Art News

Remembering Art Collector, Gallerist and Museum Donor Ginny Williams

Ginny Williams was a major player in Denver's art world.
Ginny Williams was a major player in Denver's art world. Courtesy of Elle Williams
Ginny Williams, a significant player in Denver’s art world in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, died on September 3 at her Hilltop home at the age of 92. She had been born in rural Virginia in 1927, and despite having moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming, back in the early 1950s, she retained her thick-as-molasses Southern accent her entire life.

Williams went to Cheyenne to take a high school teaching job not long after graduating from Mary Washington College. More significantly for her future, Cheyenne was also where she met her future husband, Carl Williams. The couple moved to Denver in the late 1950s and became pioneers of the cable television industry, which essentially started out in this area. It was with the cable industry that the two made their fortune.

In the 1970s, Williams began a new period in her life by focusing more heavily on art, a longtime interest for her even then. She completed her master's in art history at the now-defunct Colorado Women’s College, and then threw herself headlong into the art world — first here, then around the country.

She opened the Ginny Williams Gallery in the 1980s at 299 Fillmore Street in Cherry Creek North, in a midcentury modern landmark which Williams herself told me had been designed by Richard Crowther, a master of modern architecture in Denver. Originally Williams focused on modern and contemporary photography in the gallery, an early passion for her.

click to enlarge Ginny Williams - COURTESY OF ELLE WILLIAMS
Ginny Williams
Courtesy of Elle Williams
“She had been a press photographer herself,” her daughter, Elle Williams, recalls, “and when she first opened the gallery, she was showing a lot of her own photography. But once she started selling other artists, she stopped selling her own work, because she thought you can’t do both, and she was right.”

I was able to get into the gallery myself only a couple of times, but those visits were memorable. In addition to her interest in photography, Williams had been an early champion of rediscovering women’s art, and she collected many of the biggest female names in modernism, such as Helen Frankenthaler. But she really hit on the proto-feminist work of Louise Bourgeois. Williams wound up acquiring many of Bourgeois’s earliest and thereby most significant pieces, in addition to a raft of her later signature creations. Some of Williams’s Bourgeois sculptures were on view at the gallery and could be glimpsed through its glass curtain walls, even when the doors were locked.

Although for a time there was a schedule of regular exhibits at the gallery — up to the mid-’90s, at least — it’s been basically off-limits to the public for the past twenty years except by appointment.

As the rigors of maintaining a gallery schedule was winding down, Williams became more deeply involved with the Denver Art Museum. For instance, among her many donations to the institution, in the 1990s Williams assembled a collection specifically meant as a gift to the Denver Art Museum that included work by international art stars such as Sandy Skoglund, Joel Peter-Witkin and Thomas Ruff, as well as the work of local photographers, such as the in-depth selection of pieces by Denver’s Wes Kennedy.

Also in the 1990s, Williams joined the DAM's board of trustees, and in 2000, she used this position to help reshape the city’s look and image by pushing for the selection of Daniel Libeskind as the architect for the Hamilton Building. I spoke with her when the Libeskind pick was announced, quoting her in the September 7, 2000, issue of Westword as saying, “He was my first choice all along, I convinced them!”

Apparently, Williams had acted as an informal conduit between the museum’s board and the city’s selection committee, effectively lobbying for Libeskind.

On a personal note, it was just a few weeks later, at a party at the home of collectors Kirk Brown and Jill Wiltse, that I ran into her again. She had met my partner, Robert Delaney, before, and when she came up to the two of us, she said it was nice to see him again but that she was not happy to see me.

Startled, I asked her why. “You called me an ‘heiress’,” she responded in that signature drawl of hers, “and I’ll have you know I made every penny myself.” Luckily, her anger was mostly an act — at least once I apologized to her. And we spoke amicably for the rest of the evening.

That was almost twenty years ago, and it was the last time I saw her. This was partly because she spent a lot of time out of town, taking on projects on the East Coast — most notably, serving on the boards of the Guggenheim in New York and the Hirschhorn in Washington, D.C. — and spending time at her home near Santa Fe.

Her gallery today houses the Ginny Williams Family Foundation, which was intended to become a small museum for the exhibition of contemporary art, but that goal was never realized.

click to enlarge The former Ginny Williams Gallery, now the Ginny Williams Family Foundation, at 299 Fillmore Street in Cherry Creek North. - ROBERT DELANEY
The former Ginny Williams Gallery, now the Ginny Williams Family Foundation, at 299 Fillmore Street in Cherry Creek North.
Robert Delaney
“She wanted there to be a space where contemporary art could be shown,” says Elle. “Contemporary art was her passion, and she didn’t feel there was enough attention being paid to it in Denver, and that’s why she went onto the national scene.”

With their mother’s death, Elle and her brother, Mike Williams, have a lot to deal with. They are considering shutting down the foundation and selling the building, and they need to deal with their mother's distinctive glass house on Cramner Park, as well, which is also likely to be sold. Even more daunting is dealing with her art.

“My mom amassed a huge collection,” says Elle. “There are over 16,000 photographs alone. Some of them will be donated, some will be kept by the family. I would like to have certain pieces go to the next generation, but a good portion of the photo collection will be sold. And there is art at her gallery, there’s art at her house in Denver and in the New Mexico house. There are more than a hundred contemporary sculptures and paintings. She has pieces that are still crated, and she actually collected entire installations. I think it makes sense to have those kinds of larger things donated to museums or foundations so that they can be fully appreciated as they were meant to be.”

One aspect of Williams's persona that needs to be noted was her larger-than-life personality.

“She inspired everyone she met, she saw beauty in everything. Her curiosity was endless, and she never passed a child whose head she didn’t touch,” Elle notes. “She found the innocence and joy of youth in anyone, and it was contagious. I think my mom would tell you that she aspired to be a combination of Mame, Mrs. Robinson, and Maude from Harold and Maude all rolled into one, and I think she succeeded.”

Williams was doubtless a strong presence and powerful force in the upper reaches of the Denver art world, and someone to surely be reckoned with. But most of all, she was a connoisseur who shared with the community, through her time, gifts and donations, and her exquisite taste in art.

A memorial service for Ginny Williams will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 14, in the main chapel at Fairmount Cemetery, 430 South Quebec Street.
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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