Coming and Going

There's good news and bad news these days at the Denver Art Museum. We'll start with the good: After years of being on the road or in storage, the DAM's own stash of modern and contemporary art is back on display with the opening of Welcome Back! Selections From the Permanent Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art.

This is no ordinary occasion for an institution whose sizable collection has long gathered dust because of the lack of galleries in which to display it. "I've only had gallery space for five of the twenty years I've been here," notes exhibit organizer Dianne Vanderlip, head curator of the Modern and Contemporary collection. But there's space now, and thanks to Vanderlip, it's chock-full of material that's either new or hasn't seen the track-light of day in more than a decade.

Now for the bad news: Adjunct curator Nancy Tieken has resigned from the DAM and is set to leave town--perhaps permanently--this summer. Though Tieken has kept a low profile appropriate to her self-effacing personality during the few years she's been in town, she's had a major impact--not just on the museum, but on the city at large. Using the sizable fortune of her NBT Foundation, inherited from her grandfather, George Babson, an early partner of Thomas Edison's, Tieken has been one of the city's premier art connoisseurs. In 1996, for instance, she donated Mark DiSuvero's "Lao Tzu" to the DAM, in the process providing the city with its single finest piece of public sculpture. She's also given the DAM a number of other large sculptures and installations, many of which are featured front and center in Welcome Back!

Tieken first came to Denver in 1991 for health reasons, taking a leave from her job as education curator at New England's Currier Gallery of Art. After spending her first three months here in a hospital bed, she was finally released but had to spend an additional three months recuperating under a doctor's supervision, which left her bored out of her mind. To relieve the tedium, Tieken began to volunteer at the DAM.

"At first it was in the publications department, and later in education," she recalls. "I don't know how she did it, but Dianne [Vanderlip] discovered me and offered me a job. They came up with the title 'adjunct curator of modern and contemporary art,' which provides great amusement for my mother. 'You're the only adjunct curator of modern and contemporary art that I know,' she tells me," Tieken says with a laugh. "I'm the only one I know, too."

An art historian for her entire career, Tieken traces her interest in the field to her childhood in Chicago. Her mother was what Tieken describes as a "lay archaeologist," traveling to sites in the Middle East to assist with digs being conducted by the University of Chicago. Tieken often accompanied her mother to these exotic locales, and when she received her BFA in art history at Radcliffe College in 1963, her specialty was the art of the ancient Near East.

Tieken later became interested in more recent art, and in the 1970s she began a long relationship with Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, a small museum without a permanent collection. She remains a member of that museum's board of trustees.

Tieken says she has no firm plans for the future beyond a six-week vacation in La Jolla, California. "I need to regroup and decide where to put my energy," she says. But as a parting gift, she has purchased for the City of Denver--as opposed to the DAM--Donald Lipski's "Yearling," a monumental sculpture of a chair with a horse on it. It will be placed on the lawn of the Denver Public Library, near the children's wing.

It's not inconceivable that Tieken could enter the realm of public sculpture with both feet in the future. By placing large and important sculptures by significant contemporary artists in our parks and along our parkways, she could make a singular contribution to Denver's cultural life--which could really use such a boost. With luck, her departure from the museum will mark the beginning, not the end, of her Denver chapter.

Welcome Back! begins appropriately enough with a piece that reflects Tieken's curatorial skills rather than her role as a donor: one of the cache of Robert Motherwell paintings she helped the DAM acquire in 1994. (Tieken was part of the team that selected the Motherwell paintings, along with Vanderlip and DAM director Lewis Sharp.) Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic (With Blood), #172," an acrylic on canvas from 1989-1990, is the last in a series that occupied the artist for nearly forty years. Because of the space limitations under which the department operates, it's the only Motherwell included in the show. But it's all that's necessary to underscore the wisdom of the '94 acquisition.

In a small gallery to the left of the Motherwell is the first of Tieken's gifts included in Welcome Back!, an untitled installation from 1968-1969 by pioneer light-sculptor Robert Irwin that's never before been exhibited in Denver. The Irwin piece is a back-lit acrylic disc mounted on the wall and painted with a horizontal stripe in acrylic lacquer. Irwin's intention is to alter our visual perspective, and in that he's successful. The disc creates an otherworldly atmosphere that will make viewers wonder if they're looking at a work of art or standing in it.

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