Inside Look

Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art rises above its administrative bungling with an excellent offering.

Wouldn't it be great if the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver became one of the great cultural assets of the region in the 21st century? Wouldn't it be great if the powers that be there could get their act together?

Although the museum's current attraction, Western Vernacular: Colorado Installations, is very good, don't think that the festering problems at the institution have been resolved -- they haven't. This show was organized by freelance curator Sean Hughes, who is not connected to MoCA/D.

MoCA/D started out a couple of years ago renting the mezzanine at 1999 Broadway. The space really felt like a museum because the building sports a lot of luxurious materials, which set an appropriately institutional mood. About a year ago, MoCA/D moved to the ground floor of Sakura Square, a 1970s complex that includes a high-rise tower, a retail block and a Buddhist temple. Sakura Square, which is at the edge of LoDo, is also a great spot for a new museum, especially with that lovely outdoor courtyard.

Detail of "Maximum Location," by Linda Herritt.
Detail of "Maximum Location," by Linda Herritt.
Detail of "Blue Funk in My American Home: Thoughts on Population Control," by John McEnroe.
Detail of "Blue Funk in My American Home: Thoughts on Population Control," by John McEnroe.

But the museum's current space was formerly a fish market, and sadly, little has been done to change that established character. Unsightly security bars -- carried out in an ersatz Oriental style -- were finally removed for this show. Until recently, these iron grates covered the inviting glass curtain walls (which could still use a good cleaning).

How could MoCA/D have allowed no less than three exhibits to be presented before it made this needed and inexpensive alteration? Again, it is Hughes, and not the MoCA/D staff, who deserves the credit for removing the bars, though acting director Mark Sink and some volunteers lent a hand. Other relatively minor but obvious changes should be made immediately: The automatic door to the main entrance is worn and shabby -- hardly the kind of first impression a museum wants to make; it is also broken and so heavy that you could dislocate your shoulder trying to open it, and the blare of the electronic tone that sounds when you do finally open the door is comparable to a screaming car alarm.

Not jangled yet? Then you're ready to confront the tawdry gift shop, a collection of secondhand showcases filled with a confusing array of objects of no particular interest or merit. Standing there in the lobby of the would-be prestigious MoCA/D, you feel like you are at some kind of going-out-of-business sale. (The idiotic gift shop -- unlike any I've seen at any museum anywhere -- should be off the entry, not in it!) A good gift shop -- well-stocked with desirable merchandise, including books -- could be a big moneymaker for the museum, if only it were properly managed.

These apparent problems are indicative of a less obvious one. The museum has no direction because it has never had, and does not now have, a real director. No, I'm not forgetting about Kenworth Moffett, who served briefly as a highly paid part-time director. Moffett was never really the museum's director, since he was never really in town: He didn't bother to move to Denver from Boston after he got the job.

A museum director not only needs to book good art shows that will bring in visitors, but should also wine and dine wealthy potential local donors. Life not being fair, it is Denver's rich, and not its artists, who will determine the fate of MoCA/D. With their support, it will float; without it, it will sink. The trouble with Moffett was that he didn't have time during his brief visits to even meet with people, let alone pick their pockets. And he wasn't much of a showman, either. His one exhibit, The New New Painting, was viewed by many visitors as a laughingstock.

It's impossible to overstate how bad a decision it was on the part of the MoCA/D board to hire Moffett; in fact, it's amazing that the institution survived his tenure. The board is now looking for a new director, at a much-reduced salary. If they screw up again, they may not be so lucky, and MoCA/D may tragically fail.

Keep your fingers crossed. In the meantime, take in the very smart Western Vernacular, which Hughes put together with a grant from US West.

Well-known on the local art scene, Hughes is an intelligent painter whose works have been exhibited at a variety of local galleries. He has organized shows for other artists at the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, where he served as assistant gallery director. He recently left Rule to accept a full-time position at the Denver Art Museum.

The idea for Western Vernacular was hatched about five months ago, during the Moffett era. Favorably placed at Rule, Hughes heard that MoCA/D was looking to present an installation show. He approached Moffett with a concept, which Moffett immediately accepted. "I got out about two sentences describing my intentions, and Ken said, 'Yeah, yeah, sure, sure,'" recalls Hughes. The exhibitions committee had the same reaction. "I'm thrilled they gave me the opportunity."

I guess the one advantage to Moffett's hands-off approach was that it allowed a virtuous curator like Hughes to have free rein.

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