Philip Anschutz opens his substantial collection of Western art to the public

Denver has been on a culture binge over the past decade, with major milestones being marked off every couple of years. It began in 2006 with the construction of the Hamilton Building, which doubled the size of the Denver Art Museum and became world-famous thanks to Daniel Libeskind's futuristic design. The building also made Denver a player in the high-stakes world of visual art and architecture and helped pave the way for the projects the followed: David Adjaye's MCA Denver, Brad Cloepfil's Clyfford Still Museum and, just last month, the History Colorado Center, by David Tryba.

Some smaller milestones include the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, which opened in 2003, and now the American Museum of Western Art — The Anschutz Collection, which opened quietly to the public in May.

This new institution — with hours on Mondays and Wednesdays only — reminds me of the Kirkland because both highlight the idiosyncratic taste of an individual collector: Philip Anschutz at the AMWA, Hugh Grant at the Kirkland. And each one is so enthusiastic about his collection that he's attempted to cram in as much of it as is physically possible in his respective small-scale space.

The story of the AMWA really starts with the building itself, long known as the Navarre, which embodies the now almost completely erased architecture of early Denver. The Italianate confection was built in 1880 by Joseph Brinker to house the Brinker Collegiate Institute, a school. When Brinker died, in 1889, the building was sold and became the Hotel Richelieu, a "sporting house" and high-end brothel.

In 1892, the Brown Palace was built across Tre-mont Place, so the owner of the Richelieu, former judge Owen Le Fevre, created an underground tunnel, ostensibly to move coal in rail cars between the two buildings. (The tracks can still be seen at the bottom of a cast-iron staircase in the garden entrance.) But the tunnel was also used to move prominent men to the brothel without the risk of their being seen.

Interestingly, the two buildings — even though they were built little more than a decade apart — convey completely different stories about Denver. A comparison reveals that the Mile High City rapidly changed from a big town to a small city. Remarkably, both buildings were designed by the same hand, that of Frank Edbrooke.

The Richelieu was eventually lost in a poker game and was renamed the Navarre by the new owner, who turned it into a private club and restaurant in 1914 (though rumors of illicit activities suggest that shenanigans were going on there into the 1920s). In 1946, a man named Johnny Ott opened a fine-dining establishment in the Navarre, and in 1964, Peanuts Hucko opened Peanuts Hucko's Navarre, a jazz club.

The building passed through a number of hands before cattleman and art collector William Foxley bought it in 1983. At the time, the structure was a mess, and a number of elements, such as the cupola and the front porch, had been lost. Foxley re-created these and turned the interior into galleries at a cost of $6 million. In 1986, he opened his Museum of Western Art, but by 1993, things were going badly for Foxley, and he was forced to sell some of his collection's most important paintings. The museum closed in 1997.

And that's where billionaire Anschutz enters the picture, buying the Navarre for a little over $2 million. If you think about it, the Navarre is perfect for Anschutz's needs. It's a Wild West landmark that had been retrofitted into a museum, and the longtime arts patron conveniently had a world-class collection of Wild West art that needed a home. And if that wasn't enough, the Navarre was being offered at a fire-sale price, with Foxley having done all the heavy lifting. It was exactly the kind of savvy business move that has made Anschutz one of the richest guys in the country.

Anschutz's own art history began in the early 1960s — about the same time that Peanuts Hucko was playing his first clarinet solo at the Navarre — when his mother, Marian, encouraged him to begin collecting Western art. And despite having picked up the hobby later than some collectors, he managed to score many bargains. One of his biggest coups was a collection of 82 paintings and two murals that he acquired from the Santa Fe Railroad in 1972 — surely one of the greatest times ever to be purchasing Taos school works. They were priced at pennies compared to today's dollars.

Early on, Anschutz relied on the guidance of his friend Wolfgang Pogzeba, an artist and collector. In 1973, Anschutz realized he needed a full-time curator, and George Schriever, formerly of the Kennedy Galleries in New York, was hired. Schriever played a big role in shaping the collection, which toured both nationally and internationally. Then, in 1999, two years after Anschutz bought the Navarre, the collection was installed there. But aside from a few lucky people, almost no one was able to see the works outside of an exhibition of the collection at the DAM in 2000.

Fast-forward to 2010, when Anschutz created the AMWA, "donated" his collection to the institution, and named his daughter, Sarah Anschutz Hunt, founding director. Hunt, who once penned an essay called "Growing Up With the Anschutz Collection," is also a collector — a great attribute for a museum director to have, especially a staggeringly rich one like Hunt, who can help facilitate future purchases.

Not that there would be much room for them. The setup for the collection is somewhat established on the main level, where scores of paintings have been hung salon-style, so that their frames virtually touch one another. It's amazing — almost like having wallpaper made out of masterpieces. The AMWA describes itself as being "one of the world's premier collections of Western art," and the case is made here, as well as on the upper floors; three of the Navarre's five stories are given over to galleries.

I'd been inside the Navarre when it was owned by Foxley, but not since Anschutz bought it, and my tour this time was led by the DAM's Joan Carpenter Troccoli and Anschutz curator Darlene Dueck. (Tours are the only way to see the AMWA, and they need to be booked on the museum's website.)

The collection has many strengths in a number of different areas. There are works by the earliest Western artists, notably George Catlin. There are the spectacular exemplars of the Hudson River and Rocky Mountain school painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. There are the great chroniclers of the end of the frontier era, like Frederic Remington and Charles Schreyvogel. All of these works, as different as they may be from one another, convey the popular image of Western art, with cowboys, Indians, mountains and plains abounding.

The rise of modernism in the West led to a downplaying of these established Western icons, though, and to a split in the Western art world. The conservative position abandons Western art where it intersects with modernism, while the progressive group embraces the material that has a modern edge. Interestingly, though Anschutz is renowned for being a political conservative, as an art collector he's been a progressive — and a trailblazing one, at that. There are many examples of expressionism, cubism, futurism and even abstract expressionism in the AMWA's collection.

The modernist works, on the second level, are some of the most impressive pieces here. "Wild Horse Race," by Frank Mechau, abstracts a scene of cowboys on stallions — and it is absolutely stunning. Other first-rate modernist works with a Western twang include pieces by Birger Sandzén, John Marin and Marsden Hartley.

Even though it's now open, the American Museum of Western Art is still flying below the radar — the appeal of its spectacular collection and that of the Navarre itself notwithstanding. My advice is to arrange a tour to check it out as soon as possible.