Denver Art Museum

The news coming out of the Denver Art Museum over the past few weeks has been shocking. More than 200 staff members spread across every department were offered modest buyouts in exchange for their resigning from their jobs. As of Monday, April 9, thirty had complied. These include some fairly important players, such as deputy director Cindy Ford Abramson, who had already left for another job, as well as Gretchen DeSciose, from the education department, David Kennedy in exhibitions, and marketing head Janet Meredith, who will become a consultant for the museum.

Another well-known DAM figure who resigned is Blake Milteer, an assistant curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art. He was already leaving to become the fine-art curator at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, however, so his departure doesn't count among the casualties.

The institution planned no ceremony for those who were leaving, even though some of them had given their entire careers to the DAM. But in an act of decency, chief curator Margaret Young-Sanchez, head of the pre-Columbian department, had the curators step up and stage their own going-away party.

The problem is deficit spending, with the museum's projected shortfall for the year estimated at anywhere from $4 million to $10 million. That's a lot of scratch. Part of the reason -- but only one small part -- is salaries, since the museum hired more than sixty new staffers to open the Frederic C. Hamilton Building last fall. The extra staff was brought on in anticipation of a million visitors to the now-world-famous Daniel Libeskind building. This projection was wildly optimistic -- and not just in retrospect. Nearly all of the potential audience for the Hamilton comes from the state of Colorado, which has a population of roughly 4 million -- and did anyone really believe that one out of every four people were going to show up?

Well, at the DAM, they did believe it, and hiring decisions were made based on those inflated projections. Because the DAM has been hoisted on its own demographic petard, it is widely believed that attendance has been low or even dismal. But that's not entirely true, since 380,000 people have already gone through the place, and it's well on target to post the largest number of annual visitors in the institution's more than 100-year history. It's already surpassed every year but a few when blockbusters ruled the DAM. It should also be mentioned that the blizzard in December and bad weather in January definitely had a negative effect on attendance. According to the museum, upwards of 50,000 people were kept away -- and I don't doubt it.

But attendance shortfall is only part of the problem. Worse are the tremendous maintenance costs associated with the complicated building, and with its serious structural problems. The most obvious of these is the problem with the atrium's roof. (That's why there is scaffolding where the monumental sculpture "Spider," by Louise Bourgeois, used to be.) If you look closely, you'll notice that the raised box beams, which are purely decorative, have been removed from around the skylights because they were identified as a primary cause of the roof problems. Plus, the condensation on the inside of the exterior walls on levels three and four may require a heating-and-cooling system between the skin and the interior. Unlike the roof, however, that fix won't be covered by insurance, as it was anticipated but not budgeted.

The bare-bones construction budget is itself another problem -- though I do think it was the right decision. To bring in a $500 million building, which is what the Hamilton looks like, for the $110 million that it actually cost, museum decision-makers went for cheap. Good money was spent on the exterior, but the inside was filled with low-cost materials. I remember being shocked when I first entered the finished building and took in the vacant-looking lobby with its plain-Jane walls and Home Depot-quality granite floors.

And I think this brings us back to the attendance problem, because although the outside of the museum has a big "wow" factor, the interior --aside from the atrium -- absolutely doesn't. I'm confident that word of mouth has made many people happy to drive by but willing to skip going inside.

From my point of view, this lobby problem can be solved by properly furnishing it and bringing in some more art. It may have been an unhappy circumstance that brought the Bourgeois inside, but that space really needed something. Now that the museum has gotten real about attendance -- you don't want a lobby cluttered with furniture and sculpture when there are a million people coming through -- it's time to make the area into something smashing.

The original lobby plan was conceived by Dan Kohl, the museum's head designer, and I'd give him a C- on it. In fact, he's absolutely not the one to fix it. Luckily, there is someone on the DAM's staff who can provide some good advice: Craig Miller, who is both one of the most prominent design authorities in the country and the curator of the museum's Department of Architecture, Design and Graphics.

Proof of Miller's skill at making the most of the least is his reinstallation of the design collection on the second floor of the North Building, better known as the Ponti. Coming through the Duncan Pavilion and into the dramatic and soaring Northwest Coast gallery, visitors arrive at the spaces highlighting the design department's treasures. On the left are decorative arts in cases, and on the right, a three-stepped platform on which chairs are displayed. Since gallery-goers will move from south to north on their way into the Ponti, Miller has arranged the objects so that the oldest come first. His topic is the last century in design and decor, and unlike most of his peers, Miller mixes the two.

The chair display is remarkable on several levels, so I'm going to zero in on that. Chairs provide a wonderful vocabulary for making aesthetic comparisons, because on some level, they're all alike. Miller's selections reveal that he's a connoisseur of the chair, with many on display being among the finest of their type. On the tallest of the three stages, placed farthest from the viewer, Miller lined up chairs that rely on emphatic frames for their visual interest. On the second-tallest platform, he lined up chairs in which the upholstered forms are the key visual device. Finally, on the lowest stage, closest to the viewer, are chairs that sport sculptural forms.

In this economical way, using fewer than twenty chairs, Miller lays out three separate design narratives complete with historic content and its inherent linear march of styles. There's no need for any thematic organization, seen elsewhere at the DAM, because the three parallel story lines and the regular stylistic shifts add all the visual variety anyone could want.

Miller proves that it is possible to quietly and unobtrusively insert a good deal of intellectual content without forcing viewers to suffer through the distracting educational gimmicks included in many DAM displays, such as LCD screens and interactive components. And his high-minded ideas do not get in the way of viewers who are unable to discern them, as was proven by an enthusiastic group of gesticulating grade-schoolers who came through the gallery while I was there and obviously loved the chairs.

I know that making the lobby of the Hamilton look better is way down on the DAM's list of pressing concerns, what with layoffs looming, but I do believe that visitors need to be awed when they walk in the door -- and they aren't. If they were, they'd tell all their friends about it, and more people would come to check it out. And this is such a simple fix, since the museum's staff need go no further than the DAM's storage vaults to find everything necessary to outfit the lobby. Let's just hope they ask for Miller's opinion for a change.


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