Denver's a sports town, but for those of us who occupy the netherworld of the visual arts, our home team is the Denver Art Museum. And since January 1989, the DAM's head coach has been Lewis Sharp. But Sharp will step down as the Frederick and Jan Mayer Director at the end of this year, just short of his 21st year calling the shots, and although he's had an off game or two, overall he's won far more than he's lost.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Sharp in his office in the Tremont Building, where the DAM's administration is housed. Given the circumstances, I had a heavy heart about interviewing him. I've known Sharp since the winter of 1988, when he was here interviewing for the job. I didn't work for Westword then; rather, our paths crossed because we had a shared interest in mid-century modern furniture. At the time, I knew that Sharp had been a curator and later the administrator of the American wing at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and after he introduced himself, I said I hoped he wouldn't try to turn the DAM into a second-rate Met.
And I'm happy to say that he didn't. Instead, he transformed the DAM from the rather modest place it was into a nationally renowned regional museum. In thinking about it, it's impossible to overstate the positive effect he's had on the DAM and, by extension, on the city itself. In fact, he's remade the museum in so many different ways that it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say he's had a greater effect on the institution than anyone else in its 100-year-plus history. His only rival for the title would be Otto Bach, who ran the museum for thirty years, from the '40s to the '70s, and who built the Gio Ponti/James Sudler tower, now called the North Building.
One of Sharp's most obvious accomplishments is the construction of the $110 million Daniel Libeskind-designed Frederic C. Hamilton Building, of which he is justly proud. "Not many museum directors in the country get the opportunity to build a complex of the size and importance that we did," he says. "I love the building, but it's not just the Hamilton Building; it's the complex," he adds. "I love the North Building. I loved working with Daniel, not only because he's so creative, but he loved the Ponti building so much and spoke so directly to it in what he was designing."
The connections between the two designs are subtle. One that's easy to see is the color: the titanium on the Hamilton has a similar shade and sheen to that of the glass tiles on the Ponti. "It's a pretty beautiful complex we have. There's a lot of versatility," Sharp says. "We now have the space to exhibit our permanent collection and to have a very dynamic special-exhibition program."
I was surprised when Sharp told me that he doesn't consider the Hamilton to be his greatest accomplishment during his two-decade tenure, however. "What's the use of building a building if you don't have the collections to exhibit inside it?" he asks rhetorically. "The building is simply a vehicle for the program and for the collections.
"If I pointed to any one thing I've enjoyed the most," he explains, "it's been working with the curators to build collections." Some of those curators include Dianne Vanderlip, with whom he helped build the Modern and Contemporary collection, and Craig Miller, who established the Architecture, Design and Graphics collection.
"Then you look at things like the acquisition of the Harmsen collection of Western art, the Jan and Frederick Mayer gift of their pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial collections to the museum, the Wolf collection of Western photography, the Lutz bamboo collection, the acquisition of the Motherwells, and the Logan Collection," Sharp says before taking a breath. "You know the collection has grown enormously during these twenty years, and I'm a collections guy."
I have written about all of these acquisitions for Westword, but until he listed them all, I hadn't really considered how much his efforts had improved the DAM in its role as a repository for art. By acquiring thousands of works, he not only larded its contents, but in that way increased its popular appeal and its status relative to other museums. To give you an idea of how much the DAM's permanent collection has changed during Sharp's reign, consider that a generation ago, the collection at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center was generally regarded as being more important.
"I have been very lucky to work in Denver...a community that's as supportive of the arts and the cultural institutions as this one is," he says. "When you look at the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, to the bond initiatives that the citizens have supported, to the type of support we've had from trustees and donors. The commitment that this city's made to its cultural institutions is unique in this country."
I don't disagree with anything Sharp says about Denver, but there have also been things that contrasted with that shining image — and his greatest gift to Denver may have been the way he fought against the forces that would have torn down the Ponti building.
In the time Sharp has been here, Denver has been the site of a demolition derby, where landmark projects by important architects, including Burnham Hoyt's Boettcher School, I. M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza and Lawrence Halprin's Skyline Park, have bitten the dust. The Ponti could have easily been on this list except for Sharp. I say this because in the '90s, many people actually advocated for the demolition of the Ponti.
"It's a great piece of architecture, but it has also proven to be an incredibly flexible space. Just look how differently each of the floors is arranged," Sharp says. "It's also one of the most economical buildings in the country to operate. People talk about the challenges of the Hamilton Building, but the Ponti was as radical when it was opened as the Hamilton is now."
This triumph is more covert than the construction of the Hamilton or the beefing up of the collections, as it has to do with something that didn't happen. Nonetheless, it's one of the best things I can say about Sharp, and I will be eternally grateful to him for it.
If I had to explain how it was possible for Sharp to do everything he did while he was here, I'd have to mention the fact that he's consummately charming and extremely affable. In this respect, he has a lot in common with his young Horst Buchholz look-alike of a successor, Christoph Heinrich, who takes over in January, and having that valuable quality is a very good sign for his future success.
Sharp and his wife, Susan, whom he met as an undergraduate at Lewis & Clark College (he later earned a doctorate at the University of Delaware), will continue to maintain their condo in the Museum Residences, giving him a good view of what he's done. "We have too many friends here to leave completely. We raised our two girls here, my son lives here, this is our home," Sharp notes.
But for most of the year, he and Susan will live in California, where they have a home in the oceanside town of Ventura. It's to be a working retirement, though, because Sharp, in partnership with his son, has also purchased 300 acres of citrus groves nestled against the Sierra Nevada Mountains outside Fresno. "We've been putting together the land for five or six years with the idea that when I retired I was going to be a farmer," says Sharp. "So now, rather than looking at a Mark di Suvero or a Joel Shapiro, I'm looking at a tractor, a good old John Deere tractor."