Thanksgiving Feast

Two impressive shows highlight a cornucopia of historic regional paintings.

Last summer, the Denver Art Museum surprised everyone by announcing that it had received the Harmsen Collection of Western and American Indian Art as a gift. The locally famous collection, put together by Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, is made up of thousands of pieces ranging from important paintings and sculptures to historically significant saddles and tack. There's even a stagecoach among the treasures.

The Harmsens built their collection in the 1950s, '60s and '70s by traveling around the West in a specially outfitted private bus with a kitchen and sleeping berths. They amassed the fortune necessary to carry out such a lavish and leisurely lifestyle by having founded and subsequently sold their Jolly Rancher Candy Company. (The Hershey Corporation, which now owns Jolly Rancher, revealed last month that it is closing the factory the Harmsens built in Wheat Ridge and that the classic Colorado candy will now be made in Pennsylvania.)

Shortly after the announcement of the Harmsen gift, the DAM surprised us again by creating the Western American Art Institute, surely inspired by the new additions. Interestingly, the nascent entity, which is headed by Joan Carpenter Troccoli, won't be limited to the Harmsen Collection, nor will it be restricted to what we think of as typically Western art, such as Remingtons and Russells. However, it will also include modern and contemporary Western art.

"Pueblo Series, Acoma," by Raymond Jonson, oil on canvas.
"Pueblo Series, Acoma," by Raymond Jonson, oil on canvas.
"Untitled, Mining Town," by Charles Bunnell, oil on canvas.
"Untitled, Mining Town," by Charles Bunnell, oil on canvas.

Details

Through April 22, 720-865-5000

Colorado Landscapes and the New Age of Discovery
Through January 6
Loveland Museum and Gallery, 503 North Lincoln Avenue, Loveland
1-970-962-2410

Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

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DAM director Lewis Sharp lays out the broad parameters of the institute by simply reeling off the relevant pieces that have been included. "There's 'Long Jakes,' by Charles Deas," Sharp says. "It's his finest painting. And there's not a better nineteenth-century bronze than our Remington ['The Cheyenne']. And our Russell ['In the Enemy's Country'] is considered one of his very best." In his next breath, Sharp connects these signature Western pieces with modern and contemporary art. "The museum's depth in Vance Kirkland, the James Turrell ['Trace Elements'] and the Bruce Nauman ['Setting a Good Corner'] -- even Andy Warhol's portrait of Russell Means is part of it," he says. "Now, with the Harmsen gift, which really represents a depth and breadth in Western art that we've never had before, it's very exciting."

If all of this weren't astonishing enough, there was yet a third surprise when the DAM announced that a Western gallery will be named for the Harmsens and given a prominent place on the second floor of the new Daniel Libeskind-designed wing, scheduled for completion in 2004. The Harmsen Western gallery will be positioned so that visitors will have to go through it to get to the rest of the museum. And across the planned sky bridge, in the existing Gio Ponti-designed building, American Indian art will be put on display, some of which will come from the Harmsens, too.

There are any number of reasons that this Western roundup is so unexpected, the biggest being that as recently as last year, the Harmsen Collection was slated for its own custom-built museum in Denver West, a multi-use development consisting of retail and office space, which, despite its name, is in Lakewood. That project began to stall, however, so the Harmsen Foundation, the legal caretakers of the collection, started to shop around for a museum that would be interested in taking it. They contacted museums in Arizona and California, but lucky for us, they chose the DAM. Word is the Harmsens themselves were interested in seeing the collection stay in Denver.

The Harmsens had actually first approached the DAM twenty years ago, but at that time, they placed restrictions on the gift, such as having a specially assigned curator to oversee it, conditions that the DAM could not accept. Now there are no restrictions on the gift, and the path has thus been cleared for the DAM to take it.

I'm glad the Denver West plan fell through. In that scheme, the Harmsen Museum would have been part of a shopping mall, and imagine how that would have been: SoundTrack, Old Navy, Macaroni Grill and...oh, yes...the Harmsen Museum. The hallowed halls of the DAM are a much better fit.

No discussion of Western art at the DAM would be complete, however, without noting how behind the curve the museum has been in the field. The quality is there -- as Sharp pointed out by listing some important pieces -- but until now, the quantity has been lacking. The reason is that during the 1950s and '60s, when a lot of important Western art was changing hands for peanuts -- for example, the things that the Harmsens were picking up -- the DAM's then-director Otto Bach turned up his nose at it, as did most others. Bach, who ran the DAM for three decades, truly hated Western art. He not only forbade curators to purchase it, but, unbelievably, even turned down important gifts.

Then, about twenty years ago, a decade after Bach had left, the DAM finally got interested in Western art. Unfortunately, so did everyone else, and prices began to skyrocket. This meant the museum could buy only a few things each year. So just as the Harmsen Foundation needed to find a museum like the DAM to house its collection, the DAM needed to acquire something like the Harmsen Collection to give it a respectable presence in the world of Western art. The museum's assortment of Western art is now four times the size it was back then.

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