Sprouting Up

Construction of the new DAM wing is about to begin.

The morning of April 9 was absolutely flawless here in Denver, with the temperature hovering in the mid-sixties under a stunningly clear blue Colorado-brand sky. On that perfect day, several hundred people had gathered in the former parking lot at 13th Avenue and Acoma Street to witness a celebration of the soon-to-be-built wing of the Denver Art Museum, which will rise on the spot where they were standing.

The reception, which was open to the public but not well publicized, wasn't really a groundbreaking -- not a single shovel of earth was tilled -- but it served the same purpose of ceremoniously indicating that the project has officially begun.

Lewis Sharp, the DAM's brilliant director, served as emcee for the festivities. And from my point of view, he desrves almost all the credit for the DAM expansion, which will nearly double the size of the museum. Sharp is extremely pragmatic, inordinately savvy, unbelievably charming and remarkably funny -- attributes he has drawn on throughout the process, pushing the project to unprecedented heights. This is why Denver is getting the kind of museum building the world is already starting to notice -- even though, as I said, they haven't turned that first shovel of earth yet!

Fly away: An artist's rendering of the new Frederic C. 
Hamilton Building, part of the Denver Art Museum 
Fly away: An artist's rendering of the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, part of the Denver Art Museum expansion.

From the very start, back in the late 1990s, when discussions that concerned over-crowding began at the current DAM, Sharp's intelligence was the guiding force. The problem with the present building was obvious: It was too small. Lots of the collection, way more than half, is put away in perpetual storage. And those blockbusters! When a big one's in town, the museum gets so crowded that it's hard to move anywhere on the first floor.

Some museum directors -- too many, as a matter of fact -- would have looked at the problem and decided that the answer was to scrap the existing facility and build anew. But Sharp would have none of that. The building, after all, is an iconic work by a giant of twentieth-century architecture -- the late Italian modernist Gio Ponti -- that is highly valued by many. The distinctive structure, clad in Pyrex glass tiles, is Ponti's only project in North America, so before plans were formalized for an expansion, Sharp decided to preserve the existing DAM building and to construct a freestanding addition that would minimize any negative effects it might have on the Ponti.

It was also Sharp who decided that the new building would be an important work by a significant architect. Because the expansion site is near the distinctive Ponti building and the compelling Michael Graves-designed Denver Public Library, the museum director ordered something special, and apparently that's what he got.

In retrospect, Sharp's move to save the Ponti building and go after a world-class design for the new addition may seem like such an obviously right choice that anyone would have come up with the same two-part solution. However, it's easy to forget that making the right choice around here is something that's rarely done. Remember Zeckendorf Plaza downtown, the I.M. Pei complex that was destroyed at public expense? Recall Bill Muchow's Currigan Hall on Speer Boulevard, likewise a memory thanks to taxpayer's money? What about those now happily scuttled plans to destroy the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center that were floating around last year? See, being as sharp as Sharp isn't as easy as it looks.

Sharp's enthusiastic performance at last week's ceremony, during which he laid the credit for the project in the laps of everyone except himself, is indicative of his successful interpersonal technique. He began by acknowledging, above all others, three-term Denver mayor Wellington Webb, even though Webb has been as much an obstacle as an ally. Of course, that didn't prevent Webb from unself-consciously taking bows.

The intrepid Sharp got the bond election on the ballot by guiding the process through the quagmire of the Webb administration, ultimately getting the mayor on board. Sharp profusely thanked Webb last week for his endorsement of the expansion, but when the DAM originally went to hizzonor and asked for $63.5 million for the expansion, Webb stingily rolled it back to $62.5 million for no real reason at all, except that he could. The withheld million was particularly galling in light of the money the City was throwing at the Colorado Convention Center and hotel, Invesco Field and the Pepsi Center -- nearly a billion, as it turns out.

The bond passed handily in the 1999 election -- and I think the voters would have even passed a bond for $100 million. It's too bad Webb didn't allow the DAM to go for more money than it did.

I thought of all this as Webb accepted Sharp's generously presented accolades. As he made his remarks, the mayor got to the point where he acknowledged that he was unworthy of Sharp's many compliments. Now that Webb was stepping down, I thought, as I stood listening, maybe he'd be a little statesmanlike and give Sharp his due. But he didn't. Webb said the person really responsible for the success of the DAM project was his wife, Wilma Webb. The first lady, whom the mayor described as being interested in art and culture, officially served on the DAM's architect selection committee and unofficially had pillow-talk time with the mayor.

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