The Long Goodbye

Dianne Vanderlip is stepping down from the DAM after nearly thirty years.

In January 2007, Dianne Perry Vanderlip, the founding curator of the Modern and Contemporary Art department at the Denver Art Museum, will retire, giving up the job she's held since 1978. Vanderlip has been the most important and influential person in the Denver art world -- something that will not automatically pass to her successor, whoever that may be.

Vanderlip was born Dianne Perry in Toledo, Ohio, in 1941. She earned a BFA at Ohio University in 1963 and went on to do graduate work at New York's Pratt Institute. In 1966, she moved with her first husband, the late Jay Vanderlip, to Philadelphia and opened the Vanderlip Gallery, where she made numerous art-world connections that have served her career well. In 1967, she was hired by the Moore College of Art to start its gallery; in that capacity, she organized some fifty exhibitions, including the first Alice Neel retrospective, and presented the first exhibition in the country of artists' books, a term she coined.

Here in Denver in the 1970s, the Denver Art Museum, which was founded in 1893, had just opened its striking tile-clad tower on the Civic Center at West 14th Avenue Parkway and Acoma Street. The 1971 building was designed by world-famous Italian architect Gio Ponti in partnership with Denver architect James Sudler. Ponti did the exterior, and Sudler laid out the interior in consultation with the museum's director, Otto Bach. At the time, the museum's collection was small, and there was neither a contemporary-art department nor a contemporary-art curator, though artist Vance Kirkland had volunteered in the position since the 1950s.

"Dianne Vanderlip," by Alice Neel, oil on canvas.
"Dianne Vanderlip," by Alice Neel, oil on canvas.

The distinction between modern and contemporary art had not yet been made at most museums, and at the DAM, to make matters worse, European art was separated from American art so that nearly all of the modernist European pieces, such as the Picassos, were marooned in a department with medieval sculpture and Old Master paintings.

In the late 1970s, the museum wanted to start a contemporary-art department, and then-director Thomas Maytham invited Vanderlip to apply for the curator's job. "At the time, in Philadelphia, I was doing some very interesting work, and job offers were coming in from all over the country," Vanderlip recalls. "And we [Vanderlip and her husband] were trying to decide whether we wanted to go to Denver or Chicago. We flipped a coin and it came up Chicago, and my husband said, 'Let's make it two out of three,' and it came up Chicago again, and my husband said, 'I don't want to go to Chicago; I want to go to Denver." So Vanderlip came out for an interview.

"When I got out of a cab on a November night, it was just dusk, and I looked at the building -- I swear to God, this is true -- and I thought to myself, 'Anybody who's got the chutzpah to put up a building like this really, really wants somebody who likes contemporary things,'" Vanderlip says. "That, combined with the fact that this was the biggest museum in the United States at that time that had no contemporary department. The opportunity to begin something has always been really important to me. I did it with the Vanderlip Gallery in Philadelphia, which was the first contemporary gallery there; I did it with the Moore College of Art, being the founding director of their gallery; and then the chance to do it at this scale. Oh, my God, how can you say no?

"The opportunity to come to a museum of this size, with the vision that this building embodied, was just irresistible," she adds. "And I might say that for whoever my successor is going to be, I'll bet they're going to feel the same way. The idea of coming in -- because of the architecture, it's going to make a big difference, this Libeskind building, to the kind of person who wants to be here next."

When Vanderlip was hired, Maytham and the museum's board of trustees wanted her to put together exhibits featuring only nationally known artists, since the country had little interest in international artists. Contemporary European art, not to mention Asian art, was considered irrelevant at the time. When Lewis Sharp took over as DAM director, in 1989, Vanderlip's mandate morphed considerably, as Sharp emphasized creating a collection and not just presenting shows. That meant that Vanderlip needed to raise money to purchase pieces and to solicit gifts from collectors. She's done very well on both counts.

The Modern and Contemporary collection at the DAM now numbers around 7,000 pieces, though some of them, such as the Monets and the Picassos, were acquired before Vanderlip was hired. However, Vanderlip has been involved with every acquisition for the department since she was hired, including major works by Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Robert Arneson, Louise Bourgeois, Christo, Joan Brown, Dan Flavin, Agnes Martin, Ed Ruscha, Lucas Samaras, Sean Scully, Frank Stella, Dennis Oppenheim, Lorna Simpson, Claes Oldenburg, Larry Poons, James Turrell, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol and scores of others. Among the donors who provided the funds to acquire these things were the late John Powers and his wife, Kimiko, as well as Ginny Williams and Nancy B. Tieken.

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