Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver

Last week, as I stood at the corner of 15th and Delgany streets and took in the nearly finished Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, a part of me still couldn't believe it had actually happened. In just over a decade, this little, privately funded and perpetually-strapped-for-cash institution had grown from a figment of the collective imagination of a group of arts advocates into a full-fledged cultural treasure, and the new building proves that. Many people can take credit for the success so far, but no one deserves more than MCA director Cydney Payton. She is one of only a handful of art professionals around here who could have turned the leaden MCA into pure gold.

I've avidly followed the MCA's story from the beginning, when it was still just a fantasy and didn't even have a name ("Museum Qualities," December 5, 1996). At the time, two separate groups, each aiming to start a new museum, had joined forces. The first, dominated by artists, called their project CoMoCA (Colorado Museum of Contemporary Art); the other, made up mostly of collectors, had dubbed their project the Galleries of Contemporary Art. One of these pioneers, Sue Cannon, stands out because she had the financial wherewithal to float the place for many years. More recently, she has given millions of dollars to the building fund.

The next year, the allied force mounted its first exhibition highlighting local collections in a luxuriously appointed space at 1999 Broadway that was called the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver ("And They're Off," October 23, 1997). In 1999, the museum moved into a former fish market in Sakura Square, where it remained until last year, when it relocated to temporary digs across from the construction site.

Payton took the reins six years ago after a series of directors and interim directors ("Up, Up and Away," August 2, 2001), dubbing the place the MCA and beginning a new era there. From the start, she wanted the institution to have its own building, and that wish took a step closer to reality in 2003 when Mark Falcone of Continuum Partners and Ellen Bruss announced the donation of a piece of land at the edge of LoDo ("Spring Flings," April 24, 2003). The MCA then asked forty cutting-edge architects from around the world to submit design plans before choosing six finalists, who made their presentations in 2004. David Adjaye, an African-born, London-based architect who heads Adjaye/Associates, was ultimately selected. A budding talent at the time, he has since developed a much larger international reputation.

The MCA is Adjaye's first public building in the United States and his first museum anywhere. Unlike many of the designers building museums around the world who are focused on making bold formal statements — functional considerations be damned — Adjaye adhered to the classic modernist form-follows-function formula.

This is partly a result of his close relationship with Payton, who developed a program first and had Adjaye come up with the right building to house it. In this regard, and many others, it's tempting to say that the chaste and exquisitely detailed cube-like, glass-clad MCA is the polar opposite of Daniel Libeskind's dramatic, titanium-covered and exuberantly shaped Frederic C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum. But believe it or not, the two heterogeneous buildings may be associated conceptually. Both are exemplars of neo-modernism and incorporate deconstructivist ideas; it's just that Adjaye is coming out of formalism, while Libeskind was delving into expressionism.

Before entering the MCA, it's interesting to take in the entire complex, which includes a group of luxury townhouses and a mid-rise residential tower designed by Denver's Studio Completiva. There is also another Adjaye structure on the site, the Bruss-Falcone townhouse, where the land donors will live. This tall, rectangular building is covered in steel panels that mimic the shape of the MCA's glass. It looks like a Richard Serra sculpture turned into a house. On the pavement, in between the Bruss-Falcone and the MCA, is "Riemannian Tangencies," a Clark Richert installation in which acid-etched patterns have been burned into the concrete.

The MCA's entrance is at the northeast corner of the building, where a black-tinted concrete ramp leads to the ticket counter and, beyond it, the gift shop. There is no actual door, but security will be provided by a chain-mail gate at the entrance to the ramp. This initial encounter is filled with details that juxtapose vertical and horizontal elements, which is reminiscent of the work of Philip Johnson — and Edward Durell Stone — from half a century ago. Another notable detail is the mirrored ceiling made from stainless-steel sheets arranged in a constructivist pattern.

Visitors then arrive at the breathtaking atrium that runs through the center of the building. The transition from the confining entry with its low ceiling to a soaring space beyond comes out of Frank Lloyd Wright's playbook (which is why it's called neo-modern). The atrium, which divides the building into three structural volumes, is lit by skylight windows that form part of the floor of the roof-deck. An opening in the floor, lined with plate steel used in lieu of railings, reveals the lower level, where administrative offices and The Whole Room, a multi-purpose meeting-cum-gallery space, are located. Candice Breitz's "Legend," made up of a grid of thirty wall-mounted video screens on which Jamaicans are singing Bob Marley songs a cappella, is installed here. The Breitz is the first part of Star Power: Museum as Body Electric, the MCA's inaugural exhibitions.

On the first floor, in the intimate New Media Gallery — which is cordoned off by curtains — is "Faces," by Carlos Amorales. A mixed-media installation in which a spider form and a skull shape move to music, the piece is purportedly about the role of fantasy in contemporary society. In the mid-sized Photography Gallery is an exhibit of photo-collages by Collier Schorr from her "Jens F." series, based on her six-year visual exploration of a really cute teenage boy.

To proceed from the first floor, which also houses a library and executive offices, to the second floor, visitors may access the elevators or one of two sets of stairs. The enclosed staircases are very swanky, with black stairs, landings, railings and banisters offset by white walls splashed with indirect lighting. Not having to account for other functions, the second floor is completely made up of galleries. In the large Paper Works Gallery, there's an exhibition of watercolors of female nudes by Chris Ofili who, like Adjaye, is an African-born artist who lives in the United Kingdom. Ofili became world-famous (infamous?) a few years ago after he used elephant dung and pornography in a piece based on the Madonna. Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, then the mayor of New York, used Ofili as an example of cultural decadence, going so far as to threaten to de-fund the city-supported Brooklyn Museum, where his piece was exhibited.

In the Project Gallery is an installation called "Whare Shakairo" — a house for ancestors — by Maori artist Rangi Kipa. It is meant to rehabilitate the Tiki culture that has been degraded by non-Maoris. In the informal Promenade is an installation made of tape and high heels by Wangechi Mutu that's filled with post-feminist content. Finally, in the very grand Large Works Gallery, is an eye-dazzling untitled installation involving mirrored walls and mirrored sculptures by David Altmejd.

On the third floor is The Idea Box, an innovative education space for kids, and the wonderful June S. Gates Garden, designed by Karla Dakin. The rooftop garden features the use of Brazilian redwood for planter boxes, decking and paneling. A glass box set in the garden and back from the edges of the building houses the MCA Cafe, a restaurant with both indoor and outdoor bars. Inside is a permanent display by Kim Dickey that brings the garden in via a group of ceramic sculptures based on plant forms lining the sills surrounding the room.

I absolutely love Adjaye's MCA, and truly admire Payton for bringing it to Denver. Over the next several days, a series of events will inaugurate the new building, culminating in a grand-opening ceremony on October 28 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The event is free and open to the public; call 303-298-7554 for information.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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