Distance: 393 miles
Elevation: 5,280 feet
Population increase since 2010: ~100,000
Founded: 1858 by gold prospectors and land speculators
In early 2015, I wrote in an ArtSlant article about the Denver art scene that the city was on the cusp of developing a fully burgeoning art community and market. At that time, the art scene felt refreshingly artist-driven, encompassing bootstrapping converted warehouse spaces, artist co-ops, and open studios, with commercial galleries sprinkled in between. Four short years later, Denver booming all the while, and the landscape feels remarkably different. The explosion of generic condo and apartment buildings is the most striking aesthetic difference, but the boom has also been accompanied by soaring housing costs, congested traffic, and that ugly G-word: gentrification. Whatever all of this change ultimately means for Denver as an arts and culture community and market is to be determined. But even in the space of four years, my experience of the city as an arts destination has changed. I previously felt charmed and thrilled to stumble upon a scrappy operation in the then-industrial RiNo district, but now that district has gentrified to the point of pushing many of those emergent art spaces out. On the other hand, throughout the city it feels like the influx of young people and professionals can only lead to a larger, more culturally-attuned audience and increased opportunity for both commercial galleries and artists to find sustainable success.
The perk in all of this for us in New Mexico is that a quick drive or even quicker flight can land you in the middle of a truly cosmopolitan setting for a long weekend—a perfect getaway for moments when New Mexico starts to give you that provincial feeling. Denver has all the metro trappings that appeal: an array of world-class museums, diverse cuisines, trendy restaurants, a mind-boggling number of craft breweries, and the backdrop of the Rockies, with hiking and skiing nearby. There is so much to take in, I can only scrape the surface here.
Denver Art Museum
The exterior of the Denver Art Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, is sharp and angular, gleaming silver and dynamic. While I’ve never quite taken to the equally angular internal architecture of the DAM—an attempt to eradicate the right angles of the white cube, I suppose—the DAM consistently brings impressive exhibitions to our corner of the world. With the space and audience to sustain it, the museum can import semi-blockbuster exhibitions like Dior: From Paris to the World, and Rembrandt: Painter as Printmaker. The museum’s fortress-like North Building, designed by Gio Ponti, is currently under renovations.
Clyfford Still Museum
While the Clyfford Still Museum excels in many regards, for me the chemistry between art and architecture in the building (designed by Allied Works Architecture) is the most striking and memorable. The raw gray concrete construction feels lofty and airy, aided by an incredible latticed roof that allows natural light to trickle down throughout, and serves as a neutral backdrop for Still’s colorful exhortations.
The museum was founded in 2004 when Still’s wife sought a permanent home for his estate and complete archives. Like the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, the museum has the challenges inherent to the single-artist-museum. However, unlike the O’Keeffe museum, the Still actually holds the bulk of the artist’s work and his complete archive. Disillusioned with the art establishment, the artist severed ties with commercial galleries in the 1950s and kept his works together in order to one day create a cohesive exhibition space in which to show them. In the museum, viewers can trace this AbEx founding father’s trajectory from realism to abstraction through expressive portraits of rural workers and industrial scenes, through early experiments in abstraction, and on to his monumental Color Field canvases. While my first visit to this institution felt remarkable, later visits have been tainted by the artist’s own grandiose sense of ego (to avoid this, I shouldn’t have started reading the artist’s writings that were also on display).
Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art
“Salon-style” is a bit of an understatement in describing the installation of art and design objects at the Kirkland Museum. “It’s crazy” is the succinct refrain I heard from locals when I asked them if the museum was worthwhile. There are 4,400 items of a collection of more than 30,000 on display, allowing visitors to view decorative art pieces from every major (primarily Euro/Western) design style from about 1870 to the 1990s. Fine art is also exhibited, consisting of a collection dedicated to Colorado and regional arts, as well as work of the Colorado painter Vance Kirkland (1904-1981). The museum relocated to its current, larger building in late 2016. The galleries would feel spacious but for being crammed full of vignettes in which multiple period pieces are paired together and accompanied by period artwork. Art Nouveau bed frames, Eames and Bertoia chairs, De Stijl desks, Bauhaus tea sets, and whole walls shelved with tableware spanning innumerable modernist styles occupy every nook and corner. Highlights include a knock-out Arts and Crafts-era cabinet by Carlo Bugatti, wood furniture by Art Nouveau master Louis Majorelle, a cardboard Easy Edges chair by Frank Gehry, and a surrealist, Magritte-inspired green apple and bowler hat chair by Chilean painter Roberto Matta, amongst many other treasures both refined and absurd.
Museum of Contemporary Art
The MCA, founded in 1996, is similar to New Mexico’s SITE Santa Fe—a small-ish, noncollecting venue that brings national and international artists to the Mountain states. The MCA feels decidedly more urban, in part due to the acclaimed architect David Adjaye-designed building in Lower Downtown. During my visit, the entire museum was taken over by Tara Donovan: Fieldwork (read Shane Tolbert’s review on page 50), which remains on view through January 27, 2019. Upcoming exhibitions include Amanda Wachob: Tattoo This (February 13-May 19, 2019), featuring the tattoo and fine artist’s work on canvas, paper, silk, fruit, leather, and human bodies; Aftereffect: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Painting (February 14-May 26, 2019), which will bring together contemporary artists in whose work O’Keeffe’s formal innovations remain relevant; and Andrew Jensdotter: Flak (February 14-May 26, 2019), the Colorado artist’s first solo museum exhibition, which will feature his abstract “carved paintings,” made through a process of additive layering and subtractive carving away of paint to create variegated fields of color.
Lower Downtown is one of Denver’s gallery districts, where historic red brick buildings are occupied by trendy restaurants and tony retail, including specialty cowboy clothier Rockmount Ranch Wear, where you can get all the fringed, embroidered western shirts you could possibly need.
Robischon, a stalwart of the district, occupies a sprawling 9000-square-foot space near Coors Field baseball stadium and the recently renovated Union Station. Presenting work since 1976, Robischon’s extensive list of artists is supported by their established presence and abilities to stage multiple exhibitions at once. Having such a large number of artists to draw on means the gallery shows a variety of contemporary genres and media. Currently, the gallery has four solo exhibitions of abstract painters on view through January 5, 2019: Deborah Dancy: Turbulence; Gary Komarin: Swiss Positions; Tom Lieber: Mulas (Nakshatra); and Judy Pfaff: Prints from the Raga Series.
K Contemporary occupies a flexible space with two other galleries, Gallery 1261 and Abend Gallery. The three distinct gallery programs rotate among the physical spaces available depending on the exhibitions in question. K Contemporary is the most contemporary-leaning of the three, and during my visit featured a solo exhibition of paintings by Daisy Patton. The Denver-based artist’s work mingles historic family photographs with painted environment or abstract embellishments and patterning, lovingly re-memorializing the portrait subjects in a modern, pop palette. K’s most recent exhibition, Same as it Ever Was, featured Santa Fe mixed-media artist Nina Tichava.
Santa Fe’s loss is Denver’s gain in the case of Tansey Contemporary. The fine craft gallery is closing up shop on their Canyon Road location by the end of this year to focus exclusively on their spacious new Denver location. The gallery’s program will still focus on contemporary glass, ceramics, fiber, sculpture, and mixed media at high levels of mastery. A solo exhibition of earthenware clay vessels by Israeli-Australian artist Avital Sheffer is on view through January 5, 2019.
Santa Fe Art District
Santa Fe Drive is to Denver what Canyon Road is to Santa Fe. Santa Fe Drive is perhaps the most established arts district in the city, and certainly has the highest concentration of art spaces. However, unlike Canyon Road, many of Santa Fe Drive’s galleries are experimental in nature or community-based and represent a vast range of styles, aesthetics, and levels of quality. During my visit, I went to the District’s First Friday art walk and was blown away by the sheer number of attendees, including young people and families with kids. Not only were the streets full of festive art viewers, but many galleries were selling craft beer on tap or had coolers of cans sitting out for the taking, some had live music or performance pieces happening, and (gasp) sales were being made, especially of low-dollar pieces like prints.
A list of venues in the district can be found online at denverartsdistrict.org, and includes not only gallery spaces, but institutions like Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Center for Visual Art, Museo de las Americas, a museum of Latin American art from ancient to contemporary, and the home of Colorado Ballet. The hodge-podge that is the nonprofit artist co-op Denver Art Society is crammed full of artist booths, with every medium, from paintings to model ships to what I will call “pot art.” More established and mid-career artists can be found in the cavernous Space Gallery, where the program is heavy on abstract painting. Michael Warren Contemporary had work on view by minimalist sculptor Robert Mangold, with an upcoming exhibition of work by Albuquerque artist Ted Laredo. More experimental, conceptual work appears at Rule Gallery, which also has a second location in Marfa, Texas. In their tiny Denver location, the current show Double Take (through December 29) is a posthumous exhibition of work by Colorado painter John Fudge (1940-1999). Also in this vein, 808 Projects shows more challenging work than typical Santa Fe Drive fare. Artist-run and guest-curated, 808 Projects is dedicated to giving emerging to mid-career artists solo shows. I saw Theresa Anderson: everything squiggles, a solo show of the Denver artist’s highly tactile, mixed-media sculptures and paintings in which titillating silicone tubes, foam, cheery paints, and pillowy shapes performed a taut act of suspension and contrast.
River North Art District (RiNo)
In 2015, RiNo felt promising and exciting to me. Just north of downtown, the former industrial district became an art district in 2005, and was a haven for creatives from fine artists to design studios to architects taking advantage of spacious warehouses and cheap rents. The district has since expanded with additional initiatives, including the RiNo Business Improvement District and the RiNo General Improvement District, and has also been altered by the creeping, increasing presence of bland condo buildings. While there are still many galleries and artist studio spaces, the neighborhood now feels commercialized beyond recognition. Nonetheless, this is the area to find countless microbreweries, foodie restaurants, and hipster coffee and tea spots. You can find a complete list of art spaces, studios, restaurants, and more at rinoartdistrict.org. Visions West, which has locations in Denver, Bozeman, MT, and Jackson, WY, features a robust roster of contemporary artists working in the Rocky Mountain region, including familiar names like Billy Schenck, Patrick Dean Hubbell, and Matthew Mullins, among others. During my visit, Willem Volkersz’s solo exhibition especially struck a chord: installations of tourism-industry tchotchkes and souvenirs were paired with neon signs and paintings of the western scenes from which the souvenirs were collected, encapsulating the absurd desire to capture meaningful experiences within worthless collectibles. RedLine Contemporary Art Center, on the lower edge of the district, is a nonprofit exhibition space and residency program that hosts up to fifteen artists at any given time. On a weekend day, many of the artists left their studio spaces open for viewers to see works in progress. On view during my visit was an exhibition of digital art featured in Supernova (held annually in September), Denver’s digital animation festival, in which digital art is shown outdoors on massive LED screens throughout downtown. Current exhibitions include group show Not Even Human (through December 9) and What Lies Between: A Margaret Neumann Retrospective (through January 6, 2019).
Craft beer served at gallery openings (and everywhere). How this city can sustain so many breweries continues to mystify me.
Gallery openings later than 7 pm.
“Pot Art.” A genre spanning psychedelic, rainbow-colored elk to homages to the cannabis leaf itself.