Museum Qualities

In the last few years, two groups have emerged in Denver, each intent on establishing a museum of contemporary art as an alternative to the Denver Art Museum. For a long time the two groups were unknown to each other. (If only the Ocean Journey crowd had been so circumspect.) But both came out of the shadows this past summer. Now gossip is flying concerning the birth of a new museum--and likely as not, the fur will be flying before long.

The first group--for convenience, let's call them the artists--held a successful wine-tasting in August to launch their effort, which they dubbed CoMoCA, the Colorado Museum of Contemporary Art. This group includes several well-known area artists such as Dale Chisman, Mark Sink and Lawrence Argent, along with arts advocate Marina Graves. Scott Chamberlin, who played an important role in the group's founding, dropped out even before the fundraiser.

The other group--we'll call them the collectors--was forced by the artists' wine-tasting to reveal themselves or risk playing perpetual second fiddle. And these wealthy enthusiasts aren't going to stand for that, even if they haven't chosen a name for their not-yet-planned institution. The group includes heiress Sue Cannon; the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District's Tier III chairman, John Woodward; and Artyard gallery director Peggy Mangold. Also involved are a number of Cannon's well-to-do friends.

The artist group and the collectors' group have joined forces in the last few months. Word on the street is that big money has been lined up (we're talking millions here), that an existing building has been tagged for the site of the museum, and that there will soon be a museum board.

But the alliance of the two groups has been strained. Even at this very early stage, discouraging words about the museum have begun to leak into the rumor flow of the art scene--for instance, the idea that only new art, not more than ten years old, should be displayed. Another proposal now being debated would exclude regional art and focus instead on international currents. These discussions, at times acrimonious, may lead some of the original participants to bail out.

Maybe it's these philosophical disagreements that have resulted in the air of secrecy surrounding the proposed museum. But all this furtiveness is really wrongheaded. Don't those behind the would-be museum understand how to use publicity? If the facility is to be launched at all--and that's a big if--it will have to rely on public support. And you don't build a public amenity with a petty fiefdom that operates behind closed doors.

If those who dream of a museum of contemporary art really want to know how to run a railroad, they should take a look at how the Denver Museum of Natural History is packing them in for its Imperial Tombs of China exhibit. In the first three weeks alone, more than 65,000 visitors have made their way through the exhibit and nearly 100,000 more have bought tickets. The show is this winter's Asian blockbuster--last year's was the exhibit of Mongolian art and artifacts at the Denver Art Museum--and by now even the most casual Denver exhibition-goer is invariably beginning to feel like something of an expert in the history of Asian art.

Imperial Tombs economically surveys some 2,500 years of Chinese dynastic history. The 250 articles in the exhibit are on loan from more than a score of museums, including the Imperial Museum of Beijing and the Nanking Museum. Many of the artifacts, including figures and vessels in bronze and terra cotta, are considered national treasures and have thus never left China before. The stop in Denver is one of only five in the U.S.

The exhibit was organized by China's State Bureau of Cultural Relics and by Wonders, the ambitious Memphis city agency that first gained international renown when it organized the Ramses II show (presented at the DMNH in 1988). Serving as guest curator for the exhibit exclusively here in Denver was Chuimei Ho, a Hong Kong native and adjunct curator at Chicago's Field Museum.

The hiring of a consulting curator is just one of the special features that separate the Denver version of Imperial Tombs from the exhibit presented in the other four American venues. Other made-for-Denver elements include the text panels and the photographs that are used to explicate the artifacts. Nancy Knepper headed up the museum's interpretive team, and the whole thing was laid out and put together by exhibition designer Dave Pachuta.

Imperial Tombs is installed in three major segments, each on its own floor. The show begins on the third floor, continues on the second and comes to a somewhat abrupt conclusion on the first. The powers that be at the DMNH obviously had some trouble fitting this exhibit into the museum's available spaces. In fact, viewers may spend more time traveling between the show's parts than they will in the show itself.

This space problem may have led to the decision to begin the show at what is surely the end: The court furnishings of the Shenyang Palace. Most of this imperial court furniture from the Qing Dynasty dates from the period of 1736 to 1795, making it the newest stuff in the show. Other items in this section include lovely silk embroidery, cloisonne animals and birds, and lacquer-and-gold-leaf furniture. There are even giant ceremonial parasols and fans that were carried by members of the emperor's retinue.

If the decision to begin with the Shenyang palace decorations was a logistical compromise, it's also a way to get viewers hooked. The accessible and easy-to-appreciate palace suite is guaranteed to appeal to the wide range of visitors such a popular show as Imperial Tombs will attract. And the pieces that follow have a much quieter appeal--perhaps because, unlike the Shenyang decor, they were actually taken from tombs.

Like other ancient peoples, the Chinese developed an elaborate approach to burial rites. They believed they could take it with them, and they did, sometimes taking horses, hounds, even wives and concubines. Plenty of inanimate objects also went along for the ride--and many of them were to die for, in more ways than one.

In 1978 archaeologists digging in the town of Leigudun found a great number of bronze vessels (nearly ten tons' worth, making it the largest such stash ever found in any royal Chinese tomb), along with lacquered wood, jade jewelry and even a few pieces of gold (a material rarely used by the Chinese) that date from the Warring States period of 475 to 221 B.C. Many of these pieces bear the inscription "For the perpetual use of Marquis Yi of Zeng."

Lucky Yi--these symbolic articles have endured beautifully in the couple of millennia he's had them at his disposal. The extremely rare "Hu," a pair of monumental wine vessels still together with their "Jin," a presentation tray on which they sit, are--if Marquis Yi will excuse the expression--drop-dead gorgeous. The blue-green color of the patina of antiquity is almost too exquisite to bear. The works from Yi's tomb are the most important and complete inclusions in Imperial Tombs.

Also in the '70s, archaeologists came upon the tomb of King Cuo of Zhongshan, another product of the Warring States period. King Cuo's tomb was larger than Yi's, but it had been looted repeatedly, and many of its treasures had already been lost. Fortunately, those that survived include some of the most fabulous things Cuo took with him to the other side: wonderful mythical animals in bronze with gold and silver inlays, and verdigris bronze items such as a pair of gigantic tridents and a remarkable basin with a hawk finial.

Leaving the third floor, the viewer moves to the second by escalator and through an elaborate maze of taped-off corridors. The second floor features many of the most famous articles in the show, beginning with the pottery army of Emperor Qinshihuang, the First Emperor of Qin, who ruled from 246 to 210 B.C.

The '70s were obviously a busy time for Chinese archaeology--that's also when the tomb of Qinshihuang was unearthed. This discovery, made by a peasant digging a well, has been heralded as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time. The peasant man stumbled onto 8,000 life-sized terra-cotta soldiers, horses and chariots. Only a handful have been included here, but even these few reveal the expert ceramic artistry that was obviously prevalent at the time. No one interested in ceramics should pass up the opportunity to see them.

The next section of the show briefly surveys the Han, Tang, Liao and Ming dynasties, in the process bringing us from 206 B.C. to 1644 A.D. This part of the exhibit features bronze miniatures from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) that depict a royal funeral procession. Among the small parade of mounted cavalry men and carriages is a "Bronze Chariot With Ax Bearer" which indicates that General Zhang, the occupant of the tomb from which it was taken, had the power to carry out executions in the hereafter. Also dating from the Han Dynasty is the breathtaking "Jade Burial Suit With Gold Threads," which is one of only two dozen known to exist. This one was made for the Prince of Liang.

In the galleries devoted to Tang Dynasty tombs (618-906 A.D.), the influence of trade, especially with India and Persia, is seen in the ceramic figures, particularly in the poses they strike. Included are a signature Tang horse, a camel and, more unusual, three painted ceramic figures that depict zaftig women, said to embody the feminine ideal of the Tang. There are only a few items representing the Ming Dynasty, which reigned from 1368 to 1644. But one of them, the crown of Empress Xiaoduan--made of rubies, sapphires, pearls, gold and, believe it or not, kingfisher feathers--well expresses that period's flamboyant approach to the visual arts.

Greeting visitors at the first floor are two enormous stone lions that were in the Imperial Park at Beijing and date from the Qing Dynasty--the same crew whose imperial court started off the show. And that's pretty much it, which makes the first floor a fairly weak link. Viewers will hunger for more, which is obviously what the museum had in mind: Close to those stone lions is the gift shop, right on the way to the parking lot.

There's only one drawback to Imperial Tombs of China--it's too popular and too crowded. Then again, think about poor Emperor Qinshihuang. He had to share his home with a cast of 8,000--for all eternity, no less.

Imperial Tombs of China, through March 16 at the Denver Museum of Natural History, 2001 Colorado Boulevard, 322-7009.

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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