And They're Off

The spectacular show The Collectors Vision marks the first exhibit presented under the auspices of Denver's new Museum of Contemporary Art. And though it's been a very long time coming, this show on the mezzanine of the 1999 Broadway Building has proven well worth the wait.

The idea of a museum dedicated to contemporary art has been kicking around Denver at least since the 1970s. In 1971, when the Denver Art Museum moved into its new home on the 14th Avenue Parkway, it had no department for contemporary art and no full-time curator for the topic. During the 1950s and '60s, the museum made do with the efforts of volunteer curator Vance Kirkland. But by the mid-1970s, a DAM support group, the Friends of Contemporary Art, began to demand--at times rancorously--that the museum pay more attention to the current art scene, not just in Denver, but internationally.

Partly as the result of FoCA's efforts and partly due to pressure from the DAM's own staff, then-director Thomas Maytham hired Dianne Vanderlip in 1978 and charged her with establishing a contemporary-art department. Immediately after being hired, Vanderlip made it clear to a standing-room-only FoCA meeting that the new department would focus on international artists at the expense of local ones. It was a bitter pill, no doubt, for the local artists who were the heart of FoCA. And though, over the past decade, Vanderlip has substantially softened her philosophy of excluding local artists, the DAM still does far too little for the local art scene.

What transpired after Vanderlip's hiring is open to interpretation. Depending on whom you talk to, FoCA either disbanded or was co-opted by the Alliance for Contemporary Art, a support group that Vanderlip founded on her arrival. Either way, a few displaced enthusiasts began to dream of starting a separate museum of contemporary art in Denver. Today, many of them have resurfaced as founders of the new museum. For example, wealthy art patron Sue Cannon, now the president of MoCA's board of trustees, also was a FoCA bigwig.

The current expansion franchise actually began life as the nonprofit Galleries of Contemporary Art in 1991. "Right now, all our paperwork, our bank account, everything, is under the Galleries name," says Cannon. "But a lot of people don't like it and felt that the word museum needed to be there." Hence, the working title of "Museum of Contemporary Art"--or, to be more specific, the "Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver."

A committee has been formed to choose a permanent name by the end of the year. But from Cannon's point of view, the first order of business is buying a building. "For a time we considered a museum without walls, where we would present shows in rented spaces," she says. "But I always felt that the first thing we needed to do was to get a building."

Many buildings were considered and rejected during the course of a five-year search, including such Golden Triangle landmarks as the Evans School and the Rocky Mountain Bank Note Building. The group finally settled on the Vulcan Iron Works building, on West Colfax Avenue across from the Auraria campus. According to Cannon, the purchase of that early-twentieth-century brick structure is "imminent."

Cannon says the ball won't really get rolling until the building is secured. At that time, she says, her group will launch a fundraising drive, seeking $7 million to pay for the building and convert its gutted spaces into galleries. Cannon envisions the museum as eventually being self-sustaining, with a gift shop, a restaurant and a coffee shop. Architects for the job have been interviewed, she says, but no firm has been hired. Also, a search committee is mulling the names of prospective museum directors and has already narrowed the list of potential honchos to five. "The director will establish the course of the new museum, so I hope we pick the right one," says Dale Chisman, a member of the new museum's board.

As one of the most respected painters in the region, Chisman has found himself not only at the center of the new museum but up to his neck in The Collectors Vision exhibit. He laid out the show, has two paintings included and, along with well-known Denver photographer Mark Sink, co-designed the exhibition's wonderful promotional poster.

That poster, a silkscreen combining geometric abstraction with gestural passages, was printed at Open Press by Mark Lunning and Bryan Boettinger. And Chisman, Sink, Lunning and Boettinger are but a few of the city's artists who've thrown their support behind the new museum. Sculptors Charles Parson and Bob Mangold and painter Linde Schlumbohm have joined Chisman on the board. Steve Eagleburger, Debra Goldman, Tree Laurita, Myron Melnick and Reed Weimer, along with a score of others, created special miniature artworks to commemorate the show's opening. Prominent dealers are also involved, including Elizabeth Schlosser, Robin Rule, Mary Mackey and Peggy Mangold.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia