Innovative Denver

Pulling back while moving forward, Denver offers a variety of burgeoning galleries and ambitious new institutions.

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“I See What You Mean,” 2005, Lawrence Argent, Composite materials
Colorado Convention Center Photo: courtesy Denver Office of Cultural Affairs

Perched on Colorado’s ever-sprawling Front Range, Denver is a city that knows all about roller coaster rides. Since 1858, it has been shaped by booms and busts, developing a busy art scene through innovation and a reliance on artists and arts advocates who have never let a bad economy stand in the way of putting on a show. And if the current fiscal climate has chilled major arts institutions, it has challenged other players here to take a chance. There is also a thriving sports scene so if you’re in the area, take a look at getting beginner tennis lessons denver.

Much of the art boom in Denver has been fueled by new eye-catching but diverse buildings for the city’s top museums. First was the Denver Art Museum, which in October 2006 opened its instant-landmark titanium-clad Hamilton Building designed by Daniel Libeskind. A structure that looked like a blossoming of metal shards tipped its prow across West 13th Avenue toward the original museum structure designed by Gio Ponti. But attendance projections didn’t quite pan out, and the DAM did some serious financial restructuring a few months after the opening. Still, the new complex has offered space for more exhibitions. And if museum officials are keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line, they are poised to pull in visitors with a Boomer-friendly exhibition of psychedelic posters from the late-1960s Bay Area music scene. These splashy reminders of an easier time are part of a major collection acquired last year.

Then came a new home for the region’s only museum devoted to contemporary art. Launched in 1996 as a grassroots effort, what is now known as MCA Denver grew up fast with the October 2007 opening of its elegant milky-black glass box home, designed by British architect David Adjaye (who was recently chosen to design the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.). Adjaye’s first project in the United States is a building awash with light, and filled with numerous galleries that seem to change with every show. But Cydney Payton, the director who made the building happen and curated literally bursts of shows, suddenly announced her resignation effective last October. The guessing game began about a new director.

In mid-March, MCA’s board shed one-third of the staff and cut the 2009 budget to clear the decks for new director Adam Lerner, who moved to the job from running the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar in a suburb west of Denver. In the process, Lerner shuttered that facility, which was located in the New Urbanist retail and residential project Belmar. But Lerner plans to bring with him the same concept of loosey-goosey programming that drew visitors to the Lab’s accessible brand of art. As Lerner stepped into the MCA job, he said he wanted the contemporary space to “be engaging. To be a place you can learn about art, not just look at it.” New MCA Denver board chairman Mark Falcone, the developer who donated the land for MCA, also is backer of the shopping mall in which the Lab operated.

Yet even with the effects of financial contraction, Denver’s galleries and art centers so far continue to hum, putting out a wide range of offerings and crafting their own identities in the process. New on the block is RedLine, a rehabbed industrial building in a transitional neighborhood just north of downtown. Founded by photographer and philanthropist Laura Merage, RedLine offers low-cost studio space for artists willing to do community service, but seems to still be evolving in its approach to exhibitions. A few blocks away is the latest example of a gallery taking a big risk during iffy times: Plus Gallery owner Ivar Zeile moved to a new metal-skinned cube built atop part of the flue building of the historic Benjamin Moore Paint complex, adding a cutting-edge architectural statement to this home for contemporary abstract and figurative art.

Both spaces are located in one of Denver’s far-flung arts districts, a network that helps define a scene with no one concentration of galleries as found in other cities. For RedLine and Plus, that’s River North (RiNo for short), an amorphous collection of galleries (including notable ceramics gallery Plinth), design studios, mixes of residences and architecture firms (such as Taxi and Taxi II, born out of the old Yellow Cab dispatch center), and art centers such as Ironton, another studio and gallery blend. If the boundaries of RiNo are flexible, the offerings there are among the strongest in the city.

In the early 1990s, the warehouses and mercantiles of Denver’s lower downtown were a hub of gallery activity, with numerous inexpensive art spaces and studios thriving in an area saved when it became an historic district. Construction of Coors Field in the mid-1990s changed all that, introducing a wave of sports bars and restaurants that transformed the character of the neighborhood. Still, the city’s premier art venue-Robischon Gallery-has carved out a home there, showing blue-chip contemporary work by national and regional artists, from Robert Rauschenberg-including his final Lotus series-to Richard Serra and Judy Pfaff. Robischon also is in the forefront of bringing work by top contemporary Chinese artists to the region. Next door is the Center for Visual Art. Supported by the Metropolitan State College of Denver, CVA organizes student and faculty shows but also offers adventurous exhibitions such as a recent retrospective of unrealized projects by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who have proposed covering part of the Arkansas River in the southern part of Colorado. Their Over the River installation could cap a long career that included the not-successful but beautiful Rifle Gap project near Eagle, Colorado.

A cooperative gallery mini-district in northwest Denver centers on the venerable Edge Gallery and Pirate: Contemporary Art, where raucous openings salute artists who band together to show their own work, experiment and help form one of the pillars of the area art community.

Perhaps the most expansive destination for galleries is the Art District on Santa Fe, where a city known for its pluralism is repaid in spades with five blocks of galleries, studios, a museum (longtime anchor Museo de las Americas) and a co-op or three. Want eclectic? The city’s oldest co-op, Spark Gallery, moved here, with a consistent rotation of respected area artists. Key is Van Straaten Gallery, whose owners last year bought the Sandy Carson Gallery and have been introducing work from the stable of artists involved in Riverhouse Editions, which Bill and Jan Van Straaten operate in Steamboat Springs. Brand new is Gallery T, directed by Ron Judish, who opened his sleek space last winter and raised the bar for the district with work by Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Also setting a new course on Santa Fe-and Denver-is the David B. Smith Gallery. Until January, it was known as Limited Addiction, and now focuses on contemporary work tinged with urban influences. Gallery owner Smith is making permanent what other spaces here have tried: to appeal to younger collectors with work that has a street-smart sensibility that sets it apart.

And the city’s upstart Golden Triangle neighborhood, near the Denver Art Museum, includes the solid William Havu Gallery, which is strong on regional work by artists such as Tracy and Sushe Felix and Emilio Lobato. The neighborhood also helped pioneer the Golden Triangle Museum District, a loose confederation of varied cultural organizations including the proposed Clyfford Still Museum. The museum, which is supposed to announce its groundbreaking date soon (after all, it’s touting a 2010 opening), will house hundreds of works by the reclusive Abstract Expressionis
t painter. The Still estate gave the city of Denver the trove of never-before-seen work in 2004, with the proviso a museum to show it (and no other artist’s work) would open in 10 years. The Still is to sit on land mere paces from the Denver Art Museum. Another notable space near that neighborhood is Rule Gallery. Now more of a destination gallery, Rule has found a home on the increasingly hip Broadway corridor leading south from downtown. Owner Robin Rule focuses on strong contemporary work, especially in the realm of abstraction and minimalism.

Yet for all its progressive ways and support for art-related projects and funding, the metro area has a conservative streak. Denver has an active Percent for Art program, and a few new works have prompted populist flaps. Certainly not Denver sculptor Lawrence Argent’s Big Blue Bear (real title: I See What You Mean), a subversively funny giant that peers into the Colorado Convention Center as if looking for food. The recent noise has been about a piece that greets those traveling to and from the city via its tent-roofed Denver International Airport. Most notably, Luis Jimenez’s big blue horse-Mustang-drew complaints and jeers not long after its installation near the airport terminal. While many here were happy the muscular Mustang finally was herded into place, others have taken to the Internet to mock the work’s anatomically correct features and express concern over the horse’s red-beam eyes. But others recognize that after years of wrangling (the work was commissioned more than 15 years ago), the sculpture needs a certain amount of consideration. Not only is it a rigorous example of Jimenez’s work, but it will be remembered as perhaps his last work. Jimenez died after a segment of the piece fell against him as he worked on it in his New Mexico studio. Apparently, that has helped fuel an aura of danger.

And there has been chatter over the enigmatic National Velvet, installed in the city’s growing Central Platte Valley. Area artist John McEnroe created a tower of glowing red resin-coated sandbags, installed it on a pedestal, and formed a beacon that can be seen by pedestrians as well as those driving by on the metro area’s busy north-south freeway, Interstate 25. Sexual innuendo pertinent to both genders has been thrown at this piece, but it also has become an instant landmark. Say city officials: talk about art is good, and so it is.

Perhaps the most engrossing art space in Denver is the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art. Founded by Denver arts advocate and philanthropist Hugh Grant to showcase work by the dean of Colorado’s painters, the late Vance Kirkland, the museum has expanded into displaying a nationally recognized collection of decorative arts as well as work by dozens of Colorado artists. Grant had been Kirkland’s ward, and after the artist’s death sought ways to exhibit the many paintings and works on paper left in his care. In the process, the museum has become a welcoming home for Colorado art, and a must-see for those interested in historic and contemporary Colorado art, as well as furniture, ceramics, and glass that have made history through innovation.

Just like Denver.

—mary voelz chandler