Out West

More by happenstance than by design, three of Colorado's most important cultural institutions -- The Denver Art Museum, the Denver Public Library and the Colorado History Museum -- are all lined up, one after another, along the south side of the Civic Center.

It wasn't always so. The DAM got to its current location first, moving in the early 1950s from Chappell House, a Capitol Hill mansion. A few years later the DPL came from the other side of the park, leaving the Carnegie Library (a city building now named for former mayor Bill McNichols). And finally, in the 1970s, the CHM relocated from its handsome neo-classical building opposite the south door of the Capitol Building.

In the decades since, the CHM has assumed the lowest profile of the three. That's partly the fault of the close-to-the-ground and subtly hued building itself, a wedge-shaped design from 1977 in which much of the floor space is invisible from outside, since it is below the plaza that links the CHM to the Colorado Supreme Court. (The CHM and the Supreme Court building are part of the same complex, originally called the Judicial Heritage Center, which was the work of Denver architects RNL.) The CHM's anonymity problem is made all the worse by its emphatic neighbors, the DAM and the DPL, both of which are in their distinctive, hard-to-miss, high-style structures.

"Our building is really difficult to see," says Peg Ekstrand, the CHM's longtime public-relations director. "The trees along 13th Avenue block the view of the entrance, and you couldn't see the sign." In response to this problem, the CHM commissioned a mammoth photo-mural to help identify the building; "Colorful Colorado Montage" was erected last month. Funds for the project -- around $100,000 -- were raised from private donors.

The piece is the work of Denver graphic artist Thomas Brunet. Using computer technology at the photo-imaging shop at Cies-Sexton, Brunet blended turn-of-the-century images from the CHM's extensive collection of photos and combined them into a single horizontal composition. Portraits of cowboys, Indians and Baby Doe Tabor are set against backdrops including the Garden of the Gods and the Brown Palace Hotel. Most of the original photos are black-and-white, so Brunet colorized his versions, toning up the aptly named montage's wide range of colors and unifying the palette by using vivid blue skies across the top.

A staggering 145 feet long, "Colorful Colorado Montage" runs above the first floor of the CHM and is therefore easily seen from westbound 13th Avenue and northbound Lincoln Street. And it definitely achieves the CHM's goal of raising the museum's presence -- it's eye-catching, to say the least. But is it a work of art? Put me down as considering it signage and not a genuine mural.

The new sign is just the first change at the CHM. The museum has hired the Denver architectural firm of Bennett Wagner & Grody to design new entrances, which will be marked by yellow canopies mounted just below "Colorful Colorado Montage," and to reconfigure the lobby to include an expanded gift shop and a new staircase. Also planned is a room for schoolkids to gather with facilities to stow their books and lunches. (The CHM currently has no such area, which is more than a little troublesome, since the museum attracts some half a million students a year.) The renovation will not begin until after the holidays, but the museum will remain open during construction. That's one reason the entrance to the main first-floor galleries has been made smaller by a corridor constructed to act as a sound baffle, directing noises back at the work site and away from the galleries.

But the black-painted hallway with its black carpeting also has a figurative function: Its color and its stepped walls are meant to suggest a giant camera bellows. This entrance device symbolizes the subject of the CHM's most important exhibit this year, Then and Now, 1870-2000: The Jackson/Fielder Photos, which opened this past weekend. The show pairs images by William Henry Jackson, the state's premier landscape photographer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with brand-new re-creations by John Fielder, Jackson's modern-day corollary.

In the lobby opposite the entrance is a nineteenth-century box camera facing the bellows-cum-foyer. It is not Jackson's actual camera, since the whereabouts of that artifact are unknown, but it is similar to the camera he used. Facing viewers as they enter the galleries are a pair of inverted Jackson images in the form of sepia-toned enlargements. The room is dimly lit, meant to accustom visitor's eyes to the low-light levels in the rest of the galleries. "It's exactly the way the scene would look through the box camera," says David Newell, the CHM's director of design and production. Referring to the darkness and the upside-down scenery, Newell has nicknamed this space "the Zen room," but by making it a giant version of an old camera's insides, there's a little Ziegfield in Newell's style as well.

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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

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