In November, hundreds of people watched the historic Vance Kirkland Studio and Art School building slowly make its way from its original site, near the corner of East 13th Avenue and Pearl Street, to its new home, just north of the still-under-construction Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, at West 12th Avenue and Bannock Street. The dark-red-brick, Arts and Crafts-style studio with its barrel-vaulted roof is associated with Vance Kirkland because he worked there from 1932 until his death in 1981, but it was built in 1910 and 1911 by another artist and teacher, Henry Read, one of the founders of the Denver Art Museum.
When the decision was made at the beginning of 2014 to relocate the Kirkland Museum, Hugh Grant, the institution’s founder, insisted that the studio be moved to the new site along with the collections. “It was the only way I could think of to preserve it,” explains Grant, “since when the old museum is sold after I’m gone, someone could come along and buy it and tear it down.”
The Kirkland isn’t projected for completion until mid-summer, and it won’t be open to visitors until March 2018 — but I was recently invited to walk through the uncompleted interior. The tour included Bill Mascarenaz, the client’s representative for the project; Grant was along, of course, as was the building’s lead architect, Jim Olson, a partner with Olson Kundig architects; Martha Rogers, also from Olson Kundig; and several others who are intimately involved in the design and construction of the promising new building.
The old studio is attached to the new construction via a glass curtain wall. Although the exterior of the main museum building is clearly unfinished, it’s already eye-catching. The low-slung structure has a central pavilion; on either side are secondary cubic wings, and above, a set-back second floor. The proportions of these rectilinear shapes are beautifully conceived and harmonious with one another. The central pavilion is currently being clad in ceramic baguettes in the shape of vertical, rectilinear tubes in four shades of yellow. Solid cast-glass baguettes, which will be interspersed among the ceramic ones, needed to be specially engineered on site and have yet to be installed, though a prototype with a complex clip seems to work. The glass will also be in four shades of yellow, including a metallic-gold tone. When completed, the ceramic and glass baguettes will be mounted as screens over the weather-tight envelope of the building; the lower portion of these screens will be somewhat protected from the elements by a cantilevered eyebrow that runs across the pavilion three-quarters of the way up the wall, to a point that’s even with the tops of the wings’ roofs. This cornice unifies the three volumes into a single composition.
Architect Olson pointed out how the vertical stripes of ceramic and glass, set against the predominating horizontality of the pavilion with its wings, will make subtle reference to the grooved concrete walls of the Clyfford Still Museum, which is located diagonally across the street. The baguettes will also read like tiles, which will link the Kirkland to the glass-tile-clad Ponti building of the DAM, just a half a block away. Olson notes how the randomness of the baguettes’ arrangement will play off the more organized pattern of the cladding of the DAM’s new administration office, which is directly opposite the Kirkland across Bannock. I’d also add that the yellow tones of the Kirkland are marvelous with the blue shades used on the windows of that DAM building. Some of the luxurious materials destined for the Kirkland’s exterior have not yet been installed, notably the panels of rust-colored glass and the cast-glass fins that will mark the main entrance.
The multiple volumes that the structure comprises, along with the connected studio, create a visually scaled-down exterior, making the museum seem like a little palace. This made the enormity of the interior come as a complete surprise to me. The many galleries and other public spaces cover nearly 17,000 square feet on the main floor alone, with all three floors and the studio totaling 38,500 square feet. The lower level will mostly be given over to storage, but because it will include an event and lecture space, it will be open to the public — unlike the upper floor, which will house the institution’s private offices.
Visitors will enter via a corridor that opens onto a high-ceilinged lobby. The welcome desk, which was specially designed, has not yet been installed; it will have an off-white laminate top with dark-wood sides. Immediately to the left of the entry will be a lounge with seating, and, next to that, a gallery that will permanently feature the work of Kirkland, the premier Denver artist of the mid-twentieth century. At the other end of the lobby will be a glass-walled gift shop.
The bulk of the museum’s exhibition spaces will be accessed to the right of the entry via a grand processional space running nearly the full length of the building; architect Olson calls it “an avenue, a promenade, a colonnade,” thus conveying how he sees it from a functional standpoint, as a way of proceeding through the museum. The space is defined by a series of proscenium-like post-and-lintel gateways that are placed at intervals through what is tentatively called the “axis gallery.” The six individual permanent-collection galleries will open off this central hall.
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Grant intends to use those galleries to feature different phases of art history as illustrated by the Kirkland’s collection, which divides into three categories: Kirkland’s work; art by other Colorado and regional artists; and international design and decorative art. Grant intends to put related things together in each space. For example, in the first gallery to the right, which has been painted a deep green, he’ll bring together Arts and Crafts furniture with realist paintings. In the gallery next to that, which has been painted a decadent shade of dusty purple, he will display Art Nouveau furniture alongside examples of American impressionism. And so on.
The axis gallery terminates in a space similar to the lobby, where it began. To the left will be a gallery dedicated to temporary exhibits; Mascarenaz noted how clever it was to put the changing space near the back of the place, forcing viewers to traverse most of the museum before they get there. Opposite this is the sculpture gallery, which will extend to an outdoor sculpture garden that will be fenced in from the street. Beyond is a corridor that runs by the south wall of the relocated studio, with an entrance around the back. One striking feature that will also be in the back is the original outhouse, with its marble toilet, which Grant had moved from the original site; he thought it was important to include it, considering the narrative such a feature conveys about the times when the studio was built.
The new Kirkland is a welcome change in a town where so much of what is being built right now inspired the “Denver FUGLY” Facebook page, where members post pictures of terrible new structures. The future museum definitely does not qualify for inclusion in that sorry company; this is a true landmark in the making.