Hidden Treasure

The Kirkland Museum quietly opens to the public.

It was just last month, for the first time since it was founded in 1996, that the Vance Kirkland Museum formally opened its doors to the public. True, the hours are quite limited (Wednesday through Friday, from 1 to 5 p.m.), but it's still a big improvement over the previous situation. Before, entry to the museum was attained either through privilege or inconvenience -- visitors needed an invitation or, failing that, an appointment -- effectively limiting the number of people who tromped through the door.

But word of mouth would prove to be this arrangement's undoing, since enough people saw what was inside to get the word out about how fabulous the Kirkland is. More and more people began calling to get appointments, to the point of distracting the staff from its duties. So the decision to establish regular hours was really a response to popular demand. However, the change from private to public, which at first might seem like a minor one, most definitely was not.

Director Hugh Grant liked the idea of opening the place, but he had to overcome two main sticking points. First, there was the issue of security: Many of the things displayed at the Kirkland are both small and valuable, which encourages pilferage. Second, the elevator, originally a freight operation, was not ADA-approved, which meant that the lower level would need to be closed off if the museum were opened to the public. To make matters worse, both of these problems were very expensive to fix.

The small exhibition room, which features furniture by 
Frank Lloyd Wright, at the Vance Kirkland Museum.
The small exhibition room, which features furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright, at the Vance Kirkland Museum.

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1311 Pearl Street, 303-832-8576

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To solve the security matter, Grant came up with a two-pronged approach. He installed locked showcases and hired off-duty Denver cops to serve as museum guards. And despite the cost, he replaced the elevator with a federally approved one. Grant went to all this trouble simply to edify us, since he had nothing to gain by changing anything; after all, he was one person who never had any trouble getting in the door under the old system.

Though the Kirkland is less than ten years old, the building in which it's housed is steeped in Denver's art history. The distinctive arts-and-crafts-style structure at 1311 Pearl Street was originally conceived as an artist's studio when Denver painter Henry Read commissioned architect Maurice Biscoe to design it in 1910. The studio is constructed of dark-red brick, much of which is custom formed, specially finished and laid in fancy patterns. The roof is a barrel vault covered in red terra cotta tiles and punctuated by original skylights -- an important feature, as there was no electricity. Also expressing the bare-bones quality of Read's studio is the marble outhouse in the courtyard (the studio didn't have running water, either).

The museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and even more narrowly identified as one of a group of Historic Artist Homes and Studios, along with those of Jackson Pollock, Augustus St. Gaudens, Russel Wright and many others.

Read, as could be surmised by the fact that he built the studio in the first place, was a prominent and successful turn-of-the-century artist and a founding member of the Artists' Club, which started up the Denver Art Museum in 1893. He also established and ran the Students' School of Art, which debuted in rented space downtown but relocated to the studio on Pearl Street when that building was finished. The art school remained there for the next twenty years until Read, elderly and in declining health, closed it in 1931. The following year, Vance Kirkland rented Read's studio and opened the Kirkland School of Art.

Kirkland had come to Denver only a few years before to work as the director of the University of Denver's Chappell School of Art, where he met Read. But Kirkland had a falling out with DU, quit in a huff, and opened his own art school in Read's old studio on Pearl Street.

Read died in 1935, and Kirkland subsequently purchased the studio building he'd been renting. In 1946, Kirkland returned to DU to head up the art department, and he closed the art school, making the entire building his personal painting studio, which he used until just a few days before his death on May 5, 1981.

Working in the studio for nearly fifty years, Kirkland created a remarkable oeuvre; he was clearly the most significant mid-century modern artist in Denver. While he worked in literally dozens of styles over the years, there are four that stand out, and he did sizable bodies of work in each. In the '30s he was a realist, in the '40s a surrealist, and in the '50s an abstract expressionist employing a novel water-and-oil technique. But beginning in the '60s and continuing until he died, he created his most original work: the dot paintings.

When Kirkland died, he left many of his paintings -- several hundred, as it happens -- to the DAM, where he had served for years as a volunteer curator of contemporary art. He left many more works, along with the studio building, its contents and other property, to Grant. Eventually, the DAM sold many of its Kirklands (though the museum held on to a representative assortment), and luckily, Grant was in a position to purchase them en masse. He added them to those he already had, forming the core collection of the Kirkland Museum.

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