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By David Lane

DENVER, COLORADO, 15 November 2006—Recently—like many other proud Colorado natives—I toured the new Hamilton addition to the Denver Art Museum . While it is an architectural triumph, I am sorry to report the curators did the public and the museum’s collections a major disservice in how they have chosen to showcase the existing collections within the new space.
When entering the Hamilton’s ground floor you are immediately struck by the hushed tones and reverent comments made by patrons entering the space. Daniel Libeskind has a rare gift for being able to sculpt with both exterior form and interior light in creating his gallery spaces. Entering the structure you feel as if you are in a work [of] art, with natural light filling the large gallery spaces provided. At the core, the central staircase combines light, shadow and angular form in mesmerizing fashion that somehow unifies the structure, giving it a wonderful sense of flow and movement. The central core space is unfortunately the single greatest piece of modern art in the whole facility.
The opening had for many years been eagerly awaited as the museum outgrew its original facilities. Denver residents would often wait years before favorite pieces came out of storage for display. The original North building designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler was highly controversial when it opened its doors in 1971. Unlike the Beaux Arts buildings surrounding the Civic Center space at the time it was built, the original museum was a seven-story collection of modernistic/medieval towers. Denver was at the time choosing to reinvent itself and one of its most treasured public spaces, giving itself a new skyline; the medieval keep design suitably reached for the sky to reflect the city’s aspirations while giving the city its own version of the Tower of London. Unfortunately, this design did impose a number of physical limitations. Large-scale pieces were essentially limited to the temporary galleries on the ground floors or the adjoining spaces. Consequently, only a very limited number of large-scale modern pieces could ever be displayed at any one time. Modern art was relegated to a few spaces on the ground floor, which must have been an enormous source of frustration for curators.
The Hamilton addition must have seemed a golden opportunity to let the museum’s modern collections emerge from storage and see the light of day. The addition effectively doubled the museum’s exhibition space, but also provided gallery spaces capable of displaying the largest pieces. While the curator’s stated intent was to showcase the museum’s existing collections, the museum’s greatest strengths were in fact ignored. Denver has one of the country’s outstanding collections of Native American art, a fine collection of Western painters, and recently acquired the Harmsen collection of Western art. However, rather than emphasizing the museum’s strengths, the vast majority of the new gallery space in the Hamilton building is devoted to the museum’s modern collection. Instead of displaying the best and the brightest, the curators apparently went to enormous effort to highlight the regrettable and forgettable.
Denver simply never had the financing or the exhibition space to develop a modern collection of any note so that its collection is dominated by minor lights whose apparent talents lie mainly in the areas of self promotion rather than artistic merit. One is left with the impression that a significant number of the pieces may have been purchased by the pound, with the scale of the stunning new gallery space serving only to overshadow the mediocrity on display.
When an effort was made to display a portion of one of the museum’s better recent acquisitions, the Virginia Vogel Mattern collection of Contemporary Native American Art, no attempt was made to tie the collection to the outstanding collection of traditional Native American pottery to provide a context. As part of the design the architect provided a sculpture terrace in which the curators neglected to place a single work of art. This is striking given that Colorado has a large community of sculptors and foundries nearby that cast bronzes for artists from all over the country. Given this local asset it is difficult to believe that no works could have been found to contribute to the space. Time and time again you can’t help but question if the curators really appreciated the strengths of the collections already at hand.
However, the slavish devotion of the curators to the museum’s financial benefactors was never in doubt. The curators seem to have taken particular pains to create shrines to the principal patrons for the major new galleries in the addition. Large-scale portraits of the patrons figure prominently at the entrance to the larger galleries. The only missing touches are small altars and burning incense. While it is appropriate to show gratitude to a public benefactor, is ancestor worship really required?
Denver now has the architectural icon it hoped for in its new museum addition. Hopefully, the museum’s curators will learn to use the new spaces effectively and eventually come to appreciate the strengths of the museum’s collection. Until then, the new wing will unfortunately be a flawed creation, marred by the lack of vision of its curators.

David Lane is a software engineer in Denver, Colorado.  

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