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Last year, the Denver Art Museum hired John Pultz to be consulting curator of photography, a part-time position in the modern and contemporary department.
Pultz's day job is professor of art history at the University of Kansas, where he's also a curator at KU's Spencer Museum. Several years ago, he organized an exhibit of photos from the Spencer collection that traveled to the Arvada Center ("Frames of Reference," February 25, 1998). The show exemplified Pultz's notion that photography, even photography that pre-dates the modern era, is the quintessential modernist art form -- an approach that should help the DAM put photography in the spotlight.
Since it was founded in 1893 as the Denver Artists' Club, the museum has exhibited photographs from time to time, but painting was always its primary emphasis. Photography became more important in the 1930s, with exhibits such as a solo show by Edward Weston -- then a cutting-edge contemporary photographer. Photographs and paintings continued their easy co-existence at the DAM until 1944, when Otto Bach was appointed the museum's director, a post he held until his retirement thirty years later.
Jim Milmoe, a master of commercial photography who's been working around Denver since the 1950s, once told me about an argument he had decades ago with Bach, when the museum director declared that photography was not a fine art (a rather widely held view in the mid-twentieth century) and was therefore irrelevant to an art museum -- in particular, his art museum. Milmoe's story has been echoed by many others who were around at that time, most notably Hal Gould, the legendary photographer, photo activist and curator who runs the Camera Obscura Gallery, the city's oldest photo gallery. The Colorado Photographic Arts Center, a still-flourishing organization, was founded in the 1960s to promote exhibits of fine-art photography -- in part because the DAM would not.
When Bach retired, deputy director Lewis Story became acting director. The late Story was a gifted leader and very interested in contemporary art, including photography. Soon after taking over, he acquired the very first photos for the DAM's permanent collection, a suite of Ansel Adams photographs. Adams and Story hit it off so well that the unbelievable happened: Adams threw in a photo for free.
Another boost to photography came a few years later with the hiring of curator Dianne Vanderlip, who founded the official contemporary department that was a successor to an unofficial one led by painter Vance Kirkland. Photography has had a profound influence on contemporary art, and Vanderlip showed her interest in the medium early on: As her first acquisition, she purchased a photo-based work by Los Angeles conceptualist John Baldessari. Of course, such work is distinct from photography per se -- no one would call an Andy Warhol soup-can painting a photo, yet photography was essential to its creation -- but the division between the two can get murky. As a result, both photography and photo-based art wound up in Vanderlip's contemporary department.
Photography became a bona fide division of the department with the 1986 opening of the Shwayder Gallery, which was exclusively devoted to it. The gallery was endowed by millionaire benefactors Ted and Joyce Strauss, and named in honor of Joyce's family. Ted Strauss also served as an adjunct curator at the DAM -- meaning he not only paid the Shwayder's expenses, he also donated his expertise as a curator. By the time Strauss came in, Story and Vanderlip had already acquired hundreds of photos for the museum's collection, and Strauss secured hundreds more, mostly as gifts. His taste, like Vanderlip's, tended toward the cutting edge; as a result, the collection has some depth in contemporary photography from the 1970s and '80s. Strauss retired in 1992.
At the same time that Strauss and Vanderlip were acquiring contemporary photos, new director Lewis Sharp made a bold move, and in 1990 purchased from Daniel Wolf, for $1.5 million, his assemblage of over a thousand late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century photos of the American West. Overnight, the DAM had a full-blown collection -- but it was very uneven, with a fabulous assortment of early photos and a marvelous group of recent ones, but very little in between.
In 1995, Jane Fudge, an assistant curator in what was now known as the modern-and-contemporary department, became the museum's photo specialist. It was Fudge's job to fill the collection's huge gap with work dating from the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, a watershed in the history of photography and the period when modernism was established and developed. Modernist photographs are very expensive; the ideal time to have purchased them was back when Bach was refusing to do so. Fudge did an admirable job of soliciting gifts, though, notably in the field of vanguard and experimental photography from the 1920s and '30s.
It was Fudge who oversaw the 1998 creation of the Laura and David Merage Gallery, which was originally located on the first floor in the Stanton rooms. Laura Merage is a noted contemporary photographer, and with her husband has endowed the Merage Gallery in much the same way the Strausses paid for the Shwayder. In addition to the Merage, which was devoted to modern and contemporary photography, Fudge also looked over a photo gallery on the seventh floor, which contained samplings from the Wolf collection.
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