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Hidden Treasure

The small exhibition room, which features furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright, at the Vance Kirkland Museum.

It was just last month, for the first time since it was founded in 1996, that the Vance Kirkland Museum formally opened its doors to the public. True, the hours are quite limited (Wednesday through Friday, from 1 to 5 p.m.), but it's still a big improvement over the previous situation. Before, entry to the museum was attained either through privilege or inconvenience -- visitors needed an invitation or, failing that, an appointment -- effectively limiting the number of people who tromped through the door.

But word of mouth would prove to be this arrangement's undoing, since enough people saw what was inside to get the word out about how fabulous the Kirkland is. More and more people began calling to get appointments, to the point of distracting the staff from its duties. So the decision to establish regular hours was really a response to popular demand. However, the change from private to public, which at first might seem like a minor one, most definitely was not.

Director Hugh Grant liked the idea of opening the place, but he had to overcome two main sticking points. First, there was the issue of security: Many of the things displayed at the Kirkland are both small and valuable, which encourages pilferage. Second, the elevator, originally a freight operation, was not ADA-approved, which meant that the lower level would need to be closed off if the museum were opened to the public. To make matters worse, both of these problems were very expensive to fix.

To solve the security matter, Grant came up with a two-pronged approach. He installed locked showcases and hired off-duty Denver cops to serve as museum guards. And despite the cost, he replaced the elevator with a federally approved one. Grant went to all this trouble simply to edify us, since he had nothing to gain by changing anything; after all, he was one person who never had any trouble getting in the door under the old system.

Though the Kirkland is less than ten years old, the building in which it's housed is steeped in Denver's art history. The distinctive arts-and-crafts-style structure at 1311 Pearl Street was originally conceived as an artist's studio when Denver painter Henry Read commissioned architect Maurice Biscoe to design it in 1910. The studio is constructed of dark-red brick, much of which is custom formed, specially finished and laid in fancy patterns. The roof is a barrel vault covered in red terra cotta tiles and punctuated by original skylights -- an important feature, as there was no electricity. Also expressing the bare-bones quality of Read's studio is the marble outhouse in the courtyard (the studio didn't have running water, either).

The museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and even more narrowly identified as one of a group of Historic Artist Homes and Studios, along with those of Jackson Pollock, Augustus St. Gaudens, Russel Wright and many others.

Read, as could be surmised by the fact that he built the studio in the first place, was a prominent and successful turn-of-the-century artist and a founding member of the Artists' Club, which started up the Denver Art Museum in 1893. He also established and ran the Students' School of Art, which debuted in rented space downtown but relocated to the studio on Pearl Street when that building was finished. The art school remained there for the next twenty years until Read, elderly and in declining health, closed it in 1931. The following year, Vance Kirkland rented Read's studio and opened the Kirkland School of Art.

Kirkland had come to Denver only a few years before to work as the director of the University of Denver's Chappell School of Art, where he met Read. But Kirkland had a falling out with DU, quit in a huff, and opened his own art school in Read's old studio on Pearl Street.

Read died in 1935, and Kirkland subsequently purchased the studio building he'd been renting. In 1946, Kirkland returned to DU to head up the art department, and he closed the art school, making the entire building his personal painting studio, which he used until just a few days before his death on May 5, 1981.

Working in the studio for nearly fifty years, Kirkland created a remarkable oeuvre; he was clearly the most significant mid-century modern artist in Denver. While he worked in literally dozens of styles over the years, there are four that stand out, and he did sizable bodies of work in each. In the '30s he was a realist, in the '40s a surrealist, and in the '50s an abstract expressionist employing a novel water-and-oil technique. But beginning in the '60s and continuing until he died, he created his most original work: the dot paintings.  

When Kirkland died, he left many of his paintings -- several hundred, as it happens -- to the DAM, where he had served for years as a volunteer curator of contemporary art. He left many more works, along with the studio building, its contents and other property, to Grant. Eventually, the DAM sold many of its Kirklands (though the museum held on to a representative assortment), and luckily, Grant was in a position to purchase them en masse. He added them to those he already had, forming the core collection of the Kirkland Museum.

Kirkland's paintings, though, constitute only one of several collections at the museum. Some were started by the artist himself, but they have been greatly expanded in recent years by Grant, who has also gone off in new collecting areas. From my point of view, there are many minor collections at the museum, but four major ones: Kirkland's paintings; art by other Colorado artists; ceramics; and decorative art, including furniture.

The art by Colorado artists is an important and unusual collection. And with the DAM having only a minor interest in the art of our region and the Colorado History Museum and the Denver Public Library having little or no money for acquisitions in the field, the Kirkland is the only Denver institution actively collecting Colorado art.

These Colorado pieces complement the Kirklands and provide a context for them. There are even works by original studio owner Read, who is represented by two small drawings, one of which depicts a woman in a floor-length dress wielding a rifle. It's a scene that's so early Denver, and the woman will remind many of the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, whose mansion -- also a museum -- is conveniently located right around the corner.

Other early Colorado artists whose work is on display at the Kirkland include Elisabeth Spaulding and John Edward Thompson. There are also examples by notable local modernists from Kirkland's era, such as Charles Bunnell, Al Wynne, Edgar Britton and Nadine Drummond. Grant has started to collect contemporary art, too, and pieces by Robert Mangold, Chuck Parson and Martha Daniels are now part of that collection.

Ceramics, in the form of American art pottery from the classic period and modernist studio pottery, make up a nationally significant collection at the Kirkland. In fact, the ceramics collection is getting so well known that it's attracting gifts, such as a Rockwood tile panel that came in this past fall, donated by an out-of-state collector. There are major pieces by Colorado's own Artus Van Briggle, including a stunning "Despondency" vase that incorporates a sculptural self-portrait in which the artist confronts his impending death from tuberculosis. There are also major pieces by Anne Van Briggle, Artus's widow. Kirkland met her at DU, where she was a member of the art faculty; as a result, he became an early collector of Van Briggle pottery, which, in retrospect, was an astute thing to do.

Grant expanded the pottery collection to include other big names of the early twentieth century. The selection of Gruebys is tremendous, and the group that's on display is as fine as any on earth. And that goes for those Tecos, too, especially that William Gates-designed jardinière. The DAM should have such pottery!

The decorative-arts collection is also thick with riches, encompassing metalwork, industrial design, domestic design and furniture. Grant has attempted to survey the wide range of modernism, from its beginnings in the late nineteenth century up to the 1970s, with special attention being paid to the 1950s.

The collection of modernist furniture is very impressive, filled with significant pieces by the most famous designers from Europe and the United States. Surely none are more renowned than architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who conceived of tables, chairs and art-glass windows in addition to the buildings for which he is so justly renowned. The Kirkland has several choice examples of Wright's decorative pieces, including a pair of 1904 windows from the Martin House in New York and a 1951 custom-crafted dining-room set from the Broad Margin Plantation in South Carolina.

Among the furniture designers whose work is seen in some depth is another iconic modern architect, Gio Ponti, who, along with James Sudler, designed the DAM. (On his visits to Denver related to the museum's design, Ponti got to know Kirkland and struck up a friendship with him.) One breathtaking Ponti piece at the Kirkland is a console table with an abstract top in enamel on copper done by Paolo di Poli; it's elegant in the extreme.

Unlike most museums, the Kirkland does not present exhibits, but instead is always given over to permanent displays. This does not mean that things are not constantly changing, however. Grant relentlessly acquires new objects and switches things around, taking pieces out of storage while putting other things away.  

There's no way to fully convey all that the Kirkland has to offer -- the place is so crowded, sensory overload is the only rational response. Now, a basic tenet of modernism is the idea that less is more. With Grant in charge of the Kirkland, though, modern gets the more-is-more treatment. But, hey, who's complaining?


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