Lerner’s decade in the role has seen the museum hit record-breaking attendance, in part because of his experimental, community-minded programming and curatorial strategies; interactive events showcasing a mix of artists, intellectuals and creatives, from chefs to a shaman; and bold exhibitions curated by the MCA staff that have toured the world.
Prior to coming to the MCA, Lerner worked as the master teacher of modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum and as the director of the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar, where he pioneered the Mixed Taste series, bringing together lecturers from different disciplines to discuss unrelated topics, often finding uncanny overlap. He brought that series to the MCA, and it eventually shifted into a collaboration with Off-Center at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
Ten years ago, when Cydney Payton stepped down as the vibrant head of the MCA and Lerner's appointment to the post was confirmed, Westword art critic Michael Paglia predicted this: "Expect Lerner to transfer his educational focus from the Lab to the MCA, thereby causing the main focus of the institution to be on lectures, not exhibits. Too bad."
While Lerner and the MCA staff indeed used the museum as a platform for lectures and community events that attracted a flood of patrons under 35, he also brought landmark exhibits to town, including a recent look at Jean-Michel Basquiat's earliest works, a sprawling retrospective of murals by Cleon Peterson, and an exhibit of works by Marilyn Minter. Lerner's team has also used the museum as a space to showcase Denver artists including Derrick Velasquez and Kristen Hatgi Sink, along with musicians such as Kayla Marque and Westword MasterMinds Ill Se7en and Molina Speaks.
“I feel like I have — with the support of an amazing staff and board — been able to make MCA Denver a very important part of the cultural landscape of Denver,” Lerner tells Westword. “At the beginning, when I took over, we had to promise to the city that we could be an important player. I feel like now we are a central player. We are also an important element of the forward-thinking element of the new Denver. We’ve become not just an energized place of art and events, but also, we stand for what I think is the best aspect of the new Denver, and that is the ability to take risks and be a little weird and risk alienating people in order to do something that is different and interesting.”
The MCA, much like Denver itself, is faced with a challenge: “How do we manage the downside of our success?” Lerner asks. “Who is not included in the prosperity of the city? For the museum, our first concern is how can creatives become more a part of the prosperity of our city?”
That question has driven Lerner and his team to incorporate lesser-known local artists into the museum’s programming, including the Octopus Initiative, an art-lending library.
All of this experimentation, Lerner says, is part of the soul of the MCA, which, as an institution, has long embraced creative exhibition models. He believes it will continue to do so.
Lerner is leaving on good terms with the board of directors, which will soon form a search committee to find his replacement, with an eye toward candidates from around the world.
“Adam Lerner’s unparalleled vision and willingness to take risks has transformed MCA Denver over the past decade,” says Mike Fries, MCA Denver board chair, in a statement. “Adam has been instrumental not only in making MCA the heart of Denver’s cultural community, but also in rethinking the role of a traditional art institution by launching groundbreaking programs that are now mimicked around the country.”
Under Lerner’s leadership, the MCA has freed itself from $10 million in debt and raised $17.5 million in a capital campaign to create an endowment to remodel the building and to bolster programming — in short, creating a strong financial base upon which future leadership can build.
“I know that the next director will be able to take all the advances we made over the last ten years as an institution and amplify them,” Lerner says. "The next director will obviously have their own vision for the institution. I have absolute confidence that the board will select somebody who believes in what is unique about this environment, what’s unique about Denver, what’s unique about this institution.”
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As for Lerner himself, he plans to stay in Denver. Doing what? He hasn’t decided yet – probably something outside of museums, he says.
“I know it’s unnerving for me to tell you I don’t know,” he says. “Really, I have so much confidence that if I take a little bit of time to get to zero and get a little silence around me, that what is right for me will emerge naturally. I’m going to take a little bit of time after my contract runs out and see what it is that emerges. I don’t know what it is, but one thing I do know is that it will involve all the things I’m good at — creating worlds that people want to become a part of.”
Tuesday morning Lerner sent the following note to supporters of the MCA:
With a wistful feeling in my heart, I am writing to share with you that I have decided not to renew my contract and will step down from my role as Director and Chief Animator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver this June.
When I took the helm, just after we opened our new building in 2007, I set my sights on creating a museum that would vibe with the emerging vitality of the city. I wanted MCA Denver to grow with the city, but, even more, I wanted the museum to influence what Denver was becoming.
Blessed with the support of an exceptional Board of Trustees, and a creative and hardworking staff, I’m proud that I’ve been able to foster the growth of an institution that now pulses with energy and imagination. I am especially grateful to you, our faithful friends and supporters, for getting us to where we are today. Your involvement fueled us and your contributions sustained us. You believed in us and, together, we built a place befitting the stature and specialness of our forward-thinking city.
My vision for the museum was always bigger than attracting crowds. Together with my staff, I strived to do things in Denver at the forefront of culture anywhere. I’ve worked to make sure that Denver’s prosperity includes the city’s many talented artists and creatives who enrich our community. We’ve always sought to do everything we do in our own way, reimagining the role of a contemporary art museum and cultivating a personality for it that is equal parts elevated, playful, and soulful.
MCA Denver will, of course, continue to thrive with its highly talented staff and dedicated board. The museum’s creative leadership, including Nora Burnett Abrams, Ellen Bruss Curator, and Sarah Baie, Director of Programming, currently develop the museum’s public offerings, needing little input from me. Director of Development Michael McNeill has been extremely successful running the museum’s Elevated Heartbeat Campaign, which has already raised $17.5 million, ensuring the financial stability of the institution for the foreseeable future.
I feel this is the appropriate time for me to pursue new creative ventures from beyond the platform of a museum. My success so far has always come from departing from established paths, and I’d like to continue off-roading. I will remain in Denver and continue to work with creatives and artists, broadly defined, to further enrich our city and impact people’s lives.
The board is already underway with a search for a new director and I am confident they will find someone great, as the museum is positioned to attract the best talent in the field. I personally am looking forward to watching the museum’s vision evolve under new leadership as it enters the next chapter of its development.
Once again, I want to thank you for helping me get the museum to where it is today. Thank you for loving us.
I look forward to seeing you at MCA Denver soon, often, and far into the future.
Mark G. Falcone “MaFa” Director and Chief Animator
P.S. If you haven’t seen the Tara Donovan exhibition yet, get here soon. It’s the sh*t.