Art News

Adam Lerner on Beige, Creativity and MCA Denver's "I'm an Artist" Program

MCA Denver just announced its "I'm an Artist" program, which will offer free museum memberships to Denver's creative community. According to museum director and curator Adam Lerner, securing funding to underwrite a thousand artist memberships for the next three years represents just the beginning of big plans the museum has for Denver — and its artists. He wants the MCA to play a larger role in making this city a vibrant place where artists not only feel welcome, but can afford to live — in the process making an increasingly bland and beige city beautiful and interesting. 

Lerner and I have crossed paths many times at social events as well as during previous interviews. When I called to talk to him about this new program, the curator was very candid about how the program evolved and where the idea came from — and as it turns out, I played a part.

Westword: Can you talk about how the idea for the I'm an Artist membership came about in the first place?

Adam Lerner: Sure. Bree, I've got to tell you at the outset, I appreciate what you've been writing and the position you've been taking. It really was, for me, so helpful to just read all the buzz that's coming out of the artist and creative communities in this city. I was hearing from the artists this sense that they were not being included in the growth and prosperity of this city. It was very, very moving to me, because I love the creatives in this city. These are people who are not just my patrons, my visitors and the people we exhibit; they are the people who are my social circle, as well. I was so heartened and made aware, really, of this sense that something that's happening in this city is happening largely independently of the role of the creatives and artists who give the city character and texture. Seriously — it was Twitter, it was Facebook. It was hearing those kinds of things that started stimulating my mind toward this.

Then what happened was, it coincided with this shift in the museum status. We had just paid down $9 million of our bank debt — it was huge. It really put us in this new position of strength to think about what is our future role and relevance in the city. So over the past year, I've really tried to develop a vision for what kind of impact we're going to have in this city in the next three years.

How I came up with the vision was a little bit crazy: My office is on the first floor of the museum, and when I look out my window I see a parking lot, the First Western building, which is sandstone, and the DaVita building, which is also sandstone. Basically, I'm looking out on all-beige. As I'm trying to develop a vision for this organization, all I see are new beige buildings. That's what surrounds the museum. There's that, and then there's the image of the heart  — Tim Noble and Sue Webster's exterior art piece, "Toxic Schizophrenia" — that's in front of our building, which kept coming into my mind. I was just thinking, where do I want to take this organization over the next few years? As I'm thinking about that, all I'm thinking about is the beige and the heart. I thought about the heart: Maybe our role is to be a little bit like the heart, sending that fresh, oxygenated, creative blood into the fabric of this city and drawing back into us the vitality of our urban life.

Maybe our role — when I'm thinking about it in relationship to the possibility of Denver being beige — is to give it blush, to give it color, to give it texture. That became this governing metaphor for me. Our role is to make sure there is vitality and character and freshness within all of that new wealth that is happening all around us. Our role as a museum is to be a connector between the creatives in the city and the patrons who care about the civic life and want to make an interesting city and are able to support it with their philanthropy.

That's what we did in this case. I went to one of our donors and asked him specifically. I said, Denver is at a moment of huge transition. It's not yet clear what it is becoming, but we have the potential to really impact what it is becoming. The first step in that is...I asked him if he would buy a thousand artist memberships a year for the next three years. I thought it would just begin to send a signal to artists that Denver is a place for you. We want to make sure that this is your home. This is one of the first steps, and I think it's really going to be helpful for artists. But more important, it's a symbol to everyone in the city. It shows that we are all stakeholders in the state of the artists here in the city.
I think that's a great message to send to artists in Denver, especially right now, when so many people are feeling disenfranchised. Many artists express to me that they don't feel like they have a stake in the city in some capacity, whether it's because they've been pushed out of their home or studio space or because they're seeing that same blandness we're seeing. To send this signal to artists that they are important and just even get local artists in your building is big!

I think the most important thing is that artists feel like it's theirs. You said it: If someone is feeling disenfranchised from the wealth of this city, then their museum is not theirs. I think we want to make sure that the artists and creatives of this city feel like it is their place and feel like they are an important part. I think we can send that message. The reality is, what makes our museum go and makes us even be here is the wealth of the city and those people who are generously supporting us through their philanthropy. That's the only way that we can survive — it's the only way any museum can survive.

But that just opens up the question: What are you going to do to connect and educate those people about the value that the creatives and the artists play in the city that they love so much?

Those people can be on very different planes — the artists and the philanthropists who want to support them.

Our role is to make that connection. When I've talked about this vision to my board of trustees, there's this heartwarming response. People really feel that there is an important purpose in what I would call "smart growth." Smart growth involves how to be sustainable in various ways, but one of those ways is by making sure your city is an interesting place as it grows.

These memberships are going to artists; what embodies an artist? Who are you hoping to attract with this membership program?

I'm hoping to attract anybody who self-identifies as an artist. That's the important thing — I would say that if somebody can afford to support the museum, then we need their support, and I would hope that they would feel generous. But I also want to be generous to anyone who feels the need to be subsidized and self-identifies as an artist. I want to be generous to them. It's an honor system — if they claim it, it's theirs. If you make it yours and you really use it, that's what's most important.

Again, this is not going to make the difference in whether or not an artist or creative feels like they can live in this city. But it's a first step in saying to our entire community that our city cannot be as interesting a place unless the creatives are part of this prosperity. That's a really big message to send. It's an important message. It's a message that we want to keep on sending. We also want to send a message to the artists that says, hey, listen: We're aware of the impact that the rising cost of living is having on your ability work here as an artist.

I think it's crucial to have an institution like MCA Denver elevating artists' voices in this way. It feels like artists can have more of a stake and be heard by "the city" when they are backed by a bigger entity. I see this move as another way to push out into the world what makes Denver great. So often we are marketed in a way that doesn't show off our creative diversity. Beer and weed is a great reason to move here, I guess, but what about coming here because Denver is a vibrant city where artists thrive?

I feel that what makes an interesting city has got to be a mix. That's the message that we are really trying to send. Our hope is — after we've unraveled our whole vision — that we could start becoming a model. My goal is to reverse things — instead of being exemplary of what's happening in major cities across the United States, we could actually be a model for a city that is being proactive about making sure that artists are being included. That's fully my goal. 

Artists and art fans are invited to a kick-off of the "I'm an Artist" membership program at a launch party at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 19, at MCA Denver. The evening features live screen-printing of new-member cards, vintage pinball play hosted by Marc Hughes, music from DJ Mike Giant, and drink specials in the MCA's rooftop cafe. The museum is also celebrating the relaunch of its interactive Open Shelf Library exhibition space. Admission for the entire evening is one cent. For more information, see the MCA Denver's website.