Art News

Five Stories That Changed Colorado's Art World in 2015

As I look back at what has changed in Denver’s art scene over the past year, I feel that first I need to pause and fondly recall two key players who are no longer with us, each of whom led long and illustrious lives that enriched the Mile High City in innumerable ways.

First, the great Roland Bernier, a painter and conceptual artist died on June 19 at the age of 83. He first came to Denver in 1973 and began to exhibit his abstract works here in 1985 — though he’d been a practicing artist even before he came to Colorado. Since the ‘60s, he had incorporated recognizable symbols, including letters, into his paintings and prints, but ultimately these elements would completely take over his compositions. Six days after Bernier passed away, so, too did Hal Gould, who for most of his 95 years had worked to establish the idea that photography was not just a method, but a fine art in its own right. For decades, he made this point at his all-photo gallery, Camera Obscura, the first of its kind in Denver. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: It’s amazing how much of a difference an individual like Bernier or Gould can make in service to Denver’s culture.

Now some game changers that are less poigant but equally significant.

1. Rebecca Hart named DAM’s new curator of modern and contemporary art
The modern and contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum has long been among the institution’s most important divisions. But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1978, when curator Dianne Vanderlip was hired, there wasn’t even a department, and she had to build it from the ground up. Then in 2007, Vanderlip stepped down, and was succeeded by Christoph Heinrich who held the job from that year until 2010 when he became DAM director. In 2012, William Morrow was hired — only to leave in 2014. After Morrow left, the DAM announced the opening of the position, and dissatisfied with the applicants, hired a head-hunting firm to contact curators who weren’t looking for a job, but might take it.

And that’s how Rebecca Hart got hired. She was formerly a curator at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, winding up on the front lines of the successful campaign to save the place during a time when Philistines believed that the museum’s valuable collection should be sold off to satisfy Detroit’s bankrupcy. Hart hasn’t mounted any shows in Denver yet, or reinstalled any galleries, but having spoken with her, I know that she’ll be getting to those duties in the coming months. And surely she’ll find working at the DAM much more relaxing than it was in Detroit during those recent dark days.

2. The Libeskind DAM complex is finally fully built-out with the Art, a Hotel
When Daniel Libeskind unveiled his proposal for what would become the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building in 2000, he also conceived an entire matching complex. The other big component was the huge garage with two buildings partly surrounding it — a complicated cliff-like form facing the Hamilton that was meant for condos and, on the Broadway side, a tower. The Hamilton was finished in 2006, as was the garage and its adjacent condos, called the Museum Residences. But construction on the tower stalled as it got caught up in the real estate crash that began in 2007. So, for years, the Hamilton complex had a missing front tooth on Broadway in the form of a gravel lot and an unadorned concrete garage wall. But now that’s all fixed with the construction of the impressive structure with the awkward name "the Art, a Hotel."  This element was necessary from a design standpoint not only to put a good face on Broadway, but also to link the entire Hamilton complex back to the DAM’s Gio Ponti tower. The hotel was designed by Guadalupe Cantu, who first came to Denver as an on-site representative of Studio Libeskind. And since he worked on both the Hamilton and the Museum Residences, Cantu was well-qualified to putting the finishing touch on the whole thing.

3. Groundbreaking for the new Kirkland Museum
It was almost exactly two years ago that Hugh Grant, the founder of the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, made the surprise announcement that the beloved institution was going to decamp from its Capitol Hill location and move to a new facility to be constructed on a site at West 12th Avenue and Bannock Street. This is near the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building, across from the DAM’s new administration building and close to the Clyfford Still Museum. It’s also within a block or two of the Central Library, the Byers-Evans House and History Colorado. But what about the historic Vance Kirkland studio still-cemented to the ground in the current location at 13th Avenue and Pearl Street? Well, Grant is going to bring it with him — in one piece, no less. It will then be sited just to the north of the new museum which is being built to a design by the Seattle-based firm of Olson Kundig. The building’s most notable feature is the yellow-colored central pavilion, its distinctive shade derived from shimmering glass tiles with which it will be clad. Principle designer, Jim Olson calls this element “The Jewel Box” which is apt both because it will glisten like a jewel, and because it will be filled with treasures. The new Kirkland will open in 2017.

4. New Era to dawn with regime change at History Colorado
When the new History Colorado opened in 2012, I was of two minds. I thought the building itself, designed by David Tryba, was a masterpiece. But I thought the exhibits within it were incredibly dumb. And apparently a lot of people grew to feel that same way since visitors stayed away in droves. Then a few months ago, there was a top-down change when Governor John Hickenlooper, enabled by legislation, abolished the old board and set up a new one. The news from there on out has been both good and bad. The good was that COO Kathryn Hill was gone, and she’d been the mastermind behind the dumbing down of the exhibits, aided by her chief sidekick, former state historian, Bill Convery, who was also let go. But others who didn’t deserve to be punished for the sins of that disappointing duo also had to depart—almost two dozen staffers left. It’s still unclear what will happen to the place, will it get any better? I’ll take a wait-and-see approach to that. But there is one thing I do know for sure, tens of millions of hard-to-come-by dollars were wasted putting together goof-ball attractions that didn’t attract anyone — and now those essential resources are gone forever.

5. Ironton Gallery to move out, Colorado Photographic Art Center to move in
The Ironton Studios are bigger and better than ever, but the decision has been made to close Ironton Gallery. This is really sad because under the direction of Jill Hadley Hooper, the place definitely shined, sometimes even presenting the best show in town at a given time. Ironton started when four artists associated with the University of Colorado Denver purchased an industrial property at 36th Street and Chestnut Place in 1999, long before the neighborhood was known as RiNo. The original founders — Russ Beardsley, Debra Goldman, Mike Mancarella and David Walter — decided that in addition to studios, they wanted a gallery, too. Goldman ran the gallery at first but then in 2004, Hooper took over, getting lots of help from her husband, Hugh Graham. Hooper established reliable hours and tapped many of the city’s best artists for shows, most of whom had no association with Ironton. And the couple did it all for free, just for the love of art. The gallery will be open until January 9; a week later, on January 15, the space will be taken over by the Colorado Photographic Art Center. I’m glad CPAC found a place to land after losing its own space, but I’m really sorry to see Ironton Gallery become a memory. 
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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