The Denver Botanic Gardens’s $40-million Freyer-Newman Center, with its three art galleries, establishes itself as fertile ground for exhibitions.
There has always been a place for art amid the multitude of plants and pathways at the Denver Botanic Gardens, one of the Mile High City’s jewels. Art has been nurtured in small, dedicated spaces and in outdoor sculpture gardens. But with the fall 2020 opening of the $40-million Freyer-Newman Center, art takes on new importance. And judging from the center’s current exhibitions in three galleries, as well as its upcoming lineup of regional and international artists working in a variety of media, you could say visual art is downright blossoming.
The 100,000 square-foot Freyer-Newman Center itself is visually stunning, capitalizing on natural light and warm woods to integrate with other structures at the Gardens. There’s a grand stairway entry from the Boettcher Memorial Center, which is near the Gardens’s main entrance. In the center of the building is an atrium giving way to an overlook, where, in addition to the outdoor views, visitors can enjoy the Nature Immersion Wall featuring large-scale still photos and videos of rivers, mountains, flora, and other relaxing images.
“We were thrilled at the final product,” says Lisa Eldred, the Gardens’s director of exhibitions and learning engagement. She adds that the architects, Denver’s Davis Partnership, came through with the necessary climate control for artworks and other collections housed in the center, while also taking care to design architectural elements that suggest botanical forms.
Interestingly, the current and upcoming exhibitions relate to the world of plants and trees, but sometimes in a more conceptual fashion than in the literal sense, Eldred says. An example is Fervor: Ana María Hernando, set to open in September 2021. Hernando is an interdisciplinary artist who works with layered fabric, paint, and other textures to honor traditional feminine craft and community. Spreading across two galleries will be her installation Écoutons | Escuchemos | Let’s Listen, created in response to bird sounds submitted by more than 200 people across the globe.
Another example is Ursula von Rydingsvard: The Contour of Feeling, which had been planned as the inaugural exhibition in the center but was rescheduled to May 2022 because of the pandemic. The internationally known von Rydingsvard creates towering cedar and bronze sculptures for public outdoor spaces, but the Freyer-Newman show will let her experiment with indoor spaces. It will also be her first solo exhibition in Denver.
While the Gardens’s overall mission is to foster appreciation for the natural world and to ensure its conservation, there remains a wide realm of possibility for what that means in an art context, Eldred says.
“Sometimes that can look very literal, as in the perfect intersection of art and science that is scientific botanical illustration. Other times, it can be more conceptual, and so we do try to present a variety of perspectives, a variety of media, to make the experiences as rich as possible,” she says. The goal, of course, is to spark ideas and conversations about how artists capture nature.
Eldred says she’s excited at how the center opens up new opportunities for artists to tap into the Gardens’s collections as a whole as they do their research. Not only can artists walk through the Gardens’s many outdoor spaces for inspiration, but they also can gain access to archival botanical illustrations, historical paintings, reference works, and vintage seed catalogues. The center’s soon-to-open Helen Fowler Library is expected to be a tremendous resource, she says. Eldred also looks forward to new artist-in-residence opportunities.
Rounding out the center’s many spaces are a new herbaria for rare specimens of plants and fungi, various science labs, six classrooms, and a 270-seat auditorium, all designed for flexible programming.
As for the center’s three galleries, the smallest is an elliptical space, meaning no right angles. It’s now showing Golden Opportunity: Botanical Illustration, an exploration of the color yellow as manifested in plants. All works are from the Gardens’s School of Botanical Art & Illustration.
In a larger gallery is Radiant Season: Paintings by Kevin Sloan, almost twenty large-scale and smaller works by the Colorado artist, whose lyrical compositions celebrate the quiet beauty of often-overlooked elements of urban landscapes. In Sloan’s St. Opuntia of the Bees, an overgrown prickly pear cactus becomes a hallowed gathering place for bees. Other works celebrate thistles, tree stumps, even traffic cones.
A third show in an adjacent gallery has already attracted a sizable audience: Salvador Dalí: Gardens of the Mind, featuring rarely seen color lithographs from the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. The most eye-catching and “Dalí” of the prints are the ones in which the Surrealist infuses botanical illustrations with surprising elements, as in Dalí Marguerite, where fried eggs and bacon fill the center of daisies.
For devotees of the Denver Botanic Gardens, what bodes well for the center is the way it complements the twenty-four acres of outdoor flora. During months when the gardens are not in full bloom, the many amenities in the center—not the least of which are the 4,000 square feet of art galleries—will all be going strong.