Art News

The Clyfford Still Museum Turned to the Community When Curating Its New Exhibition

James Dewhirst
You Select opens at the Clyyford Still Museum on August 19,
The Clyfford Still Museum, which showcases the work of one of the twentieth century’s most important and mysterious abstract impressionists, is wrapping up its tenth-anniversary celebrations with an exhibit of works selected completely by the public at large. That might seem strange at first, considering that Still was known for shrugging off his critics, but Associate Curator and Catalogue Raisonné Research and Project Manager Bailey Placzek says the concept isn't as odd as it sounds.

“It’s part of this myth of Clyfford Still that’s been perpetuated over time — that he was this isolationist who didn’t appreciate input from his peers and critics,” Placzek says. “But in reality, he relied on the people in his life to achieve the success that he did — family members, his wives and daughters, dealers and gallery owners like Betty Parsons and Peggy Guggenheim, who really took a chance on him in the ’40s and gave him these solo shows. Those shows introduced him to a whole other community in New York, these dealers who took notice and started to support him. There were a lot of people who supported him over the years of his career, when his work was considered kind of crazy and nobody knew what he was doing. We really wanted to shine a light on those aspects of his life.

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Clyfford Still Museum Associate Curator Bailey Placzek.
Bailey Placzek
“Also, he did donate his work to a city,” Placzek points out. “So whether it’s well known, he understood the importance of that civic identity and being part of community.”

Upon his death in 1980, Still's estate held over 95 percent of his life's work — more than 3,000 pieces. His will specified that the entire collection should remain as one entity and go to an American city that would build a permanent home for it so that it might be studied, exhibited and preserved. Denver was chosen by Still's widow, Patricia, out of a field of more than twenty contenders. The Clyfford Still Museum was founded in 2005, and its current home opened its doors in 2011.

The new exhibition, titled You Select, runs from August 19 through February 12, 2023. The museum kicked off its tenth-anniversary celebrations last year with an exhibit called A Decade of Discovery. “We wanted to start with that exhibition and highlight all the things we’ve discovered about our own collection, looking internally at how far we’ve come, assessing our place in the Denver community,” Placzek explains.

The second exhibition, which ended August 7, was Art and the Young Mind. The works in that show were curated with families and children in mind, hung at a low height so small kids could see them easily. The museum also worked with local children to help select artworks and arrange them, as well as create interactive activities. Overall, the show suggested the CSM's direction in the next decade, as the museum begins to turn its attention toward its surrounding community. “That was the first time we’d collaborated with our community on an exhibition,” says Placzek, “focusing on kids up to eight years old.”

Placzek notes that You Select has followed in the same vein, and curation was opened up to “everyone with an email address” through a voting platform on the museum’s website. Art lovers from the Denver area and beyond were invited to select works in five different exhibition categories: West Coast Revolution, High-Impact Color, Richmond Oils on Paper, Abstract Expressionism and Movement. After an eight-week voting period in late 2021, Placzek arranged the pieces that received the most votes on the walls of five of the museum’s galleries.

“We couldn’t offer up the entire collection,” notes Sanya Andersen-Vie, CSM director of marketing and communications. “We have 2,500 pieces in our online collection already, and more than 3,000 total. I don’t want to compare it to the People’s Choice Awards, but it was sort of like that: You went online, and within each of the themes, there were a number of choices you could vote on. You could pick your top five, and even comment on why those pieces were chosen. We did our best to get the word out to as many people as possible, to get as many perspectives as we could from the community. It wasn’t just local; we had a number of participants from out of state, as well.”

“Pretty much every label in the exhibition includes a comment from the community voters,” Plazcek adds. “I really wanted to highlight their voices and make sure they played a central role.

“My favorite room in the show is sort of a smorgasbord,” she says with a laugh. “I thought it would be really fun just to explore Still’s use of color. So we have some really incredible never-been-seen paintings that are high-impact saturated color. I was very excited to see which paintings everyone picked in that category, because they were the exact ones that I was rooting for.”

So how does a museum put forth a serious effort to garner real opinions from the public — the online public, no less — without falling prey to the artistic equivalent of naming a ship Boaty McBoatface? “I can appreciate the question,” Plazcek says, especially when considering Still’s “resentment toward a lot of museum people and professionals in the field and this idea of ‘expertise.'

"Working with the Young Minds show…a lot of the works they selected had never been displayed and I’d never given a second look at," she explains. "But when I get them in the galleries, I see them through fresh eyes. I get to appreciate them for reasons I never would have. So I was never worried about the community selection process. I was excited to see what they’d pick.”

That’s not to say that there weren’t some surprises in the process. “There are still some rooms that I’m still a little nervous about," she admits. "But that’s my own perspective. I just want the show to feel as authentically part of the community as possible. While I’m the one that arranges the works on the wall, I don’t necessarily consider myself the curator of this show.”

One of the biggest surprises was the piece that garnered the most votes; Plazcek says she didn’t anticipate participants’ wide enthusiasm for the work titled "PH-124, 1947."

“There were also quite a few options for the last gallery highlighting Still’s time in Maryland that I was shocked weren’t selected, making that room feel differently than I expected,” she adds.

But then, what’s good art without a little surprise?
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Clyfford Still, PH-124, 1947. Oil on canvas, 68 1/8 x 39 3/8 in.
Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO. © City and County of Denver / ARS, NY.
And because of this community effort, nearly a third of the pieces chosen for You Select have never been shown before; some of them have never even been stretched. Andersen-Vie says that the collecting of community reaction isn’t over yet, either. The show itself will end with a voting kiosk, where visitors can choose their favorite work.

“We’ll keep a running tally of the top vote-getters,” she says. “It’s so different when you see an artwork when it’s just a small image on a screen. But when you see them up in the galleries, on the walls, with the lighting…it’s a whole new experience.”

“Over the course of the pandemic, we all became so much in tune with our global sense of community, the ripple effects of our actions," Placzek says. "We’re trying to show that network of connections and how our perspectives and our actions impact so many in our lives that we never even know about.

"The City of Denver owns our collection, mandating that its residents play a central role in its display and stewardship," she continues. "We wanted to celebrate the community that has embraced us during the last decade. Plus, a central tenet of Still’s art and vision emphasizes the power of the collective over the individual. We are stronger together.”

You Select, August 19 through February 12, 2023, Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock Street, clyffordstillmuseum.org; admission is $10.