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Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art breaks ground on its new building.

On the morning of Monday, May 1, throngs of Mexican-Americans, most of them young, marched through downtown Denver -- and cities across the country -- in support of the rights of undocumented immigrants. The story of these Mexican exiles is well known, with many of them toiling in the unforgiving Colorado sun all day long, working in the construction trades or in landscape maintenance.

I mention this event because it set up an unintentional irony related to another gathering held later that same day: the groundbreaking for the Museum of Contemporary Art's new building, to be constructed at the corner of 15th and Delgany streets. In that case, the mostly white and mostly over-fifty crowd was not forced to labor in the broiling sun but to sit in it, and during the series of short presentations by various dignitaries, many people in the audience visibly wilted.

The story begins a decade ago, when the MCA, then known as MoCA/D, debuted in luxuriously appointed rented space at 1999 Broadway. From the start, the institution founded by Sue Cannon was ambitious. That first show, a look at works in local private collections, included pieces by major international art stars and by some of the top artists working in the area.

Nighttime view of David Adjaye's soon-to-be-built 
Museum of Contemporary Art.
Nighttime view of David Adjaye's soon-to-be-built Museum of Contemporary Art.

After a few shows on Broadway, the MCA moved to its present location, a two-story former fish market in Sakura Square, at the corner of 19th and Larimer streets. In January 2001, Cydney Payton came on as executive director and immediately started scouting around for a building to purchase, a dream ever since the museum was housed on Broadway. But by that time, bargain buildings downtown were a lot harder to find, so she, along with members of the board of trustees, came up with the idea of constructing a brand-new, ground-up building. In 2004, a competition with lots of public input was held. Six cutting-edge architects and firms vied for the job, and a selection committee that even included students from the P.S.1 charter school ultimately chose African-born, London-based architect David Adjaye, a definite up-and-comer in the world of international architecture.

Karl Kister, chairman of the MCA's board, served as master of ceremonies at the groundbreaking, introducing the dignitaries in attendance, including several politicians who spoke to the crowd. First up were Diana DeGette, congresswoman from Colorado's First Congressional District, which is essentially the City of Denver, and Mark Udall, from the Second Congressional District, which includes Boulder. The two shared the podium, and DeGette spoke about her love of contemporary art and the importance of art education in the public schools, while Udall zeroed in on the fact that the building was going to be energy-efficient and would, when completed, qualify for LEED certification, which stands for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design." This will make it a national model for a cultural facility. (It was Kister who had insisted that the new building be an example of sustainable design.) Neither DeGette nor Udall, however, made any promises of helping to come up with substantial federal financial support for the MCA, which still needs $6 million to pay for the new building and the programs that will be presented in it.

Next came Denver councilwoman Judy Montero, in whose district the MCA site is located. Montero mostly keyed in on the booming Platte Valley, and, like DeGette and Udall, she didn't make any promises of cash. Near the end of her brief remarks, she referred to the museum as "the MCI," and it crossed my mind that had it been MCI putting up a new building and not the MCA, the city would somehow find some dough.

But if DeGette, Udall and Montero didn't mention money, Mayor John Hickenlooper addressed it head-on when he took the dais. He pointed out that although "no public money" was involved in the project, there is sure to be "tremendous public benefit," and noted that the construction of the museum will be "a milestone in the city's cultural renaissance." Which brings up an obvious question: Why can't some public money be found to help the MCA? Right now, the city is preparing to throw a big aid package at the Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater project. In that case, a former quasi-public asset, a community theater, is being converted into a for-profit shopping center. If big money can be put up to help with this project, why can't the city come up with some scratch for the MCA? The answer, of course, is that it could if it wanted to.

And I think the mayor should be the one to figure out how to do it, because he's got a karmic debt vis-à-vis the MCA. Right in the middle of the MCA's quest for a new building, Hickenlooper pulled the Clyfford Still Museum out of his hat, and that has made things tougher for the MCA. The city is providing the Still with lots of in-kind support, such as office space in the Wellington Webb Building and administrative help from the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, whereas the MCA has to sink or swim, paying its own way to do so. But more important, the Still has been raising money in town, and that gives the MCA even more competition than it already had in the small world of big donors in Denver.

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