The public made unprecedented expenditures on public art and public buildings last year in Denver. But you wouldn't know it to look around.

The biggest plum, both in terms of cost and lost opportunity, was Denver International Airport, born of the dreams of former mayor Federico Pena. The site plan and buildings at the $5 billion airport include some marvelous details--like the Fentress-and-Bradburn-designed tent roof--but the complex falls apart as a whole. Literally.

With regard to the art that "graces" the new airport, a lack of continuity is the least of the city's problems. Of the $7 million originally slated for public art at the airport, Denver spent just over $5 million. But some pieces already commissioned, notably a monumental sculpture of a horse by Luis Jimenez and a fountain by Doug Hollis, will most likely never be installed.

So what did the city get for the money that was spent on art at DIA? Very little. Only a handful of the pieces can be considered first-rate: "Dual Meridian," a knockout installation by David Griggs; Betty Woodman's masterful ceramic "Balustrades"; "America...Why I Love Her," a popular pair of multimedia pieces by Gary Sweeney; "Kinetic Light Air Curtain," the propeller installation in one of the train tunnels, by William Maxwell and Antonette Rosato; and finally, the controversial (at least with the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, which has refused to accept it) "Great Hall Floor," a terrazzo floor with metal inlays by Ken Iwamasa and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith.

Most of the rest at DIA is of little visual interest, though both "Notre Denver," Terry Allen's stupid bronze gargoyles in suitcases, and "Deep Time/Deep Space," the amateurish installation in the inbound train tunnel, by Leni Schwendinger, deserve to be mentioned for their utter lack of artistic value. It's a good thing the mayor's airport-art subcommittee went on a national search for artists. If it had limited its sights to local artists, it would have been stuck with the likes of Griggs, Woodman and Sweeney. (Sweeney, a Continental Airlines baggage handler, has since left town.)

Another new city project that dates back to the Pena administration is the Michael Graves-designed Denver Public Library, attached to the old 1955 Central Library by Burnham Hoyt. What's left of the old library has been absurdly dubbed the "Burnham Hoyt Room." Shouldn't that be "wing"? And wouldn't it have made more sense to rename the historic building for a figure important to the history of the DPL such as founding city librarian Charles Dudley or that great branch builder John Eastlick, rather than for the architect who designed it?

If the DPL really wanted to honor the memory of Burnham Hoyt, maybe Brian Klipp, the Graves collaborator who headed up the redo of the historic building, should have taken a more refined and less brutal approach to his interior changes. The recently opened "Burnham Hoyt Room" already looks in desperate need of redecoration--and its fourth-rate modernization looks all the worse when set against the brilliance of Graves's new wing.

And the public art at the library is about as exciting as the Dewey Decimal System. Looking at the seventy-panel mural that runs along the mezzanine level of Schlessman Hall, viewers may wonder what Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha's studio assistants were thinking when they created the piece.

Another major public project downtown was Coors Field, which almost didn't open last spring owing to the baseball strike. The traditional ballpark design by Brad Shrock of Missouri-based HOK Sport--who was not licensed to practice in Colorado when he carried out the work--is only an average effort. But the attempt to get along in LoDo architecturally--plenty of red brick and green iron--is a success.

Because Coors Field was not a city project but rather a metro-wide one, there was no obligation to include public art. Laudably, the stadium district authority did so anyway, bypassing the morass of the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film to create its own process.

All three ballpark art commissions were given to local artists, who carried them out with varying degrees of success. Erick Johnson, whose excellent, ceiling-hung sculptures relieve the interior of the tragic Colorado Convention Center, struck out with "Bottom of the Ninth," a lackluster metal-and-neon wall relief mounted on the exterior of the stadium. "The West, the Worker, the Ball Field," a monumental outfield mural by Matt O'Neill and Jeff Starr, is quite a bit better, though a good deal of the promise implied by the preparatory prints remains unfulfilled. The best of the Coors Field pieces--the home run, if you will--is Lonnie Hanzon's gateway folly south of the stadium, "The Evolution of the Ball."

Follies have enjoyed quite a run around here lately--and no, I'm not talking about real estate speculator Dana Crawford getting a lifetime achievement award last summer from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (That wasn't a folly; it was a joke.) Instead, I'm referring to a functionless architectural form, like Hanzon's gateway. Library architect Graves even included two arresting follies at the DPL: One lines the Acoma Plaza entrance and another sits in the middle of the Western History Room.

The most recent Denver folly is the "Argento Piattino Con Pesce," by Andy Libertone, which sits atop the newly opened tunnel under Broadway at Speer Boulevard. The title is Italian for "Silver Saucer With Fish," but Libertone's work looks more like a gazebo. The design is lovely, and the execution (mostly in metal) is finely done. But this unlikely symbol of repose at one of the city's busiest intersections does have a hard time competing with the visual litter in the area--in particular, the neon sign of the adjacent Burger King.

Fortunately, there's nothing to interfere with a viewer's appreciation of the greatest cache of public art acquired locally last year--the twenty Robert Motherwells recently scored by the Denver Art Museum. This selection of drawings, collages and paintings is handsomely displayed in the recently reformulated Stanton Gallery, the new permanent home for the Modern and Contemporary department.

Another important addition to the DAM collection is "Anaconda," a two-ton, seven-piece marble sculpture by Herbert Bayer that was moved from the lobby of the Arco Tower. DAM was given three weeks to remove the piece before the building's new owners demolished it. The museum moved fast to rescue "Anaconda" and plans to install it inside the soon-to-be-created Acoma Plaza entrance.

Plans for that entranceway have already given fits to several designers, including Washington, D.C.-based George Sexton Associates and Denver's Cronenwett Architects. In recent months, well-known Denver architect George Hoover has also been brought on board. Given the pie in the face Hoover took over his outlandish design proposal for the Central Library and the kick in the pants he received for his reviled "elegant box" at the doomed Zeckendorf Plaza, maybe his suggestions for DAM will show that he's learned his lesson about using care when adding to important existing buildings. Nah.

Speaking of Zeckendorf Plaza--a pioneering work by one of the world's great architects, I.M. Pei--the hyperbolic paraboloid will bite the dust as early as next month to accommodate a brown-shoe hotel chain from the Midwest. While Clevelanders are heralding their new Pei--the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum--we're destroying ours, making Denver more bush league architecturally than the Mistake by the Lake. And the news is made all the more unbearable by the fact that taxpayer money (in the form of a $25 million DURA subsidy) will pay for the act of vandalism.

There's plenty of discredit to go around for the Zeckendorf fiasco. Surely, foremost among the discredited is DURA's beacon of darkness, Susan Powers, who went to considerable trouble to make sure historic preservation was never an option. That makes sense, since Powers wouldn't know a good building if it fell on her.

Then again, neither would Mayor Wellington Webb, who provided zero leadership on this issue. Pena showed how much a mayor can do by developing the Lower Downtown Historic District and preserving the Central Library and the Mayan Theater. Webb, by contrast, has fiddled while Denver has gotten burned. Chalk up landmarks like the Boettcher School, the Midland Savings Building, the Kenmark Hotel, Lincoln Park and now the hyperbolic paraboloid. Hey, didn't Webb-appointed planning boss Jennifer Moulton used to be the head of Historic Denver? I guess that was in a different lifetime.

Today's head of Historic Denver is Kathleen Brooker. And talk about deserving a lifetime achievement award in preservation: She earned one in a typical week during the dirty Zeckendorf fight. The week before the landmark nomination went before the perfidious Denver City Council, for example, Historic Denver had to pack up its files and move. It had been booted from its LoDo offices by that lifetime achiever Dana Crawford.

Given how good a year 1995 should have been for the arts and architecture, it's hard to imagine how things could have been done worse. (Oh, I suppose we could have built the big, square library originally proposed by city librarian Rick Ashton, tearing down the old building in the process.) Two things are sure, though: It will be a very long time before this many public projects happen again at the same time; and the lost possibilities are all we'll have to look at for the foreseeable future.

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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