Art News

Denver's Galleries and Art Museums Look Toward the Future

Denver Art Museum
Inside the Denver Art Museum's Martin Building, opening at the end of October.
It’s hardly breaking news that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted many sectors of human society around the globe. Especially hard hit were in-person experiences like going to restaurants or attending sporting events, concerts, plays...and art exhibits. Though the art world was not as completely shut down as other areas, the past eighteen months were still challenging. The good news in Denver is that nearly the entire art scene has persisted — even if some venues only by the skin of their teeth.

“Thankfully, the business has been good,” says Jennifer Doran, co-director of Robischon Gallery along with her husband, Jim Robischon. “There’s a twofold reason for that: our really loyal customers who wanted us to make it through, and our longtime presence online. But nothing takes the place of seeing art in person, so while we’ve been selling well, we’re also an exhibition space.”

Speaking of exhibitions, opening October 22 at Robischon is a set of thematically linked solos: Paco Pomet, Walter Robinson, Tom Judd, Gary Emrich and Terry Maker. “The artists take a serious look at where we are now,” Doran explains, adding that there are “uncomfortable things, but also humor, which is a hopeful aspect.”
click to enlarge Walter Robinson's "Buffalo Cookie (Chocolate)" at Robischon Gallery. - COURTESY OF WALTER ROBINSON AND ROBISCHON GALLERY
Walter Robinson's "Buffalo Cookie (Chocolate)" at Robischon Gallery.
Courtesy of Walter Robinson and Robischon Gallery

Doran sees LoDo as having fully come back in the wake of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, and other neighborhood hot spots have major efforts planned for fall. Doug Kacena’s K Contemporary is offering the solo Hunt Slonem through November 6; for this exhibit, the gallery has been filled with antiques that surround the New York artist’s whimsical depictions of bunnies and butterflies. In the nearby, eponymously named David B. Smith Gallery, a pair of solos opening October 22 contrast the conceptual abstracts in Robert Burnier with the conceptual realist paintings in Sarah McKenzie.

The Golden Triangle has come back, too. “Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that the pandemic would be good for business,” says William Havu, owner of his namesake gallery. “I think we benefited from the fact that people couldn’t travel, so they spent that money on their homes.”

“It’s been a little bit of a downer to put the shows together and then have only a few people see them, but it’s important to put them up anyway,” says Nick Ryan, the gallery’s manager. And so Havu is presenting the precise mechanical abstracts in Carlos Estevez, on view through November 6, followed up by Emilio Lobato, opening November 12 and showcasing radically different work for the well-known Colorado artist, including collages made with rubber sheets and sculptures done in porcelain.

Across Cherokee Street at Walker Fine Art, owner Bobbi Walker relates, “It was really scary at first, and I wasn’t sure we’d make it, but I secured a PPP loan to keep it going, and once we opened up again in the summer of 2020, sales have been going gangbusters.” Like Havu, she ascribes the boom to the fact that people couldn’t travel and had money to spend on other things. “But even more important,” she adds, “the artists stepped up, having more time to create and doing some of their best work ever.” On view until November 6 is the abstract show Spectrum of Being, with Matter of Time, a group show combining abstractionists and conceptual realists, opening on November 12. A few blocks away, Boulder’s master of magic realism is on tap in Frank Sampson at Sandra Phillips Gallery, through October 23.

Down on Santa Fe Drive, things are hopping as well. “The year 2020 started off strong, and then it all shut down,” explains Warren Campbell, who runs Michael Warren Contemporary along with Mike McClung. “The building’s owner, Sandy Carson, wanted us to succeed as a gallery, so she lowered our rent for a time.”

McClung points out that over the past year, sales at the gallery have been hot, then cold, then hot again. “It’s been a real roller-coaster ride,” he says. Pamela Joseph, which comprises feminist-infused face masks, is on display there through October 23, with African-American identity works in Floyd Tunson opening October 29.

Up the street, Rule Gallery’s landlord, Wayne Rogers, stepped up to help the venue get through the rough patch. “The thing most people jump to is the financial part,” says Rule’s Valerie Santerli, “but Wayne was very accepting of the issue. And our collectors didn’t want to see us go under, with some actually giving us money, saying that they were sure they’d want an artwork in the future.”

While many galleries stayed afloat through sales, things were tougher for spaces reliant on attendance. The McNichols Building, Denver’s unofficial city museum, not only needed to deal with COVID, but suffered major funding cuts when Red Rocks Amphitheatre was no longer bringing in cash for the city. Shanna Shelby, curator of exhibitions, was reassigned; then she was back this summer as the city arranged an All-Star Game-related exhibit almost overnight. The schedule continues this fall with Lifetime Artists, looking at artists in their seventies, and Louise Cadillac, a solo featuring the work of a ninety-something Colorado artist, both opening on October 16.

The Arvada Center — likewise funded by performances — had a long closure, too, reopening this past spring with Collin Parson organizing a pandemic show followed by Roland Bernier, an important memorial exhibit on view through November 14.

In some ways, the Denver Botanic Gardens was fortunate, since it’s mostly an open-air attraction. “The indoor/outdoor hybrid is an advantage,” points out Lisa Eldred, director of exhibitions. “We became a safe alternative to staying at home, and now our membership base is larger than ever.” There was one hitch, however: the unveiling, in the middle of the pandemic, of the new Freyer-Newman Center, an indoor venue including galleries. Now the center is hosting Yoshitomo Saito there through November 28, and Ana María Hernando through January 2.
click to enlarge Ana Maria Hernando's "Fervor" at the Freyer-Newman Center at the Denver Botanic Gardens. - DENVER BOTANIC GARDENS
Ana Maria Hernando's "Fervor" at the Freyer-Newman Center at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Denver Botanic Gardens
The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art also suffered a complication with its building. After being closed for months, it finally reopened and welcomed visitors again last winter — then suffered a broken pipe during the polar vortex. Luckily, motion detectors caught the flood and alerted the staff, but not before substantial damage had been done. Now, though, after more than six months of repairs, there’s no evidence left of the disaster. “Just don’t call it ‘Watergate,’” says Kirkland founder Hugh Grant with a laugh.
“I was afraid people would forget about us, but they’re back, and it's like it never happened.” During the downtime, Grant researched objects in the collection and facilitated substantial new acquisitions. In addition to the restored permanent-collection galleries, there’s now a special exhibit, Christopher Dresser, which examines the nineteenth-century designer’s varied career, through January 2.

Yet another institution encountered issues at the intersection of the pandemic and architecture, and in this case, it was the big kid on the block: the Denver Art Museum. For the past several years, the DAM has pursued a couple of major projects: the completion of the new Sie Welcome Center and the careful restoration of Gio Ponti’s Martin Building. “This was not easy,” says Christoph Heinrich, the museum’s director. “We originally planned to start opening in phases in May of 2020, but needed to push that back.” The delayed opening of both buildings is now set for October 24.

More than most arts institutions, the DAM has been able to carry on its work almost normally, by mounting a full roster of exhibits in the Hamilton Building. “It was a complicated year for all of us, but we got so lucky,” recalls Heinrich. “We were able to give safe access to people in June of 2020, earlier than many places. We were one of the safest places for people to go at that time.” And when the original building reopens as the Martin, all of the permanent-collection galleries will be there, along with plenty of new things to see, including special exhibits. There’s ReVisión, an unprecedented mashup of ancient, historic, modern and contemporary Latin American art, and Gio Ponti, examining the range of the Italian modern master’s remarkable creations. Over in the Hamilton, the blockbuster Whistler to Cassatt, highlighting American artists who worked in France, will open on November 14.

Over the last year and a half, the city’s galleries, museums and art centers were subjected to a real-world stress test, with their very survival at stake. And against the odds and the negative expectations, the scene’s still here. That’s because the art community stepped up, demonstrating to one and all that it collectively understands the value of a long-term commitment.