Museum studies: The CU Art Museum is among a museum-building boom

Over the last decade or so, Colorado has seen an incredible museum-building boom that is completely unprecedented in the state's history. New structures include the Kirkland Museum, the Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum, and MCA Denver. In addition, a substantial yet subdued addition was made to the iconic Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center building, while Colorado State University rehabbed a historic building and converted it to an arts center. Then there's the under-construction Clyfford Still Museum and, nearby, History Colorado, the new home of the Colorado Historical Society. And across the state, a new Aspen Art Museum is in the offing. 

The latest addition is the CU Visual Arts Complex at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It's the first respectable home the CU Art Museum has ever had.

And while the new venue is substantially larger than its predecessor — the Sibell Wolle Fine Arts Building, a simple turn-of-the-nineteenth-century industrial structure made of red brick — it's something of a disappointment from an architectural perspective.

The new CU Visual Arts Complex by KMW and OZ Architecture.
The new CU Visual Arts Complex by KMW and OZ Architecture.

Details

ArchiTECHtonica From the Collection and Liliana Porter, through October 23; Wall-to-Wall-to-Wall, through December 10; archiTECHtonica, through December 18; Highlights of the Collection, through June 25; CU Art Museum, 1085 18th Street, Boulder, 303-492-8300, http://cuartmuseum.colorado.edu.

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The complex consists of two buildings sited adjacent to an outdoor plaza that connects them; the one on the left is the fine-art building, while the one on the right is the CUAM. You might not realize this from exterior cues, however, since there's a formal loggia entrance on the studio building while the museum has only a smallish corner entry; it's just the reverse of what you might expect.

The relationship between the forms of the two buildings is sort of clunky from a formal perspective, and as a result, the two are a little out of balance. There are oddly proportioned — squatty, really — towers marking the end of each structure. The most prominent are the two that sit near the center of the overall composition and simultaneously mark and mask the passageway that runs between them. 

True, the designers of these asymmetrical bookend buildings — Boston's KMW and OZ Architecture, with offices in Boulder and Denver — had to work in the tightly defined vocabulary of the neo-Tuscan style that defines the Boulder campus and stipulates both material and forms. Still, I can't help feeling that a more gifted designer would have done better. For example, no one was more constrained than David Tryba at the CSFAC, where he had to come up with something that would seamlessly meld with the John Gaw Meem-designed masterpiece and, as much as possible, make it essentially invisible from the front. And he did it. The CU complex also suffers noticeably in comparison to its immediate neighbor, the stunning and majestic University Memorial Center, which is a great example of the neo-Tuscan style.

My opinion of the museum part of the complex improved after I entered the two-story atrium-ish lobby. The initial space is handsome and well detailed, with paneled walls and a grand staircase going up the left side. There's also a small book shop that will feature publications and CUAM-branded bookbags, mugs and those sorts of things — a first for the museum.

Museum director and curator Lisa Tamiris Becker served as my tour guide. Becker has been at the helm of the CUAM for the past eight years, and it was partly due to her efforts that the construction of the museum happened. There had been previous plans to build a new fine-art complex, but that opportunity withered during the tenure of Becker's predecessor. In fact, Becker pointed out that the idea goes back much further than that, to the 1950s, when George Woodman was hired by the fine-art department. What made it different this time was the commitment of students through fees that helped pay for it, along with a range of private and public donors.

The first of several exhibits, archiTECHtonica, begins in the lobby. Actually, it's an exhibit within an exhibit that gets under way there. Becker originally asked artist Peter Wegner to contribute two pieces to the museum — one for the show itself and one for the lobby. Wegner's specialty is a conceptual post-minimalism in which he explores paint chips and the names of colors by painting flat fields of a specific color and then stenciling in the color's actual name given to it by some paint company.

Wegner came to Boulder a few months ago to look at the walls and was so taken with the new building that he wound up doing fifteen pieces, siting the paintings in both public spaces, such as the lobby, and more obscure ones, like the restrooms and over the recycling bins. This unplanned bounty of Wegner pieces became a freestanding show, titled Wall-to-Wall-to-Wall, that's a direct outgrowth of archiTECHtonica.

The main part of archiTECHtonica is installed in a large front gallery just off the lobby. This space will be permanently dedicated to changing displays. Becker organized archiTECHtonica to express the ways in which artists are currently addressing architectural subjects. Well, broadly speaking, anyway. Wegner's paint chips really aren't specifically architectural, nor is the other piece he made for this show, "Brave W (the Winnebago Project)," which consists of the skin of one side of a van hanging from the ceiling. 

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