Civic Circus

Upcoming changes in and around the Civic Center are being overseen by clowns.

I can't imagine what world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind was thinking when he took on the job of brainstorming about the Civic Center right before his new Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum is set to open. After all, the Civic Center is beloved by many, and messing with it has implicit pitfalls -- as Libeskind will soon find out.

Didn't Libeskind learn anything when his plans for the World Trade Center site in New York melted down? Though his ideas for the Civic Center won't be made public until late this month, a number have leaked out, like a 300-foot-plus tower plunked down in the middle of the park (now said to be off the table) and a reflecting pool to run from the Greek Theater to the Voorhies Memorial. The city can't even keep its existing water features going, let alone maintain a concrete lake. But, hey, it sounds good on paper.

Until he took on the Civic Center job, Libeskind enjoyed a lot of goodwill around here. But then, when people started to become aware of what he was up to, it was as though a Pandora's box was opened. Suddenly people had permission to hate Libeskind and thus bash his new Hamilton.

There's nothing wrong with the Civic Center that a little 
elbow grease can't solve.
There's nothing wrong with the Civic Center that a little elbow grease can't solve.

Libeskind was contracted by a group called the Civic Center Conservancy, and the blame for all the trouble lies at their feet. It's hardly an august group, being made up of rich donors, such as president Elaine Asarch, who is married to a prominent physician; developers, including Chris Frampton from East-West Partners, the corporation redeveloping much of the Central Platte Valley; political hacks like Marcus Pachner, a failed city council candidate; and uninspired bureaucrats, most notably James Mejia, who set a new low standard when he was head of the parks department during Wellington Webb's administration, a standard that his successor, Kim Bailey, has maintained (see Artbeat, page 47). You really know the Civic Center is in trouble when the most credible member of the CCC is a gadfly like Dennis Humphries. Though Humphries is half of the respected firm of Humphries Poli Architects, it's his partner, Joe Poli, who does nearly all of the designing; Humphries fills up most of his time with volunteer positions, such as the one he holds on the Civic Center Conservancy.

Why couldn't a more credible Civic Center Conservancy have been assembled? Why wasn't the first call to Don and Carolyn Etter -- you know, Mr. and Mrs. Denver Parks? Yes, the Etters were eventually asked to join the group, but only after the shit hit the fan -- not when the conservancy started its deliberations. As could be expected, the Etters passed up the honor of joining at this late date. And why, I must ask, was there room on the conservancy for representatives of construction companies and entertainment outfits, but not preservationists? Gee, it's not like the Civic Center is historic or anything.

The conservancy has already put some of the ideas they've come up with into practice, notably a film series and a farmers' market. It's no surprise to me that neither has taken off, and you do have to wonder about a group that looks at the Civic Center and sees it as either a drive-in or a parking lot.

It's confounding to me why the Civic Center needs to be re-thought up in the first place. You don't fix something when it isn't broken. Are these people on the conservancy unfamiliar with Denver? If they want an over-the-top creation by Libeskind, why not put it in the big chain of empty parks in the Platte Valley? Let Libeskind go hog-wild, with 300-foot towers and reflecting pools placed every few feet. But not at our marvelous Civic Center, which has an established character and is one of the finest architectural and landscape equities in the entire state -- homeless guys and all.

Nothing better demonstrates how off-track things have gotten than Mayor John Hickenlooper's okaying the appointment of Ed Robran to the Justice Center's Project Evaluation Panel for public art. Though a longtime resident of the area, Robran has had no profile whatsoever in the local art world. I contacted the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs to ask about him, and it took a week to get an answer, because no one at the agency knew Robran. I do know him, and his very presence on the panel is a slap in the face to the entire art community. I also know how this card-carrying philistine finagled his way into the process.

Robran is a retired educator with no known credentials, credibility or qualifications in art or art education. Think about that for a minute: In a city with literally thousands of people with advanced degrees in art or art history, Hickenlooper appoints someone who is completely innocent of the topic to Denver's most important public-art process of the early 21st century. Robran's entree into the city's art scene was lubricated by his friendship with Curt Freed's wife. The Freeds, relatives of Clyfford Still, have been instrumental in getting the Clyfford Still Museum to Denver. Plus, Robran is a representative of the Golden Triangle Museum District -- as though that group didn't have enough credibility issues already.

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