"Wide Lands of the Navajo," Maynard Dixon, 1945.
"Wide Lands of the Navajo," Maynard Dixon, 1945.
Denver Art Museum

Backstory Opens a New Chapter for History Colorado

"The story of the West is the quintessential story of the American way," said geologist turned brewpub owner turned governor John Hickenlooper in welcoming Backstory: Western American Art in Context to the History Colorado Center last night. "There's so much entrepreneurship."

And so much wonder, and so much heartache. The story of the West is not a single black-and-white story, and Backstory, which fills in much of the shading of that story, also marks the start of a new chapter for History Colorado.

This is the first exhibit conceived by History Colorado since a major turnover in management almost two years ago, a change designed not just to get the state organization's budget in line, but also to return it to focusing on Colorado history and showcasing its own massive collection rather than bringing in pre-packaged touring shows such as Toys or 1968.

"We're serious about telling Colorado's story," says Steve Turner, who was head of the State Historical Fund and Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation when he was named executive director of History Colorado last June. "Stories using our collection."

Backstory doesn't just draw from History Colorado's collection, though. It marks a partnership with the Denver Art Museum: Fifty iconic works from the DAM's Petrie Institute of Western American Art are displayed alongside more than a hundred historic artifacts that together help tell at least some of the story of the West.

Backstory, which officially opens March 18, occupies an 8,500-square-foot gallery on the fourth floor of History Colorado; it's divided into more than fifty displays arranged in chronological order. They start with intricate baskets and pots from Mesa Verde, which show that "thousands of years ago, there was beautiful art," says Turner. They also show the start of Colorado's stash of historic objects; a tag on one basket indicates it was part of the Wetherill collection, a donation to the brand-new state that was already capturing its past when the Colorado Historical Society was founded in 1879.

Serving as backdrops to the artifacts are blown-up photos and original artworks from the DAM's Petrie collection; the two institutions traded ideas and lists back and forth for months to come up with the pairings.

The Denver Public Library and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science also contributed to this show. William Clark's telescope from the latter leads into a section on the early European discovery of the West, and the romanticized attitudes imposed on the land and its residents. Henry Kirke Brown's "The Choosing of the Arrow" depicts a young Native American in a sculpture that could be modeled after Michelangelo's "David." There's also an area dedicated to Spanish cowboys, with a History Colorado saddle that mirrors the saddle in a nearby painting.

The Civil War closes out this row, with the actual drum shown in the blown-up photo of sixteen-year-old soldier Lorenzo Taylor and the inkwell used to sign the surrender at Appomattox. Across the way is the surveyor compass used to plot out the streets of Denver. "Blame the angle on it," says Jason Hanson, History Colorado's director of interpretation and research, who notes that incorporating some of History Colorado’s collection in the show "emphasizes our commitment to sharing Colorado’s treasures with the people of Colorado.”

"Estes Park, Long's Peak," by Albert Bierstadt.
"Estes Park, Long's Peak," by Albert Bierstadt.
Denver Art Museum

Turn the corner and you come face to face with the stunning, if unrealistic, view of Estes Park by Albert Bierstadt. As the Civil War was raging, Turner notes, "the West was the future."

But that future was not bright for everyone; as the settlers continued to arrive, the Natives were pushed off their land. And even after you view priceless painting after priceless painting, perhaps the most telling piece in this exhibit is a single ration card required on a reservation designed to house people once free to roam the West.

There's more, much more, including paintings from the Taos School and pots — including a rare Maria Martinez polychrome — that were created for sale to tourists coming in on the railroads; they echo the artifacts seen at the start of Backstory.There's a poster from Buffalo Bill's touring show that pushed the myths of the Wild West even as that West was disappearing, and a chuckwagon that looks just like the chuckwagon in both a painting and a photo that show the reality of the cowboy's life. And then there's a final tableau that captures how the West lives on — in Stetson hats, coffee cans and even a Rockmount Ranch Wear shirt.

Backstory ends with a quote from Wallace Stegner: "One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope."

And History Colorado hopes Backstory is just the start of its new chapter. "We will still have family-friendly exhibits, but we're really trying to broaden the experience," Turner says, adding that Toys attracted just a slice of the audience that History Colorado wants.

History Colorado is two years into a five-year exhibit plan; shows dedicated to Colorado music and beer are already on tap. El Movimiento — a local display that was paired with 1968 — will be returning this fall, as part of a Borderlands exhibit that will extend to state history museums in Pueblo, Trinidad and Fort Garland. And Backstory itself presents opportunities for spinoff lectures, concerts and other programs that will get people in the doors of History Colorado's building and help keep the story going.

"Thank the museums involved," Hickenlooper concluded. "They're taking time to tell the story. Let's get this viral on social media."

That's how the West is won in 2017.

Backstory: Western American Art in Context opens Saturday, March 18, and runs into next February at 1200 Broadway. Find out more at historycoloradocenter.org.

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