At Ease

Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp is a genuine visionary. Over the fifteen years that he's run the museum, he's made so many brilliant decisions that it would be impossible to list them all here.

Among his greatest accomplishments is surelythe flawless way he handled the hiring of an architect to design a freestanding and badly needed museum wing, which will be located on Acoma Street between 12th and 13th avenues. Simply because the museum chose Daniel Libeskind, who is pulling out all the stops, the DAM's profile has soared, nationally and internationally. In the process, Sharp accomplished something else: By preserving the museum's marvelous main building -- designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler -- instead of tearing it down, he's emerged as a preservation leader.

If Sharp has made the most of what the DAM already has, he's also attempted to right some wrongs by establishing new departments, such as the Architecture, Design and Graphics department. This opened up a collecting area -- the decorative arts -- that had heretofore been ignored by the DAM.

Another area that Sharp has moved into in response to the neglect of previous DAM regimes is Western Art. It seems insane, but for decades, the DAM completely ignored Western art, which is how the Denver Public Library wound up with important paintings by the likes of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran and how the Colorado Historical Society was able to get that tasty William Henry Jackson archive. It was probably a kind of civic low self-esteem that got the museum into this situation; I think Western art embarrassed people because it seemed so naive when compared to the art of Europe or New York. But under Sharp, the DAM has become more and more Western-art friendly.

Two dramatic developments have illustrated this directional shift.

The first was the acquisition of two important collections: In the mid-1990s, the DAM purchased the Wolf Collection, a large body of historic Western photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and last summer the museum was the recipient of the incredible collection of Western art and artifacts assembled by the late Bill Harmsen and his wife, Dorothy.

The second development, also last summer, was the establishment of the Institute of Western American Art, which works among curatorial departments and interfaces with other institutions and private collectors.

The IWAA's director is Joan Carpenter Troccoli, formerly the DAM's deputy director, a Western-art specialist and scholar. She has a Ph.D. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and she served as the director of Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum -- which has one of the country's premier collections of Western art -- before coming to Denver in the mid-1990s. Troccoli also has an inside track to the fabulous collection of Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, and it was Troccoli who put together the Anschutz-collection blockbuster presented at the DAM in the winter of 2000 ("Pilgrims' Progress," November 23, 2000.)

Now Troccoli, along with fellow DAM Western-art curator Ann Daley, have organized the first official show under the aegis of the IWAA, West Point/Points West, in the Gates Gallery on the museum's seventh floor.

The Harmsen Collection: A Colorado Legacy, which opened last fall and is still on display, was also an IWAA-sponsored exhibit, but it was rushed into place, Daley explains, so Bill Harmsen could see it before he died. Given the urgency of the situation, there wasn't time to do a proper catalogue, but plans are in the early stages to readdress the collection with the full IWAA treatment. Therefore, West Point is the first show to be accompanied by "Western Passages," a scholarly journal published by the IWAA. The principal essay in the journal was written by Troccoli.

Now, if you're like me, you wouldn't have thought of art and the United States Military Academy at West Point at the same time. So I wondered if this show was part of the current wartime spirit that has taken hold of the country. One second in the Gates Gallery is all that's needed to dispel these wrong impressions, though. The very interesting exhibit demonstrates that art and West Point are far from mutually exclusive; in no sense does West Point glorify war. In fact, the chosen pieces mostly depict the sites observed by one of four nineteenth-century survey parties that scouted the West.

"This is everything that we talked about the Western American Art institute doing," says Daley. "We said that we were going to take unusual and unexplored topics and develop them, and that's what we've done here." (This year is also the 200th anniversary of West Point -- part of the impetus for the show.)

Oddly, the exhibit isn't going to travel to West Point and will only be seen in Denver. But if the academy wanted it sometime in the future, it could be easily reassembled, Daley points out, because nearly everything in the show is from Denver. Many of the pieces are from the DAM's own collection or on loan from the DPL, the Anschutz Collection or, most important, the collection of Denver-area residents Tom and Jane Petrie. Tom Petrie is a West Point graduate and, according to Daley, was a guiding force behind the exhibit.

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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