the old restaurant used to be, is the brand-new Frederick C. and Jane M. Hamilton Exhibition Gallery. This gallery, which is cut up into several rooms, is currently given over to an important traveling show, Old Masters Brought to Light: European Paintings From the National Museum of Art of Romania. The pieces in the show, including works by Rembrandt and El Greco, are fragile, which is why the tunnel entrance has been locked. Conservators felt that the opening and closing of the doors would create atmospheric problems, since constant temperature and humidity must be maintained in the gallery.

Beyond the lobby are the Stanton galleries, including the Close Range Gallery. Though these spaces were finished two years ago, they're officially considered part of the grand reopening. In the main spaces is a show on loan from Vienna, The Austrian Vision: Positions of Contemporary Art, while in the Close Range, Austrian turned Coloradan Herbert Bayer is the subject. The Romanian show, the Austrian show and the Bayer show were all planned as special features related to the reopening festivities, and there's something for everyone among the three. But the star attraction these days is supposed to be the museum itself, and the results range from breathtaking to borderline irritating.

Visitors are encouraged to see the rest of the museum from the top floor down, which means starting on the seventh floor in the Betsy Magness Galleries. The seventh floor, which had been closed for some time, highlights the art of the American West, and as reinstalled by interim curator of American art Ann Daley, it's a triumph. The intoxication begins the moment one steps off the elevator. The intimate lobby has been filled with gorgeous small bronzes of animals from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Around the top of the walls are crumbling plywood panels from a sublime Frank Mechau study of running horses that the late Colorado master painted in the 1930s. Daley's tasteful layout brings the viewer from the days of the wild frontier up to the 1990s, recalling in that respect the DAM's portion of last year's Real West extravaganza.

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