The Art of Politics

The process by which an architect will be chosen to design the Denver Art Museum's new freestanding wing is coming along nicely. A couple of weeks ago, the City Selection Committee, a mixed bag of politicos and others appointed by Mayor Wellington Webb, narrowed the list of eighteen architectural firms that had submitted proposals down to the five. On May 22 that will be cut down to three, and the ultimate winner will be announced by the end of July.

The DAM's board of trustees worked with museum director Lewis Sharp, Architecture, Design and Graphics curator Craig Miller, and Modern and Contemporary department head Dianne Vanderlip to put together its own list of ten recommended architects who were then contacted and asked to apply. These ten then became part of the master list of eighteen.

Interestingly, all five of the finalists chosen by the selection committee first appeared on the trustees' list.

The list consists of two acknowledged masters of contemporary architecture, Robert Venturi and Arata Isozaki, and three hotter-than-hot contemporary architects, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind and Thom Mayne. We really can't go wrong with any of these choices, and it should be smooth sailing from here, even though the DAM's board of trustees will have no further opportunities to influence the selection committee.

Chief credit for the success so far -- though a foundation for the new building has yet to be dug -- goes to Sharp. He has expertly guided the process, from requesting a capital-improvement bond in the first place to making sure the unreliable selection committee had nothing but plums to chose from.

His political savvy has also shown itself in the area of programming: The blockbuster Impressionism exhibit worked just the way it was supposed to last year by attracting large numbers of people who then went to the polls and helped the museum win its capital-improvement bond election last November.

Maybe he can use his programming skill to reorganize the DAM's Modern and Contemporary department as well, which is itself the product of a reconfiguration that only dates back five years.

With the dawn of the 21st century, 20th-century art will become increasingly distinct from contemporary art. For this reason alone modern art needs to be separated from contemporary. Many museums have separate modern departments, and 20th-century departments are appearing in some places in Europe. It needs to happen, and until it does, modern will take a backseat to contemporary at the DAM, as it has for many years.

Nothing like this could possibly happen before the new building is completed in a few years. But maybe by then the need will be understood by everyone.

And in that same time frame, maybe everyone at the Jewish Community Center will get on board for a proposed facility there that will house a combined Mizel Museum of Judaica and Singer Gallery of the Mizel Arts Center.

The sticking point seems to be the chosen site for the new building, which is currently occupied by the tennis house. Being an oddball, I'm more interested in art than sports, so I have a hard time sympathizing with the tennis members who want to keep their facility. Plus, the tennis house itself is one of the ugliest buildings imaginable -- standing out even on Leetsdale Drive, a center for urban ugliness.

One proposed idea is to construct a new tennis facility on land not ten minutes away, at Lowry. The lot, which is adjacent to the Allied Jewish building on Quebec Street, is already owned by the JCC. This sounds like a pretty good compromise. Another idea being volleyed about -- to put the tennis courts on the roof of the new building -- is not so good, because it would unnecessarily tie the hands of the architect.

Some of the city's top talent is being considered for the new structure, including ArchitectureDenver, Oz Architecture and David Owen Tryba. As is the case with the new Denver Art Museum building, the new Mizel is envisioned as an important building and not simply a shed, like the current tennis house.

We can't be too hard on the tennis players at the JCC, however, because their protests, complete with placards, petitions and anonymous phone calls to the newspapers, are simply the latest example of the long Jewish tradition of embracing social and political activism. And from this perspective, we may view them as an ad hoc feature of the multidisciplinary project Jewish Descent/Jewish Dissent: Jews and the Art of Conscience, being presented through the spring at the Mizel Arts Center at the JCC.

The project encompasses many elements. Some events have come and gone, like the staging of Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock," an opera from 1937. The Work Projects Administration's Federal Theatre Project had originally commissioned the opera, but the feds got cold feet over the pro-union plot and canceled its premiere.

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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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