Payton's Place

Portrait of Cydney Payton by Wes Kennedy.

Last week, Cydney Payton, curator and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, announced that she was stepping down, effective this fall. My reaction to the news, which she delivered to me in a phone call, was one of shock, even if I did have a little something more than an inkling that it was afoot.

Back in May, I ran into Payton, and she said we needed to talk. Somehow, just by this fairly noncommittal remark, I knew she was planning to quit, and I said so at the time. She shut me down immediately and scolded me for saying it. Then she underscored her seriousness with a dirty look cast in my direction. So I knew I was right. And as it turns out, discussions with the board about that were already under way. We did get together and talk a couple of weeks later, but neither of us brought up the subject.

Payton has her critics, and I hear from them regularly. But in my job, I am forced to use logic and deduction in judging her or anyone else. God knows I've made a virtual hobby over the years of criticizing the way she does things, but just look at her legacy.

When she got to what was then known as MoCA/D in 2001, it was little more than a glorified co-op, and it was in big trouble, struggling to stay open. Now, just seven years later, it's in the top tier of art institutions anywhere in the entire West. Case closed: Payton did a great job during her tenure, and the building by David Adjaye at 15th and Delgany streets stands as silent yet eloquent testimony to that.

Informed of the news that she was splitting, I made my way down to the museum just hours before the story would be officially released. Payton's office was a cluttered mess, which was not the normal state of affairs, and Sara Fitzmaurice of the New York public-relations firm Fitz & Co. was sitting on a couch working a laptop computer.

To her credit, Fitzmaurice has gotten the MCA mentioned in publications around the world. A true PR pro, she was busy trying to spin Payton's departure into positive news. "It's such a great opportunity for the museum," she said to me. I wasn't buying it. Unlike the culture writers in Dubuque or Dubai, I'm right here in Denver, and that experience tells me Payton's exit is actually bad news for the MCA.

Payton and I made our way up to the wonderful rooftop terrace. My first question was whether she was being forced out. She paused and answered that the decision was mutual. Her mood, a mix of melancholy and relief, seemed to confirm that. Payton, as I've come to observe, is a Hillary Clinton kind of woman, and if she were being forced out against her will, she would be fighting back with everything she had. On the other hand — again like Hillary — she wouldn't fight if she thought it would damage the institution.

I have to say, I'm surprised that no one on the board tried to talk her into staying. Maybe the trustees under the direction of board president and real-estate tycoon Mark Falcone believed Fitzmaurice's "great opportunity" hype? Or maybe Falcone's the one who thought it up in the first place.

Payton has no immediate plans, saying only that "there are other things I want to do. There are lots of opportunities out there, and the experiences I've been through completing this building make me more qualified to take advantage of them."

She talked about how building the MCA had long been a goal of hers, even before she was hired there. "I thought about it — no, dreamed about it," she says. "But at the time, I had no real understanding of what it takes to bring a project like this to fruition, and now I do." Payton believes that Denver in the early 21st century was the right place and time to fulfill her goals: "I couldn't have done what I've done here in a more established culture, but Colorado is a place of experimentation, so I had the freedom and the support here to do it."

Long before she joined the MCA, Payton developed a curatorial philosophy that combined an interest in Colorado's best artists and the idea of exhibiting their work alongside that of national and international artists. She actually began doing this at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, but didn't always follow her own counsel. At the MCA, she made a strategic blunder by not featuring a Colorado artist during the new building's most significant period, its debut last fall. To her credit, she has since corrected that mistake by using the second level's Project Gallery as an ongoing showcase for regional artists.

That aside, Payton has given many exhibits based on Colorado's art scene. One of the first, mounted right after she came on board, was Five Abstract, which examined Dale Chisman, Clark Richert, Beverly Rosen, Robert Mangold and Al Wynne.

At the same time, she highlighted international art, most notably in Over One Billion Served, which she put together with curator Julie Segraves. The 2004 show, which examined conceptual digital photography, was the first exhibit in the United States to present contemporary photography from China. Payton also did a variety of thematic group shows that included prominent or up-and-coming talents from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America alongside those from this country.

Her greatest accomplishment, though, was 2006's Decades of Influence and its followup, Remix. These shows attempted the not-inconsiderable task of surveying contemporary art in Colorado from 1985 to the present through the work of around 100 artists. Some of Payton's choices were questionable, in my opinion, and some of her omissions were even more troublesome, but two-thirds of her picks were spot on. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that any exhibition organizer who compiled a list on the same topic and who did so as conscientiously as Payton would have wound up with almost the same roster. The show was a groundbreaker, representing the first attempt by anyone to codify the current period into a historical context and establishing the credibility of recent Colorado art. It was also the last hurrah for the MCA's old Sakura Square location.

Since moving into the new building, Payton has overseen a crowded schedule, with six or seven shows running simultaneously, something that would have been impossible in the MCA's former digs. This works because of a programmatic decision Payton made even before Adjaye was hired. She wanted the new building to have a group of fixed gallery spaces, each with its own mandated use. One is for photos, one for new media, one for works on paper, one for large works, one for installations, and, finally, one for projects. In addition, The Whole Room, on the lower level, can be a multi-purpose space serving as both a meeting room and an ad hoc gallery.

Interestingly enough, the idea of clearly delineated galleries is sort of a classic modernist idea that's out of step with recent museum-design philosophy, which calls for changeable spaces with moveable walls. Having dealt with the MCA spaces over the past several months, I can say they function beautifully, and though currently each has been given over to a separate solo, I can see how easily they could be used for group shows as well. And the four spaces on level two could easily be combined to present one large show installed in all of them, since one space opens up into the next. Even the spacious corridors could be drafted into use as extensions of the exhibition spaces.

I'm really sorry that Payton is leaving the MCA, and I'll keep my fingers crossed that the board will find someone up to filling her Pradas — but I won't hold my breath.

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