Since 2014, when the idea of constructing a new Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art was first revealed, many of us have been waiting with bated breath. Now our wait is just about over: The brand-new Kirkland will open at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 10, at 1201 Bannock Street. The building is one of the finest works of architecture to have been erected in the Mile High City so far this century.
But that’s only fitting for Vance Kirkland, perhaps Colorado’s most important artist of the last century.
Kirkland’s story is interwoven into the fabric of this state’s art scene. It actually begins with a preamble concerning artist Henry Read, a founder of the original Denver Art Museum in 1893. Read commissioned architects Biscoe and Hewitt to design a studio for his use, which was built between 1910 and 1911. The studio is a dark-red-brick Arts and Crafts-era structure with a distinctive barrel vault and extensive skylights facing north to provide ideal natural light inside. In 1929, painter Kirkland came to town to teach art at the University of Denver, and in 1932, after he split with DU, he founded the Kirkland School of Art in Read’s old studio, which he rented and subsequently purchased. Kirkland returned to DU in 1946 (he remained there until retiring in 1969) but continued to use the studio as a place to create his paintings. During those years, he emerged as one of the greatest artists to have ever worked in Colorado.
Kirkland passed away in 1981, bequeathing his studio and art collection to Hugh Grant, a close friend who had helped him during his later years. For the next decade or so, Grant exhibited Kirkland’s paintings, along with works by other Colorado artists, in venues around the world. In 1989, Grant married Merle Chambers, who funded the construction of the original Kirkland Museum, which was attached to the old studio at East 13th Avenue and Pearl Street. Chambers was deeply involved in guiding the development of the museum, which opened in 2003, as well as providing ongoing financial support. With collections in three categories — Kirkland’s oeuvre, art by other Colorado artists, and international design and decorative art — the museum was a rousing success with visitors, and soon too small for the crowds that were showing up. So in 2014, the decision was made to erect a much larger building.
Grant had felt strongly that the new Kirkland should be closer to the Denver Art Museum, and a site was acquired for $7.7 million at the corner of Bannock Street and West 12th Avenue. However, that created a dilemma: What to do with the studio on Pearl Street? It was Chambers who came up with the notion of moving it; her parents had moved their house when she was a child, so she knew it could be done. In 2016, with much fanfare, the studio was moved in one piece to a site just north of the under-construction new museum, retaining its original orientation so that the skylights still face north. The $22 million expense of constructing the new building and the cost of moving the old one was borne by the Merle Chambers Fund. Grant and Chambers divorced in 2017, but she remains involved, serving on the board of the museum.
Created by the Seattle firm of Olson Kundig, with Jim Olson as designer and Kirsten Murray as project manager, the new museum is eye-dazzling — as it needed to be, considering its neighbors. The DAM’s new administration building is right across the street; next to that is the Clyfford Still Museum. The DAM’s Hamilton Building and Ponti tower, as well as the Denver Public Library, are all just around the corner, with the History Colorado Center up 12th. And then there’s the Civic Center, with its collection of Denver landmarks, just a couple of blocks away. No other part of the city is as chock-full of important buildings, so the stakes were high for the architects. Olson Kundig clearly accomplished its goal, with a building that not only stands up to the nearby architectural competition, but stands out from it, too.
The neo-modernist building has an attenuated horizontal form, with a central two-story pavilion flanked by one-story wings; the three elements are unified by a planar eyebrow eave that runs at the roofline of the wings and across the face of the taller pavilion, while the second story is recessed back from the street facade. The most obvious feature, though, is the rich color of the materials covering the pavilion. Set against the prevailing horizontality of the structure’s volume, baguettes in terra cotta, accented by glass backed with gold foil, introduce a secondary verticality. Olson has said that the color and idea of having sparkling elements was inspired by Kirkland’s paintings. The sense of the vertical juxtaposed with the horizontal is reinforced by the tinted glass fins that mark the main entry, near the corner of Bannock and 12th. Behind the building to the west is a parking lot, off of which is another formal entrance.
The building is like a little jeweled box on the outside — but inside, it’s surprisingly spacious, measuring 38,500 square feet (including the relocated studio). And as bold as the exterior is, the interior is visually quiet, with an earthy palette of neutral-colored walls, dark woodwork and rosy-brown terrazzo floors. Beyond the entry corridor is an open space where the admissions desk is located. To the left is a separate lounge with seating, including furniture that Olson originally designed for the Chambers-Grant residence in the Polo Grounds; on the other side of the desk is a gift shop, and behind the desk, a gallery dedicated to Kirkland’s career. Off to the right is a wide allée, the Promenade, that leads visitors to the many galleries beyond. This is where the main part of the museum begins.
There are three galleries off either side of the Promenade, and Grant has employed them to bring visitors through the stylistic phases of the modern movement. Using paintings and works on paper by Colorado artists together with furniture and decorative items from around the world, Grant has laid out the Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Modern and Post-Modern styles. To get the sweeping historical experience that he’s intended, visitors begin in the first gallery to the right and continue through the next two, then cross the Promenade and work their way back through the other three. Grant has taken into account the views of the galleries from the Promenade, and also provided teasers for each gallery, with objects linked to the style inside displayed in niches along the passageway.
At the end of the Promenade is a corridor that leads to a sculpture gallery on the right, and on the left a gallery that will be used for temporary exhibits; the first one is a print show. Farther down the hall is the old Kirkland studio, filled with Kirkland’s pieces, his collections of decorative art, and the outrageous ceiling-hung straps that the artist hoisted himself onto in order to paint parts of his enormous paintings that he otherwise couldn’t have reached.
Grant has arranged everything with his characteristic more-is-more approach, and at times, surrounded by showcases of pottery, glass and ceramics, with paintings, sculptures, furniture and textiles everywhere else, you might feel as though you’ve been locked in a treasure chest. The displays include many favorites familiar from the old museum, but there are also more newly acquired items than you can count.
Even as a quaint little Capitol Hill museum, the Kirkland was fabulous. But now that it’s in a spectacular new building in the Civic Center Cultural Complex, it’s really hit the big time.
The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, opening March 10 at 1201 Bannock Street, 303-832-8576, kirklandmuseum.org.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.