Art Review

Review: Arvada Center's Looking Back Is a Real Reason to Celebrate

An inordinately large proportion of Colorado’s art-exhibition venues — including alternative spaces, galleries, museums and art centers — are located within the relatively confined area of central Denver.
We’re talking about approximately 80 percent of the art infrastructure in the entire state. And while a number of surrounding suburbs and towns, including Boulder, Golden, Lakewood, Parker and Lone Tree, have their own community-supported art and/or theater and concert spaces, one of them is in a league of its own: the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary.
On July 4, 1976, the ribbon was cut on the Arvada Center, an elegant and austere complex of orange-colored brick designed by Perkins & Will and Seracuse Lawler. (Today that original section is hidden by numerous additions liberally accented with postmodern doodads, the product of three expansions — most notably, a thorough redo of the center in 1992 by Barker Rinker Seacat.) In the ’70s, Colorado’s cultural scene was really starting to open up. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Gio Ponti portion of the Denver Art Museum and the now-demolished Colorado History Museum all came on line within a few years of the Arvada Center, and every one of them was a game-changer for the area. Together, they transformed the cultural landscape of Colorado.

But the Arvada Center almost didn’t happen. The city held a municipal bond election in 1974 to fund construction of the center, and it barely passed. Although the original idea had been to create a permanent home for the collection of artifacts assembled by the Arvada Historical Society, the concept morphed during the planning phase. Like the much older Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, the new Arvada Center would include spaces for art, theater and education as well as a history museum.

Now more than twice as big as it was to start with, the Arvada Center encompasses 144,000 square feet filled with exhibits, plays, classes and meetings. It attracted 12,000 visitors in its first year; today it brings in some 300,000 visitors annually. Although it recently became independent from the City of Arvada, the center still receives city funding as well as SCFD support, along with corporate and private donations.

Various events are keyed to this fortieth-anniversary celebration, but the main exhibit is what piqued my interest. In the lower-level galleries, exhibition manager Collin Parson has mounted Looking Back: 40 Years/40 Artists, intended as a survey of what’s been presented at the center over the years.
At the start of Looking Back, a compelling exhibition timeline graphic on the wall is paired with a showcase crammed with center memorabilia. The timeline reminded me of many shows I’d seen there, particularly those from the 1990s curated by Kathy Andrews, the director of the exhibition program from 1993 to 2002. Though I had visited the center before that time, I started going there regularly during her tenure. With the many shows I’ve seen anywhere over the years — and that’s a lot of shows in a lot of venues — I still recall more than a few that Andrews did at the Arvada Center.

Beyond prodding my recollections, the timeline revealed that certain themes or topics have informed center shows from the very beginning; a lot of attention has been paid to women artists, to Latino artists, to ceramics artists and, most of all, to Colorado artists. Studying the archives, Parson decided that the best way to celebrate the center’s art history would be to highlight Colorado artists who’d previously shown there. In doing so, he essentially compiled an index of contemporary art in Colorado over the past four decades.

In the exhibition design, Parson freely mixed new and old pieces; as a result, there’s no historical trail that might illuminate the development of contemporary art in the state over that time. But the relevant material represents such a wide array of expressions with so many radical stylistic shifts, a chronological exhibit wouldn’t have flowed correctly anyway. So Parson did the next best thing: He clustered related items so that they would make sense stylistically when seen together. Still, his strategy comes apart in a couple of places.
As could be expected, Parson has included many well-known artists from the region, with nearly every one of them having a distinguished career that stretches back twenty or thirty years. Their work falls into three broad categories: abstraction of different stripes, representational art in a range of variations, and conceptual art in a wide assortment.

Abstraction has clearly predominated at the center, with Parson including the work of such legendary painters as Dale Chisman, David Rigsby and Angelo di Benedetto, all of whom are deceased, along with Dave Yust, Clark Richert, Homare Ikeda, Jeffrey Keith, Emilio Lobato, Virginia Maitland, Trine Bumiller, Sandra Kaplan and Floyd D. Tunson. Also on view are compatible abstract sculptures by Robert Mangold, Carl Reed, Andy Libertone and by Parson’s father, Charles Parson. (Any competent curator, and not just his son, would have included Charles Parson in this group.)
Among the representational artists are William Sanderson, Bill Amundson, Susan Cooper, Sushe Felix, Tracy Felix, John Fudge, Margaretta Gilboy, Robert Ecker, Jeremy Hillhouse and Frank Sampson. Some of the conceptual artists also use recognizable imagery or objects to convey their ideas; in this group are Carlos Frésquez, Deborah Howard, Patty Ortiz and Tony Ortega. Other featured artists, such as Virginia Folkestad, Carley Warren, Chandler Romeo, Terry Maker and Erick C. Johnson, conjure their own invented imagery.

The remaining slots are filled out by photographers James Milmoe and William Sutton, and by ceramics artists Nan McKinnell and Jim McKinnell, Takashi Nakazato and Betty Woodman. In many ways, photography and ceramics follow their own specific courses, with neither medium falling easily within the obvious stylistic divisions of the show’s paintings and sculptures. Referring back to that timeline at the start, maybe a full-blown ceramics show is in order for the future.
I’d be less than candid if I didn’t acknowledge that this otherwise fantastic show is far from tightly organized; it almost looks like a juried show, if you know what I mean. But that’s a minor complaint when Looking Back reveals so much about what’s happened in Colorado’s art scene over the last couple of generations. Colorado’s newest generation of contemporary artists is highlighted in another exhibit at the center, installed on the upper level; I’ll talk about that next week. In the meantime, Collin Parson has given us a real reason to celebrate.

Looking Back: 40 Years/40 Artists runs through November 13 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200,

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