Coming of Age

The Denver Art Museum has gotten good at attracting crowds. The blockbuster Toulouse-Lautrec, which just closed, brought in more than 100,000 visitors. And last year, the Berger Collection had similar success with a comparable attendance. Thousands of people also visit the various galleries scattered throughout the seven-story museum that feature special exhibitions, such as the current Art in the Age of Queen Victoria, on the seventh floor, or exhibits highlighting the DAM's permanent collection, like Contemporary British Artists, which recently closed in the Stanton Galleries.

All of this success has put strains on the famous 1971 museum, which is clad in gray glass tiles and was designed by Italian modernist pioneer Gio Ponti and Denver's own James Sudler--but the building resists expansion in several ways. The DAM fills the entirety of its unusually shaped, roughly triangular lot in Civic Center Park, save for the corner of West 13th Avenue and Bannock Street where the landmark Byers-Evans House sits as a satellite facility of the Colorado History Museum. With its international architectural significance, the DAM would be harmed by an attached addition--even if there was space at the site to build one.

The space limitations at the DAM were already being felt when museum director Lewis Sharp took the institution's helm in 1988. By the early '90s, a privately funded interim plan was carried out, allowing existing building space that had been converted to offices or storage areas to be reopened as public gallery space. (The offices and storage were moved off-site.)

In 1997, the former Bach Wing, a surviving fragment of the 1950s DAM building, was rehabbed and expanded to provide space for a new gift shop, restaurant and an additional entrance. The areas formerly occupied by the restaurant and the adjacent gift shop were turned into the Hamilton Gallery, which is dedicated specifically to hosting special exhibits. Like the earlier projects, this renovation was privately financed.

Having maximized the public space available in the existing museum, the DAM over a year ago began to explore the idea of constructing a free-standing addition across West 13th Avenue. To build it, a bond issue must be passed in an election this fall. The bond is supported by the Webb administration, according to the DAM's point person on the expansion, Vicki Aybar Sterling, but it's not official yet. It will be left to the Denver City Council to authorize the museum expansion bond; its decision will be made in August.

The DAM's first choice for an expansion site was the parking lot at Broadway and West 13th Avenue, a space felt to be an ideal place for the museum's new presence. But the lot is directly south of the Denver Public Library, and objections were quickly and loudly raised when that institution's board got wind of the idea a few months ago: The DPL doesn't want to be prevented from expanding onto that same site. It's easy to understand why the DAM was eyeing the Broadway property--it would give the museum a higher profile if it were visible from the busy thoroughfare, among other reasons. But the DAM wisely--and quickly--suggested a different site, knowing that it made no sense to rile up the DPL. The politically savvy Sharp knows that museum expansion is a moving train, and arguments about where to build cannot be allowed to derail it. The new proposed location, a non-controversial one, is the parking lot west of Acoma Street, directly south of the museum.

In developing its plans, the DAM has employed the Denver architectural firm of Klipp Colussy Jenks Dubois Architects. This isn't the first time the firm's worked on the Civic Center; its architects collaborated with Michael Graves on the 1995 post-modern addition to the DPL. But although Klipp Colussy Jenks Dubois has been charged with developing a conceptual plan for the new museum building, the firm hasn't been hired to design it. That job will fall to the winner of a competition to be held at a later date.

The DAM is no stranger to the idea of an architectural competition, since it was instrumental in the success of the contest staged for the design of the neighboring DPL. The likes of the world-famous Graves, as well as many distinguished also-rans, notably finalist Robert A. M. Stern, would not even have known about the job--much less applied for it--if DAM curator Craig Miller hadn't tipped them off. Miller, head of the museum's architecture, design and graphics department, spent days phoning up his contacts among the world's most famous architects and suggesting they enter.

Though the exact details of the new addition are not yet known, the DAM has developed some ideas about its general nature. It almost goes without saying that the museum's primary objective is to construct a building with a strong presence, one that will be a prime example of high-quality architecture. After all, it will need to stand up to the visually strong Ponti-Sudler building--as well as the nearly bombastic DPL.

If built, the new facility will provide space for special exhibits (read blockbusters), which are especially popular. Also on the list will be permanent galleries for the architecture, design and graphics department, currently in cramped space on the former mezzanine. The modern and contemporary department, now in the more spacious but still too-small Stanton Galleries, will also be designated space. Also on tap will be specific areas for both the African art collection and the Oceanic department, neither of which is currently on display at all. A secure and centralized storage facility is also part of the plan, as is more space for the DAM's educational programs.

The projected cost is set at nearly $65 million, with an additional $15 million for a new parking structure to accommodate 1,000 cars. Final numbers will be announced when the city council discusses the bond initiative next month. But as of now, it looks like expanded facilities may be imminently ahead for the DAM.

It's as though CU Galleries director Susan Krane was conspiring with the DAM when she recently gave it a helping hand in making its case for expansion. The current show, Post-War, Pre-Millennium: Selections From the Collection of the Denver Art Museum, is completely made up of pieces from the DAM's packed-to-the-rafters offsite storage rooms. Though some of the pieces will be familiar, most have not been exhibited in public for many years.

The CU Galleries, located in the time-worn Sibell-Wolle Fine Arts Building, is entertaining its own expansion with the construction of a university museum (now a part of campus plans).

Despite appearances, Krane did not organize Post-War, Pre-Millennium in collusion with the DAM's political goals. Rather, she's been thinking about such an exhibit since taking over the CU Galleries in 1996, when she began to study slides of the DAM's permanent collection of contemporary art with the idea of presenting a series of exhibits in Boulder. Post-War, Pre-Millennium is the first of these exhibits.

Before coming to Colorado, Krane worked as a curator in the large contemporary department at the High Museum in Atlanta. She has also done stints with the Albright-Knox in Buffalo and the Walker Fine Arts Center in Minneapolis. Over the years, she has become familiar with the DAM's curator of modern and contemporary art, Dianne Vanderlip, whom Krane saw at art events around the country.

"I had known Dianne for years before I came here. I had an instinctual attraction to her. Our thinking was often parallel," recalls Krane. "I thought she made interesting purchases and took risks in building the collection. But in talking to people around here, I realized that Dianne's accomplishments are underappreciated locally--yet nationally she's very respected. Many people don't realize how well-known Dianne is outside of Colorado: She's made a reputation and helped the museum define itself as a stellar collecting institution." Krane points out that most museums in cities the size of Denver don't actively collect the way the DAM does and instead focus on educational programs.

The show "underscores how the [DAM's] collection is a valuable resource for the community," says Krane, who uses it for her own purposes, choosing fewer than two dozen pieces from the thousands available. In this way she's able to put her own spin on the DAM's contemporary holdings.

Those who are hoping to find an exploration of modern art history since 1945, exemplified by artifacts from the DAM--as clearly suggested by the show's title--will be sadly disappointed. So will those who expect to see a show highlighting the DAM's masterpieces. Instead, Krane has mostly made selections from the very recent past, with only a few of the included pieces over fifteen years old. She has chosen to eschew mainstream modernism, surely the biggest story of the last century, and filled the show with post-modernism. (Perhaps she should have called it Post-Modern, Pre-Millennium.) Even those few older modernist pieces that Krane has included have a mannered, second-generation character about them. But they're still the stand-outs in this show.

While studying the DAM collection, Krane began to identify currents that ran through it. Post-War, Pre-Millennium focuses on a handful of these.

In the first and smallest of the series of rooms that make up the modest CU Galleries is a section called "Techno Visionaries." In this part of the show is Nam June Paik's "Electronic Fish" of 1986, a popular sculpture of an old television cabinet fitted out with video, audio and mixed media. Korean-born Paik's sculpture looks like a space-age aquarium.

Also in "Techno Visionaries" is "Recognition," a 1990 piece by William Jude Rumley. The piece features a found chair on a platform surrounded by red lights and facing a pair of black speakers. The lights and sounds, including applause and grandiose introductions, are only activated when someone is sitting in the chair. Rumley, who works for the CU Galleries, is one of only three local artists selected by Krane for the show (the other two are deceased).

Continuing into the center space, which has been divided into two discrete rooms, Krane presents "Toward Transcendence," where abstract paintings--or at least abstract ideas--are explored. In this section are some of the biggest names. But even here, Krane preferred to fill the show with recognized artists, as opposed to famous ones.

One of the best-known names in the show is Larry Poons, whose loosely patterned "Reuben," a 1965 acrylic on canvas, is one of the finest things in Post-War, Pre-Millennium. Poons was commenting on formalism, the dominant abstract painting theory of the mid-century, when he laid a spare arrangement of ovals and other circular forms on top of a vibrant pink color field.

Next to the Poons is another old-fashioned modern painting, Vance Kirkland's "Explosions of Energy Near the Sun Fifty Billion Years B.C.," an oil-on-linen from 1978. It's interesting to see how well the deceased Denver artist's effort looks next to the blue chip Poons.

The last part of the show is given over to an exploration titled "The Personal Is Political," and in many ways this is the weakest of the three sections. But among the standouts is the monumental 1969 fiberglass sculpture "Barfly," by legendary Texas sculptor Luis Jiminez. "Barfly" is a cruel yet humorous depiction of a woman on a bar stool.

It's also a treat to see Rachel Lachowicz's "One Month Late," a lipstick, wax and mixed media installation from 1992 on the subject of pregnancy and abortion. Lachowicz's piece fills a corner with ceiling hung neckties hovering over a pair of high heels.

Also here is a piece by H. Edgar Heap Of Birds. The 1987 pastel "What Makes a Man Self, He No Wah Maun Stun He Dun," is a grid of twelve pieces of paper on which the artist has written words, some in recognizable phrases. This set of pastels by Heap Of Birds is related to "Wheel," a planned sculpture that will be placed on the lawn on the West 14th Avenue Parkway near the entrance to the DAM. "Wheel" will include text narrating the history and future of the Native American population. The text, which will unfortunately be placed directly on the walls of the museum, will be tied to a ceremonial circle accented by simple red porcelain sculptures.

Near the end of the show is the work of the third and last Colorado artist in Post-War, Pre-Millennium, the late Wes Kennedy. "Preamble" of 1990 is a composite photo of Kennedy himself wrapped in a space-age shroud. The ostensible topic is the Challenger space craft disaster, but his real subject, as usual, was his impending death from AIDS, which was only a few years off. Kennedy died in 1993.

Krane has surely made some odd-ball choices for this exhibit, but the show nonetheless provides a great opportunity for us to see some of the many things the DAM doesn't have room to exhibit on its own premises. Well, for the time being, anyway.

Post-War, Pre-Millennium: Selections from the Collection of the Denver Art Museum, through August 21, at the CU Art Galleries in the Sibell-Wolle Fine Arts Building, on the Boulder campus, 303-492-8300.

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