Wide Open

A new day has very apparently dawned at the still-nascent Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, which is housed in a former fish market in Sakura Square. And the many changes are obvious from the moment visitors hit the brand-new front doors.

Some may recall that I have relentlessly criticized MoCAD for not fixing its broken mechanical front doors. I saw the doors as an actual impediment to entering the place, as well as a symbol of the other obvious problems in the building and in the museum's programming that were not being addressed by the emerging institution's powers that be.

Mark Sink, the former interim director of the museum, reacted to my complaints about the doors by denying, in writing, that they were broken. According to him, it was my motor skills and not the doors that were out of whack. The new permanent director, Mark Masuoka, who has been on board since the first of the year, doesn't have the time for such things -- he's been too busy replacing the doors and making a million other urgent repairs.

"I tell the board of trustees, MoCAD is less like a fish market and more like a museum every day," Masuoka says. "I knew immediately the things that needed to be done -- including the doors and the reformulation of the museum's formal entry -- but we needed to get funding first." The doors were purchased with donated money and installed gratis by Vortex Doors. Don't get me wrong: There's nothing special about them; they're typical shop doors. It's just that, unlike their predecessors, they're functional as portals -- and that's good enough.

Inside, with just a couple of well-placed walls, Masuoka has created a small entry lobby where there was once a formless corridor cluttered with junk and office equipment. In front of us is a plain and handsome information desk, behind which is a wall painted a vivid blue. To our right, also defined by a blue wall, is the tidy, if still uninteresting, gift shop. (At least we no longer trip over it when we walk through the doors.)

"We played the Post-it game every morning," Masuoka recalls. "I would come in and put a Post-it note where there was a crack or a dent or some other problem. I went through a thousand of them."

Masuoka credits much of his quick success to the support of the board and his staff. "The museum has always had visionaries, but their ideas needed legs; they needed someone who would just do it, and that's where I come in." The accomplishment so far is impressive, but he's just gotten started. "There's still ten times as much work to do, and there are things that really bug me, but we've come a really long way," he says.

Another change is the creation of two smaller galleries and the footprint for a larger one. By doing this, Masuoka has opened up the scheduling. "Previously, the museum presented three shows a year," he explains. "In between, the museum was closed for weeks while one show was taken down and the next one was put up. Well, you can't run a business that way. You can't be closed for weeks at a time."

In the near future, each gallery will be given over to separate shows that will be staggered in the schedule so that the museum will always be open with something to see. Masuoka plans to devote the sharp-looking upstairs gallery to solo shows by regional artists. The small gallery downstairs, off the new cafe (another Masuoka innovation), will be specifically for works on paper and photography. The main space will continue to house the museum's major exhibitions.

Masuoka has already begun to lay out an exhibition schedule for the rest of the year, including a group show featuring vanguard art by ethnically diverse artists that is set to open this summer. In the fall, he plans to have a biennial invitational of Colorado artists. This show, which will be organized by Masuoka and the exhibitions committee, promises to set the state's art world on fire, with nearly every local artist vying to get in. If it's a success, or, better yet, a knockout, it could go a long way toward enhancing the prestige of the fledgling museum and establishing it as one of the dominant forces in the regional cultural scene. With Masuoka behind the wheel, there's real cause for optimism.

In addition to serving as director, Masuoka is also the curator of exhibitions, and in this role, he supervised the installation of the fabulous exhibit that now fills the entire museum, Scott Chamberlin 12 Years: Drawing and Sculpture. But Masuoka did not organize the show. It was conceived by Sink and boardmember Dale Chisman; Chamberlin selected the pieces himself. "Mark [Sink] had become aware of the NCECA conference, and he was looking for something to do with ceramics," Chamberlin explains, referring to the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts meetings to be held in Denver next week, a powwow attracting more than 3,000 ceramic artists and teachers. Sink and Chisman, who are both old friends of Chamberlin's, approached him with the idea last year.

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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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