Adam Lerner changed the course of contemporary art museum programming during his ten-year tenure at MCA Denver simply by applying a lightness of being: No pretense, a sense of humor, occasional joy, magical curation and a rooftop bar are all elements of his style, which drew young crowds to view — and practice — art on a whole new level. Lerner’s equation left plenty of room for local artists in MCA’s galleries, wooed teens with programs like the Failure Lab, delighted everyone with the non-sequitur lectures of Mixed Taste and instigated the Octopus Initiative, an art-lending library.
As a curator, he brought us the counterculture of the West, from San Francisco’s outrageous Cockettes drag collective to the 1960s dome architecture of Drop City in southern Colorado; shed light on the weird genius of Mark Mothersbaugh; and wrapped the building with Cleon Peterson’s graphic classical brawlers. He taught us to enjoy art just as we enjoy life, by dancing in the moonlight, rocking a karaoke mic, making X-rated Christmas ornaments and learning to appreciate a good cut of meat.
As he prepares to exit the MCA and move on to new ventures, Lerner gave us some open-ended last words by answering the Colorado Creatives Redux questionnaire. We can't wait to see what's next.
Westword: What innovations are you most proud of from your ten years at MCA Denver?
Adam Lerner: Can I start by saying I really don’t connect with the word “innovation.” I relate better to words like
fresh, interesting, courageous, unexpected, original. I think the most courageous and original thing MCA Denver has done is reinvent the language museums use to speak to audiences. As I write this, there is a picture of a dog on the home page of our website along with the headline: “We are closed for installation now, but here is a cute pic of a dog.” It might not seem like much, but many arts aficionados feel very threatened by that kind of self-mockery from an institution. MCA Denver has demonstrated that it’s possible to have serious, scholarly art exhibitions and still have personality, even if it’s a casual, self-deprecating one.
Where do you see the museum going next?
MCA Denver has great things ahead of it, and I’m excited to see how its vision will evolve under the leadership of the next director. I’m pretty sure the next director will focus on those areas that have never been my strengths or priorities. Renovations to the physical building is one possible area. We are bursting at the seams with the current configuration of the building, so there is a real need for something to be done. Most important, I believe the essence of the museum will remain. We will continue to be both sophisticated and unpretentious. We will continue to host dynamic public events along with our exhibitions. We will continue to showcase Denver artists alongside national and international ones. All that is by now baked into the museum’s culture through our staff and board.
As a creative, what’s your vision for a more perfect Denver?
The problem for creatives is, of course, affordability, but I believe Denver has the opportunity to explore how to be both prosperous and inclusive. Inequality and gentrification are problems in cities nationwide, but Denverites are generally civic-minded, so we are positioned to take the lead in developing solutions. Affordable-housing measures have a real impact on the personality of a city, especially its creative development. When New York City took serious measures to control rents in the late 1960s, the city evolved in really interesting ways. The deterioration of those controls is one of the reasons New York is now starting to look like every other wealthy city in the world. Denver might just be civic-minded enough to take a long view.
It’s a challenging time for artists and creatives in the metro area, who are being priced out of the city by gentrification and rising rents. What can they do about it, short of leaving?
One of the impressive things about artists is that they tend to find or create the ecology they need in order to do their work. However, there are political moves artists could take to make sure they receive more of the benefits of the prosperity they helped stimulate. If artists presented themselves as the constituent they are, they would have enormous power to influence policy. We hear all the time about different constituents: This politician is courting the union vote, that one has the corporate vote. Can you imagine if politicians sought the artist vote? They would at least need very convincing solutions for affordable housing.
What’s your dream project?
After raising $18 million for the museum in the last three years, I’m feeling inclined to indulge in dreaming small. I have a fantasy of becoming a notary public, where I would deck out a cool little storefront space, design an outrageous signature stamp and log book, and meet people for tea while I notarized their papers. I would probably curate exhibitions of my friends’ work there. I’d probably have events there, too. I probably won’t do that.
What advice would you give a young hopeful in your field?
Don’t follow other people’s advice. Seriously. My advice is find your own path. When I started out, people gave me all kinds of crap advice that may have worked for them but was basically irrelevant to me. People told me to always keep a professional distance from my board and donors. Well, I built the institution by cultivating really close personal relationships with the people who supported the museum. People told me not to mix my personality with the public image of the museum because it’s not sustainable. But my unique path had to involve my personality, or it would have been boring and no one would have come here. My point is you find within yourself the key to your greatness.
Who are your favorite Colorado Creatives?
There are many artists I love, but right now I’m feeling inspired by people who don’t self-identify as artists, creatives who give me hope for the future of the city. Still one of my faves, architect Paul Andersen somehow manages to create designs that are at once elegant and absurd. Designer Hunter Leggitt came in hot from L.A. to Denver last year. I actually met him at a public pool, and within a year invited him to design the Octopus Initiative, the art-lending library, at the museum. He can do sophisticated and wild with equal finesse. Also, the program that Nora Claire is creating for the Archipelago club makes me feel better about Denver. The workshops, performances and other events she schedules there are smart, soulful, alternative and fun. And Paul Laurie hosts such outrageous events at Invisible City it makes me proud we have a place so weird and authentic in Denver.
What's on your agenda right now and in the coming year?
I am trying to develop a movie script about my father, an Orthodox Jew and Holocaust refugee, who found belonging in America in a gay square dance club called the Times Squares.
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Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
Jillian Fitzmaurice’s drawings of palm trees and other exotic subjects have an incredible sweetness to them, but they also carry a subtle and inescapable darkness, a kind of volatility that evokes the double-edged nature of fantasy (pleasure and escapism). Jillian had a breakaway exhibition at Rule Gallery this past year and I’m looking forward to what she does next. I’m also excited to see what Suchitra Mattai does next after her massive projects at the Center for Visual Arts and major installation at the Sharjah Biennial.
National Public Radio’s Museum Confidential podcast with Jeff Martin from the Philbrook Museum of Art will host an exit interview with Adam Lerner at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 20, also at MCA Denver. Admission is $10 to $15 at eventbrite.com. Audience questions are encouraged.