The Forney Transportation Museum has always been its own metaphor: The building itself, with its veneer of dilapidation, is the perfect dwelling for the museum's ancient collection. A jaw-dropping melange of things on wheels--including 170 automobiles of various vintages, 36 bicycles, four steam locomotives, four aircraft and innumerable other oddities--is jammed willy-nilly into the cavernous digs of the former Denver Tramway Company powerhouse, a towering red-brick structure with thirty-foot ceilings that's been a familiar sight overlooking the confluence of the Platte River and Cherry Creek since 1901.
That's all about to change, one way or another. Jack Forney, son of late museum founder J.D. Forney, is selling the structure (which has been home to the museum since 1968) to the sporting-goods mogul REI, which plans to open an outdoor-adventure superstore there. The deed changes hands October 1; Forney then has sixty days to move most of the museum collection from the grounds.
But the collection's destination is suddenly up in the air. The fire department has iden-tified problems at its new location, an empty warehouse on Brighton Boulevard: The parcel of land on which the building is situated isn't large enough now to accommodate turnaround space for emergency vehicles, and negotiations with surrounding landowners, including Pepsi, have been difficult. Jack Forney's contract on the space has been canceled--temporarily, he hopes--while the bureaucratic obstacles are ironed out. "The fire department inspected it twice a year for twenty years," he says. "Then as soon as we come in, they want changes, and the area they want access to is all owned by other people."
Still, the show must go on. In that spirit, some recalcitrant fans of the old Forney have teamed up with museum movers and shakers to throw a farewell bash this Friday that's also an art opening. The art is fittingly based on transportation motifs: Cynthia Boteler's photographs are of abstract images taken in the museum, while Stephen Batura's huge canvases, based on old snapshots he found in Denver Public Library archives, depict five catastrophic train wrecks.
Batura usually exhibits at the Pirate gallery, where he's a member, but because of the subject matter and size of his train-wreck works, as well as his longtime fascination with the Forney, he decided to switch tracks for this exhibit. He first saw the Forney on a school field trip when he was seven or eight years old. "It scared the hell out of me," he says, recalling an image of a horse-drawn hearse driven by wax figures. "That stuck with me a long time. Plus, so many artists love the place. It's creepy."
That mystique fit perfectly with Batura's horrible images of strewn machinery and spilled shafts of wood and steel offset by tiny figures of workmen and curiosity-seekers. "I thought they were such amazing explosions of power; they looked like big dinosaurs in a way, with these big metal pieces all torn apart," Batura says. "As I was working on these paintings, I thought: 'I have to show them at the Forney.'"
Batura plans to suspend his canvases, which range in size from 6 x 8 feet to 8 x 12 feet, above the cars. Though monochromes are a signature of much of his work, this series is shot with color. "In the Forney, they'll look like stained-glass windows," he says. "The Forney's kind of gray."
When Batura first pitched the reception and party to Forney, the museum maven's mind was preoccupied by the logistics of a monumental move, and he wasn't interested. But he's since come around, owing partly to extra organizational help from new Forney publicist Steve Shoe. Batura couldn't be more pleased. "Now people have one last reason to go there one last time," he says.
Shoe--a sociable, retired and ready-made PR guy who also happens to be a train buff--represents the future for the Forney. In addition to working with the media, he's in charge of moving arrangements (including lining up an armada of tow-truck operators to hitch up the old autos) and working with experts from Union Pacific who will supervise the transport of several train cars and engines. That rail-bound inventory includes the mammoth Big Boy, one of the largest locomotives ever to roll down a track anywhere.
Shoe is enthusiastic about the new space, assuming it's where the Forney will actually end up. "We'll have room to spread them out, not just have a row of them," he says, gesturing at a vast roomful of vehicles informally crammed wherever they'll fit. In the new location, the museum's many train cars, now relegated to outside lots, would be kept indoors, and exhibits would be more cohesive. In spite of the problems, Jack Forney echoes Shoe's elan. "It'll be an altogether different-looking museum," he says. And he's hopeful things will work out.
For now, the party's on, regardless of a darkened future. "We were going to unveil a picture of the new building," Shoe says. Now he's not so sure. But he's not hanging his head over the Forney's newest predicament.
"We're going to go ahead and have our party," Shoe vows. "We are moving."
A Moving Reception at the Forney Transportation Museum, with paintings by Stephen Batura, photographs by Cynthia Boteler and music by the Clam Daddys, 4-9 p.m. September 11, 1416 Platte Street, 303-433-3643. Show continues through October 1.
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