The Modern and Contemporary Art Galleries in the Denver Art Museum have a whole new energy, thanks to Rory Padeken, whose thoughtful curation led to reorganizing the spaces by theme.
At a recent media preview for reimagined and reinstalled spaces in the Denver Art Museum, curator Rory Padeken paused in his remarks to admit he was exhausted. It was easy to understand why.
Padeken came on board as the Vicki and Kent Logan Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art in June 2022 and was quickly tasked with revisualizing large swaths of the Hamilton Building’s third and fourth floors, which had mostly hosted temporary exhibitions since 2016. To decide which pieces from DAM’s permanent collection would work best for long-term display, Padeken analyzed close to 8,000 holdings—some relatively new, some that had been gathering figurative cobwebs since their acquisition in the latter part of the 20th century.
They were hard decisions, to say the least. Padeken spent hours just taking in the 16,000 square feet of floor space, particularly the unusually sloped walls and oblong windows in this part of the Hamilton Building. As part of his research, he observed how visitors moved through the galleries, including the cave-like corner spaces. In addition, he took time to confer with colleagues, docents, collectors, and patrons. Then he put his curatorial abilities into overdrive.
For those who have viewed the Modern and Contemporary floors since their May 2023 debut, Padeken’s vision shines through. When it came time to create a checklist and layout for the approximately 150 works ultimately chosen, he had basically two months. But it all paid off, and Padeken says he’s taken time to breathe as he launches into preparations for DAM’s fall exhibitions.
Padeken comes to DAM with excellent credentials, including a decade of curation at the San Jose Museum of Art in California. A native Hawaiian, he recently co-curated the reinstallation of the Arts of Hawai’i Gallery at the Honolulu Museum of Art.
One major change to the look of the third and fourth floors is how chronology and art movements no longer direct what is placed where. Instead, Padeken organized paintings, photography, works on paper, sculptures, videos, and installations into twelve sections, six on each floor, with each section titled to evoke a universal theme. The titles are thought-provoking yet open-ended, such as Truth + Beauty, which spotlights Keith Haring’s gold sculpture Altarpiece, and Intimacy + Intuition, which pays tribute to the women of Abstract Expressionism with Sonia Gechtoff’s painting The Beginning.
At a glance, certain groupings might seem like odd collections. But Padeken wants to reel viewers in emotionally as well as intellectually. He says he strives to create “aha” moments as one space flows into another and to let viewers connect the threads by way of their own experiences and knowledge.
Padeken revealed more of his thought processes in reimagining the galleries during a June 2023 walk-through and interview. Here are a few excerpts.
Deborah Ross: Considering the hundreds of works under consideration and the space available, is it safe to say you are methodical and organized by nature?
Rory Padeken: I needed to come up with a strategy that would be efficient and would present the collection in a new way as well. I started by pulling things I was already familiar with—playing to my strengths, in other words. Then I pulled things that just grabbed my attention, whether art historically or visually. From about 400 objects, I then selected a single artwork that I could build these sections or what I call “moments” around.
DR: Can you give an example of how one artwork helped guide a “moment” in the gallery?
RP: The section called “Precarious Life” is inspired by an essay of the same name by the philosopher Judith Butler… I was also guided by the Kerry James Marshall (Better Homes, Better Gardens) because it’s a major holding in the DAM collection. Plus, I considered this monumental triptych (We Have Been Naught We Shall Be All) by the late Hung Liu, whom I knew for about a decade. A lot of the installation has these very personal moments for me because I don’t think you can curate without having some personal attachment or love for something.
The Marshall piece depicts public housing as a place of joy, creativity, and inspiration. The Liu honors and remembers women from the Cultural Revolution and the hardships they faced. This whole section is about recognizing the lives of other people who might not look like or be like us—an idea that’s personally important to me.
DR: Can you give an example of an artwork that has been recontextualized or given new meaning through a new placement?
RP: The galleries feature artwork from different collecting areas in the museum because I wanted to pull those objects into the conversation of a more modern, global art history—especially with the Indigenous artists that are present. This space on the fourth floor is a prime place for Marie Watt’s [twenty-foot-high] Blanket Story, and I like the idea that an Indigenous artist is using economical means to take up a lot of space. If space is limited horizontally, then the only space left is to reach for the sky and to tower above the landscape.
Blanket Story also adds this other element, the shadow, onto this grand sloping wall. In concert with the other works in this section and their play on shadows, the architecture becomes the backdrop for these kinds of visual narratives.
DR: It seems that you planned the galleries with a lot of interest in the flow of things, how one grouping can connect to another. (We are in the Kinship section, where the double squares in the Richard Serra steel sculpture Basic Maintenance seem to naturally flow into the adjoining wall of portraits—each featuring doubles.)
RP: There should be these moments in the gallery that offer pure visual pleasure, or flow. They are like these little Easter egg moments that don’t have to be belabored or explained. I think there should be elements of surprise as part of everyone’s experience.