Back on Track

The Museo de las Américas has had a bumpy ride over the past few years, and surely many in the art community thought the small but significant institution was headed for the trash heap of Denver history. Luckily, that hasn't happened, and the Museo looks as though it's on the way up again. I base this on two salient facts: First, the board of trustees selected Patty Ortiz to take over as director, a post that has been mostly unoccupied for the past two years; and second, the current exhibit, Siqueiros: Spirit of a Revolutionary, is one of the best shows this season.

Before I heap praise on Ortiz and rave about Siqueiros, I'd like to take a moment to remember the role that founder and former director José Aguayo played in creating this valuable cultural asset. From 1991, when he first put into practice his idea of having a Denver museum devoted to the art of the Americas, Aguayo has worked tirelessly to make that dream a reality. Though he gave up the director post in 2003, he is still on the Museo's board of trustees.

Around 2000, it looked like the sky was the limit for the Museo under Aguayo's guidance. Not only was the gallery doing one great show after another, but it was also building a real-estate empire. The institution owned its own building on Santa Fe Drive (it still does), as well as the property immediately to the north and a row of houses across the alley to the west, facing Kalamath Street. The package of properties had been assembled under Aguayo's leadership, with the idea of constructing a new facility for the Museo that would also include rental studios and condominiums. Internationally famous California architect Michael Rotondi was brought in to design the place, and he actually got as far as producing drawings and models. It would have been a wonderful complex, sort of like a postmodern Mexican village -- with a tip of the hat to Broadway's Mayan Theater. But when the proposal for the new facility was unveiled in 2001, there was no money to build it. Not only that, but the purchased properties were mortgaged to the hilt.

In 2003, the chickens came home to roost, and the Museo was on the verge of defaulting on its loans for the Kalamath property. Any hope that financial negotiations could remain secret was dashed when the situation was leaked to the press. Aguayo had stepped down as director and was running for a seat on the Denver City Council, and the financial plight of the Museo was raised in the campaign as a way to discredit him. The Museo eventually sold the houses on Kalamath, as well as the other Santa Fe property, the sale of which closed on the same day that Siqueiros opened.

Some blamed Aguayo for the failure, but not me. I think he's a visionary, and I feel that we all owe him a big debt of gratitude for thinking up the Museo. I blame the lack of community support for all the problems -- especially the lack of interest on the part of wealthy Hispanics in sports, business and other professions, the majority of whom have not made substantial donations to the Museo. Cultivating that interest is the problem at hand for the new director: Ortiz has got to get rich people on board to help underwrite the costs of running and maintaining a museum.

Ortiz is well known in the art community and has worked as an artist and art administrator for more than twenty years. Born in 1955 in San Antonio, Texas, she earned a BFA at the University of Texas at Austin in 1977 and an MFA at UT's San Antonio campus; in both cases, her concentration was in printmaking. In 1980 she moved to Brighton with her first husband and later joined the Spark co-operative. In the mid-'80s, she was represented by Carson Sapiro Gallery, a forerunner of the Sandy Carson Gallery. She taught art classes at Metropolitan State College and the University of Colorado at Denver.

By the late '80s, Ortiz's art career was taking off, and one of her pieces was included in a fundraising auction at the Denver Art Museum. Oddly, events on the night of the auction forced her to change career paths. "That night, I decided to stop doing paintings and drawings and to just do community work," Ortiz recalls. "I was sitting there at a table with a dentist -- he had dropped about thirty or forty thousand dollars that night -- and then I walked out of the museum, and there was a car full of Mexican kids looking up at the building, going, 'Wow.' And I thought, 'What am I doing in the building? I should be out there with those kids.' In just that instant, I made up my mind to get out of the art scene and into the community."

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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