Last week I took in the recently unveiled permanent installation of the selections from the Herbert Bayer collection that are now displayed on the lower level of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum. The ad hoc exhibition spaces, which form the lobby of the conference room and auditorium, may be accessed either off the lobby via a handsome staircase or by elevator across from the gift shop.
As I was driving home, I began to organize my thoughts. I had to say something funny and apt about Dan Kohl's miserable recent flights of fancy with color in the lobby and elevator lobby, and then I had to salute the ever-valiant efforts of Gwen Chanzit, one of the best curators at the DAM and the senior member of the Modern and Contemporary department.
But when I got home, there was a phone message on my answering machine from Stephanie Hernandez of the DAM's public-relations office wanting to set up a specific time when museum director Lewis Sharp could talk to me. At that moment, I knew something big was happening and that plans for a Bayer column in this space had just flown out the window.
R. Craig Miller
My imagination went wild with the possibilities of what he was going to tell me, but I never expected the news Sharp did deliver: R. Craig Miller, the founder of the Department of Architecture, Design and Graphics, was resigning in the fall to take on a similar job at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
A mutual interest in design gave me the chance to meet Miller in 1989, a year before he was hired by the museum to establish a design department at the DAM, a role that Sharp had asked him to take. "Craig and I have a friendship that goes back forty years," says Sharp. "We knew each other in graduate school. I hired him at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], and we worked together for fifteen years there; then I brought him out here eighteen years ago. His decision to leave has been tough on both of us, but it's the right one for Craig."
Before he came to Denver, Miller founded a modern-design collection at the Metropolitan in Manhattan. "He built a department at the Met, he did it in Denver, and I think he has enough time left in his professional career to do it one more time in Indianapolis," Sharp says.
When Miller started at the DAM, there were only a few sticks of furniture in the museum's collection — admittedly, some of them first-rate — since there had never been any effort to assemble a decorative-arts collection, and any opportunity to do so had been effectively snuffed out. (The DAM would routinely sell off any design or decorative items that were donated.)
When Miller came on, the time was right to build a collection: Things were changing hands very cheaply, with almost nothing in the modern-design category going for more than a few thousand dollars. That meant it was possible for Miller to collect with a vengeance, and he did. Taking advantage of both the buyer's market and gifts, Miller assembled a collection that today numbers more than 11,000 artifacts, including architectural drawings and models, graphic design, furniture, glass, metal and ceramics. It's unlikely that his successor — whoever that may be — will do as well, since, exponentially, everything is more expensive today than it used to be.
Given these circumstances, how is Miller going to create another department from scratch at the IAM? He's going to do it with money — lots and lots of money. The IAM is one of the wealthiest art institutions in the country, owing to the largesse of the Lilly Foundation, which shares the bounty accumulated by the pharmaceutical empire started by Eli Lilly. And then there's lots of other old money in Indianapolis that the IAM has tapped into as well.
An old friend and former Met colleague of Miller's, Maxwell Anderson, took over the IAM a year or so ago and began courting the curator. Although Miller won't say that his tipping point to go to the IAM was the DAM's reluctance to sponsor his planned traveling exhibition EuroDesign 1985-2005, I'm sure it was. "I don't want to go into that," says Miller. "I want to leave on a positive note, and I want it to be as amiable a parting as I can make it. EuroDesign will now be a partnership between the DAM and the IAM, with Indianapolis organizing the show, arranging to borrow the objects and putting together the tour, and the catalogue will be produced by the Denver Art Museum."
EuroDesign is the third internationally significant show in a Miller-directed series of exhibits that began with Masterworks: Italian Design, 1960-1994, presented at the DAM in 1994 with selections featured through 1998. Then there was USDesign 1975-2000, which started its tour at the DAM in 2002 and then traveled nationally. Both of these shows represented pioneering efforts, being the first scholarly and curatorial attempts to take on contemporary design from Italy and America. They also facilitated acquisitions for the DAM, with many manufacturers, designers and retailers donating the pieces they had loaned to the shows. EuroDesign will also be the first to examine contemporary European design; however, this time, donations of included material will wind up at the IAM instead of the DAM. EuroDesign is tentatively on the DAM's schedule for 2010.
While in Denver, Miller mounted many other exhibitions, including Frank Lloyd Wright: The Domino's Pizza Collection, a spectacular selection of decorative art that has since been sold off by the corporation. He sampled the Norwest Collection of decorative art in a group of shows, and showcased the cutting-edge collection of the Wolf family.
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During his DAM tenure, Miller traveled widely and served as a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Rome and as a visiting professor at Kingston University in London; he is currently a member of the advisory board of the Tapio Wirkkala Rut Bryk Foundation in Helsinki. He's won many awards and fellowships for his work, and last year, the journal International Design named him one of the forty most influential people in design.
At the IAM, Miller will have two titles: Curator of Design Arts and Director of Design Initiatives. The curator's job will be much like the one he took on at the DAM, establishing a new design department for the IAM. He's unsure of the character of that department, but it's likely to be more focused on furniture and decor than on architecture and graphics. The director's job will have to do with the museum's properties, which includes the Lilly mansion next to the museum and a complement of other buildings on the estate.
"Max likes to brainstorm. We're even looking at Columbus, Indiana," says Miller, referring to the small city east of Indianapolis that has many important modern and postmodern buildings by several of the most significant architects of the twentieth century. Columbus could use Miller's help, as many of its buildings are in a deteriorating condition. Miller has been anxious to have a hands-on relationship with architecture, something he was denied here in Denver. I'll never understand why his design expertise was not tapped for the lobby and other interior spaces of the Hamilton, and I can only say that those rooms really needed it.
But Miller has no regrets about this or anything else that transpired during his DAM years, and he has nothing but fondness for his longtime friend Lewis Sharp, who brought him here and will now see him off. Instead of looking back, Miller is looking forward to his new life in Indianapolis, and says, "I remember Thomas Hoving saying to me that to keep life exciting, you've always got to reinvent yourself to help you stay young and fresh, and that's what I'm doing."