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.

As the viewer proceeds through the floor, galleries broadly sketch out the history of Western art. The first two are filled with traditional nineteenth-century work of the Frederick Remington/ Albert Bierstadt stripe. Though they haven't been on view for some time, many of these paintings and sculptures are justly well-remembered, and it's good to see them again in the track light of day. Other galleries are devoted to cowboy and Indian portraits that range widely in style, to regional works by Taos and Santa Fe artists, and to prints, drawings and watercolors from the 1930s and '40s (surprisingly, the famous prints from the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center School are mostly absent, though there is one by Ethel Magafan). Yet another gallery is filled with nineteenth-century photographs of Colorado taken by Denver's own William Henry Jackson. Off this room is a small gallery displaying the American Indian portraits of Charles Bird King. Finally, two galleries are devoted to contemporary Western art, including the work of well-known Colorado artists such as Tracy Felix, Chuck Forsman and Daniel Sprick.

The trip through the Magness galleries leads visitors in a loop back to the elevator lobby, from which they can descend to the wholly new sixth floor, now called the Davis W. Moore Galleries. Of all the changes at the DAM, none has been as eagerly awaited as the sixth floor's reopening. That's because the art on this floor is the kind of thing that generates the most interest from museum-goers--traditional art from Europe and the United States. It's been so long since European art, in particular, has been on view at the DAM that rumors persisted that the museum would never again display its limited holdings.

Those rumors are put to rest by the redone sixth floor, but to give the paranoid their due, forty European paintings--including a large, surrealist still life by Picasso--have been carted off to New York to be sold at Christie's auction house. The hoped-for revenue from this sale is projected to be about $2 million, but don't be surprised if the Picasso brings that much all by itself.

The sixth floor includes a series of smallish galleries and a tiny reading room, all of which have been designed by Washington, D.C., architect George Sexton. The galleries have been installed under the direction of DAM European art curator Timothy Standring, who worked in conjunction with Melora McDermott-Lewis of the museum's education department. It's McDermott-Lewis's impact that will cause the most consternation for connoisseurs: The galleries are now installed thematically, which removes paintings and sculptures from their context. And though it may be just what's needed to get the uninterested through the door, it's not very appealing to anyone who gives a hoot about art history.

Especially disappointing is the initial view of the new Moore galleries. As visitors enter from the elevator, they find themselves in a cold lobby, facing a confusing array of sculptures of women. Particularly unfortunate is the comparison between a nineteenth-century neo-baroque bronze by Frederick MacMonnies and a 1930s cubist sculpture by Alexander Archipenko. Whatever Standring and McDermott-Lewis had in mind with this pairing is lost--both the MacMonnies and the Archipenko suffer through their association with one another. The sculptures on the low platform face the same fate. Please, rethink this room--at least put something on the wall, for heaven's sake.

Luckily, the first sixth-floor gallery works much better than the lobby. Organized under the vague title "Renaissance Traditions"--which seems to mean everything from gothic to baroque--the room is dominated by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian paintings, including a Bellini and a Botticelli. The walls have been painted a deep red, which provides a perfect backdrop to the mostly dark pieces, and the paintings have been hung salon-style, in vertical rows of two or three. This breaks a long tradition in museum hanging, in which paintings are typically displayed by themselves. The salon style works well, though, with the small pieces displayed in Renaissance Traditions.

The three galleries that follow are each devoted to a particular genre: the first to portraits, the second to landscapes, the third to still-life paintings. These three rooms provide a dizzying look at art that spans hundreds of years and scores of art styles. But as is the case with the sculptures in the sixth-floor lobby, the three galleries provide more confusion than edification. It's especially disturbing to see the museum's Matisse where it is--too high up on the wall--and the DAM's only remaining Picasso, an early and important landscape, looking small, lost and insignificant. That other Picasso they're toting to Christie's would have fit right in--which makes one wonder why it's being sold.

In addition to painting and sculpture, the Moore galleries include spaces devoted to textiles and decorative art. Architecture, design and graphics curator Craig Miller was put in charge of the decorative art section, and he's imbued it with his solid grounding in art history--in stark contrast to the thematic hijinks seen elsewhere. Miller marches viewers from the Middle Ages to the turn of the last century with a group of vignettes arranged in chronological order. The walls of the gallery have been painted yellow with pink clouds, which sounds worse than it looks. The unorthodox color scheme actually works well with the mostly dark furniture Miller has included here.

The Moore galleries wind up with a lone exhibition, British Painting: The Berger Collection, which highlights a glorious cache kept right here in Denver. The exhibit, which has generated press attention back in England, includes more than seventy paintings collected by local financier William Berger in the form of portraits, landscapes and sporting pictures. Unfortunately, as seen elsewhere in the Moore galleries, these paintings suffer from having been arranged thematically.

The DAM's effort to recast itself--and thus generate more public support--is laudable. And the worthwhile new attractions should guarantee increased attendance. But was it wise for museum officials to play to the general public--as they've done on the sixth floor--and in the process risk offending their core constituency of art lovers? Stay tuned.

The remodeled Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

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