Up, Up and Away

Cydney Payton's flying high, if by the seat of her pants, at Denver's MCA.

When Cydney Payton announced last summer that she was resigning as director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, groans of despair were heard all along the Front Range. Even worse was that she had no plans to continue working in the art world. This circumstance represented a genuine tragedy, because during her tenure at BMoCA, Payton proved that she was one of the most gifted, hardworking art professionals in the region. She took what had been the Boulder Arts Center, a favorite of the brown-rice-and-rope-sandals set, and recast it as an exciting place with a new name and a new direction. And in all of these instances, her plans unfolded flawlessly.

The marvelous shows she presented clearly demonstrated her intrepid leadership and a penetrating grasp of contemporary art. And in spite of severe budgetary limitations and a facility with many problems, the least of which was the absence of climate control, Payton was able to weave a credible art institution out of whole cloth, making the arduous trip to Boulder worth the trouble.

Then, last fall, a smoldering conflict between Mark Masuoka, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, and Sue Cannon, one of the institution's founders and the former president of its board of trustees, came to a head -- the two had publicly argued over MoCA/D programming -- resulting in Masuoka's resignation. Masuoka went on to form a partnership with Sandy Carson, resulting in the creation of the Carson-Masuoka Gallery. A troubling aspect of this business deal was the fact that Carson was on MoCA/D's board of trustees at the time.

Detail of 2000 Dragons, by Don Ed Hardy.
Detail of 2000 Dragons, by Don Ed Hardy.

Details

303-298-7554

Through September 2

Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, 1275 19th Street

Despite the conflict, there's no denying -- even if some now attempt to do so -- that Masuoka brought MoCA/D a long way in a short time. His greatest accomplishment was the physical reorganization of the museum, a two-story commercial space in Sakura Square that had once been a fish market and still looked like one when he took over. Another of his successes was the Colorado Biennial, a show that, while it didn't genuinely reflect the state's art scene, was intelligent in its own way; more than that, it was courageous. The show would be Masuoka's swan song at MoCA/D, however, as he left just after it opened.

So last winter, as the MoCA/D job opened up, Payton was mostly occupied by reading and puttering around the house -- surely, it was a situation made in heaven. The whole thing seemed inevitable, so no one was surprised when Payton was selected to take over the helm at MoCA/D. True to form, she started working even before she began drawing a salary. But, then again, she had to.

There was something unusual about MoCA/D at the time. No, it wasn't the awkward acronym, MoCA/D; Payton simply changed that to MCA. It was the museum's program, or lack thereof. At the time Payton came on board, there was nothing in the wings ready to go when Colorado Biennial closed. Typically, exhibition schedules are firmly laid out for a minimum of a year in advance, and in some venues, more than a year. It was absolutely unprecedented not to have an upcoming show fully planned and organized way before the show preceding it had opened.

"The former administration's programming ended with Biennial," Payton says. "There were show ideas in the works, but nothing was firm. And as far as I know, there were only limited plans for any future programming at the museum. My first thought was to extend Biennial, but it turned out that a number of the artists in the show had made prior commitments and their pieces had to go elsewhere."

Why no schedule was in place remains a mystery. If I didn't know better, I'd think Masuoka was trying to close the place down.

Payton was forced to throw together a schedule virtually overnight. The need was made even more urgent because the MCA had been booked for a wedding right after Biennial closed, and empty galleries simply wouldn't do. Payton's creative solution was to have freelance curator Sean Hughes organize an instant show of the students, past and present, of painter Clark Richert. The result was beautiful, and the wedding went off without a hitch. After that came an oddball show of contemporary art organized by a New Yorker with Denver connections, Devon Dikeou. Then a traveling architecture show paired with a solo devoted to Jackie Greber's light sculptures was presented.

Now, filling most of the Main Gallery on the first floor, there's 2000 Dragons: Don Ed Hardy, a traveling exhibit made up of a single mammoth piece. And upstairs in the Mezzanine Gallery is The Sensational Line, a group show surveying recent drawings by nationally and internationally known contemporary artists working on paper. Also, in the former cafe, Denver artist Barbara Groh combines performance art with drawing by continuing to work on her mammoth pencil-on-paper piece after it was installed.

The 2000 Dragons exhibit, which Payton organized herself, really must be seen to be believed. It consists of a scroll that measures four feet by five hundred feet, and it has 2,000 dragons painted on it, among a raft of other images. Hardy painted the scroll using a roll-through easel; he began on January 1, 2000, and he completed it, working in fits and spurts, on July 28 of the same year. But the piece was conceived some 24 years earlier, in 1976, a year of the dragon in the Asian Zodiac. Hardy decided to create a millennium piece based on the theme of 2,000 dragons because the year 2000 was another year of the dragon.

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