Coming of Age

The Denver Art Museum has gotten good at attracting crowds. The blockbuster Toulouse-Lautrec, which just closed, brought in more than 100,000 visitors. And last year, the Berger Collection had similar success with a comparable attendance. Thousands of people also visit the various galleries scattered throughout the seven-story museum that feature special exhibitions, such as the current Art in the Age of Queen Victoria, on the seventh floor, or exhibits highlighting the DAM's permanent collection, like Contemporary British Artists, which recently closed in the Stanton Galleries.

All of this success has put strains on the famous 1971 museum, which is clad in gray glass tiles and was designed by Italian modernist pioneer Gio Ponti and Denver's own James Sudler--but the building resists expansion in several ways. The DAM fills the entirety of its unusually shaped, roughly triangular lot in Civic Center Park, save for the corner of West 13th Avenue and Bannock Street where the landmark Byers-Evans House sits as a satellite facility of the Colorado History Museum. With its international architectural significance, the DAM would be harmed by an attached addition--even if there was space at the site to build one.

The space limitations at the DAM were already being felt when museum director Lewis Sharp took the institution's helm in 1988. By the early '90s, a privately funded interim plan was carried out, allowing existing building space that had been converted to offices or storage areas to be reopened as public gallery space. (The offices and storage were moved off-site.)

In 1997, the former Bach Wing, a surviving fragment of the 1950s DAM building, was rehabbed and expanded to provide space for a new gift shop, restaurant and an additional entrance. The areas formerly occupied by the restaurant and the adjacent gift shop were turned into the Hamilton Gallery, which is dedicated specifically to hosting special exhibits. Like the earlier projects, this renovation was privately financed.

Having maximized the public space available in the existing museum, the DAM over a year ago began to explore the idea of constructing a free-standing addition across West 13th Avenue. To build it, a bond issue must be passed in an election this fall. The bond is supported by the Webb administration, according to the DAM's point person on the expansion, Vicki Aybar Sterling, but it's not official yet. It will be left to the Denver City Council to authorize the museum expansion bond; its decision will be made in August.

The DAM's first choice for an expansion site was the parking lot at Broadway and West 13th Avenue, a space felt to be an ideal place for the museum's new presence. But the lot is directly south of the Denver Public Library, and objections were quickly and loudly raised when that institution's board got wind of the idea a few months ago: The DPL doesn't want to be prevented from expanding onto that same site. It's easy to understand why the DAM was eyeing the Broadway property--it would give the museum a higher profile if it were visible from the busy thoroughfare, among other reasons. But the DAM wisely--and quickly--suggested a different site, knowing that it made no sense to rile up the DPL. The politically savvy Sharp knows that museum expansion is a moving train, and arguments about where to build cannot be allowed to derail it. The new proposed location, a non-controversial one, is the parking lot west of Acoma Street, directly south of the museum.

In developing its plans, the DAM has employed the Denver architectural firm of Klipp Colussy Jenks Dubois Architects. This isn't the first time the firm's worked on the Civic Center; its architects collaborated with Michael Graves on the 1995 post-modern addition to the DPL. But although Klipp Colussy Jenks Dubois has been charged with developing a conceptual plan for the new museum building, the firm hasn't been hired to design it. That job will fall to the winner of a competition to be held at a later date.

The DAM is no stranger to the idea of an architectural competition, since it was instrumental in the success of the contest staged for the design of the neighboring DPL. The likes of the world-famous Graves, as well as many distinguished also-rans, notably finalist Robert A. M. Stern, would not even have known about the job--much less applied for it--if DAM curator Craig Miller hadn't tipped them off. Miller, head of the museum's architecture, design and graphics department, spent days phoning up his contacts among the world's most famous architects and suggesting they enter.

Though the exact details of the new addition are not yet known, the DAM has developed some ideas about its general nature. It almost goes without saying that the museum's primary objective is to construct a building with a strong presence, one that will be a prime example of high-quality architecture. After all, it will need to stand up to the visually strong Ponti-Sudler building--as well as the nearly bombastic DPL.

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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