Eye Candy, Western Style

Harmsen Western Art Collection, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce

Most Coloradans are more familiar with Jolly Rancher candies than they are with the Harmsen Western Art Collection, but the two are closely related. Jolly Rancher entrepreneurs Bill and Dorothy Harmsen came to Colorado from Minnesota in 1942 and built an ice-cream factory out on Ward Road that eventually began to manufacture the hard cinnamon candy that made them a fortune -- part of which they turned into a collection of more than 3,500 pieces of art, including paintings, sculptures, textiles and other treasures indigenous to or depicting the American West.

A labor of love, especially for Mrs. Harmsen, the collection includes works by the region's most significant artists, from 1830 to modern times. Although plans for a permanent home are being considered, the works have remained largely unavailable to the public until now. In an unusual link, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is providing space in its fourth-floor hallways, offices and boardrooms to a small but representative chunk of the collection. Beginning next month, tours of the exhibit will be available by reservation.

A staid business office seems an unlikely place for an art exhibit, but chamber spokeswoman Sue Hermann thinks it's a move that fits with these millennial times: "Since the chamber's moved with Denver from the 'Wild West' to the 'Wired West,' it's the perfect location." And she notes that staff members have turned into Western-art aficionados overnight, picking and choosing their favorites from among the 82 works displayed.

But the exhibit's impact may be indicative of more far-reaching outcomes -- chamber board chairman Doug Jones, a closet Western-art devotee himself ("I'm like a big kid in a candy store," he says, looking around the room), hopes the Harmsen Collection's new accessibility will heighten the business community's awareness of "the great cultural nucleus we have here in Colorado." To aid in that process, the chamber is discussing plans to form a joint arts council with the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts "to create some cross-pollination, to promote arts and culture from a business standpoint."

What might be considered the cream of the exhibition hangs in chamber president Joe Blake's office, beginning with a dark, fecund Thomas Moran. Glowing above Blake's desk is a Gerard Curtis Delano, "Friend or Foe," awash in an otherworldly golden-orange light that nearly upstages "The Sergeant," a bronze Remington bust lounging sedately below it. That upstaging may be appropriate, since in another corner hangs "Potlatch at Juneau," a small Charles M. Russell gouache notable simply because of Russell's sheer authenticity. Unlike Remington, whose closest attachment to the West consisted of a year spent looking for flavor in rural Kansas, Russell actually lived and worked in the region, infusing his work with a touch of rough-hewn humor.

All of the pieces are in keeping with the true spirit of a collection devoted to providing a historical sweep of the region it illustrates, something it's been doing heretofore in secret. "Here, these works can be used as decorations and pieces of art, rather than just being kept in storage," says curator Amy Van De Water. More importantly, she notes, the collection gives viewers a chance to see art that doesn't necessarily fall into our stereotypical view of what comprises "Western" art. "It shows the mountains, the people and the environment, not just the cowboys of Russell and Remington. Instead, it shows the West we live in."

 
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