A Bold Move | Denver Art Museum

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

The Denver Art Museum opens a dramatic new building this month

Colorado has long been known as a travel destination for sports enthusiasts—an outdoor paradise for skiing, cycling, white-water rafting, and hiking. But if the director of the Denver Art Museum, Lewis Sharp, is right, that perception could change soon. On October 7, the much-anticipated new addition to the museum, the Frederic C. Hamilton Building designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, opens to the public.

“A lot of people from the East and West Coasts come here for a mountain experience and don’t even come into Denver. We wanted to create a signature building that would attract people to the city and make a bold statement,” Sharp says. From the beginning, he envisioned a structure that what do for Denver what the Sydney Opera House has done for Sydney, Australia—put the city on everyone’s “must see” list.

Denver mayor John Hickenlooper has similar high hopes. “When the Denver Art Museum’s Denver Art Museumspectacular Hamilton Building opens this fall, it will dramatically enhance Denver’s growing profile as an international cultural destination—yielding obvious economic benefits for our city and solidifying our reputation as the creative capitol of the West,” Hickenlooper says.

Anyone who has visited the Mile High City recently knows that Sharp and Hickenlooper may well realize their cultural dreams for Denver. The Libeskind design for the Hamilton Building, located in the heart of downtown, is a jaw-dropping configuration of geometric shapes and jagged angles that seems to explode from the ground like a volcano. The structure, clad in titanium, is already being referred to as a riot of rhomboids, an astonishingly beautiful explosion, and one of the most unique structures in the country.

The 146,000-square-foot addition almost doubles the size of the museum and makes it the largest art museum between Chicago and the West Coast. The space features three galleries for traveling exhibitions, art storage spaces, and new galleries for displaying selections from extensive permanent collections that include American Indian, Spanish Colonial, western American, pre-Columbian, Asian, Oceanic, African, and modern and contemporary art.

The $90.5 million expansion stands across the street from the museum’s 1971 North Building designed by Gio Ponti. The seven-story North Building is also considered a bold statement, a 28-sided structure clad with a million or more shimmering gray tiles. As Paul Goldberger noted in a 2003 New Yorker profile of Libeskind, the architect wisely chose to do something completely different from Ponti’s “modernist version of a medieval fortress,” because it would have been nearly impossible to complement or design something compatible with that eccentric structure.

In some ways, the Hamilton Building is reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain—both are dramatic, abstract in form, and sheathed in titanium. The comparison is no accident. Sharp attended the opening of the Guggenheim in 1997 and says he was “profoundly moved” by the space because it was as dramatic and compelling on the outside as the art it displayed inside. In 2000, when he and members of a search committee met to consider architects, it was agreed that the new museum building should offer the same outside/inside dynamism as Gehry’s Guggenheim. In the New York-based architect Libeskind, they found the ideal collaborator, because he most closely listened to what the committee wanted and was able to knit it together with his own strong vision, Sharp says. (This is Libeskind’s first building completed in the U.S., although he has created a master plan to rebuild the World Trade Center.)

By all accounts, visitors to the Hamilton building can expect an array of architectural treats to accompany their art-viewing experience. For starters, the entryway, an atrium, rises 120 feet high and features a winding staircase that leads to three floors with eye-popping exhibition spaces as well as a sculpture deck with magnificent views of the downtown skyline.

Museumgoers are generally used to viewing art inside boxy-shaped rooms with four contiguous walls. There are almost no 90-degree corners inside the Hamilton Building—the floors are shaped like triangles, trapezoids, and parallelograms. Some walls slice through various spaces on a diagonal and converge into a point. “If you see a sloping wall on the outside, you see a sloping one on the inside,” says Dan Kohl, director of museum design. “The end result of all the dynamic geometry is that the inside is very much about exploration and discovery. For me, there is nothing better than to have people in a museum in a state of mind to explore and discover.”

Kohl says hanging the collection has been an adventure, too, one that any designer would relish. His team began planning where to place the art three years ago. As this story was going to press, most of the paintings and sculptures already graced the new galleries, waiting for the public to descend.

In the opening year, the museum is dedicating all special exhibition spaces in the new building to art primarily from its permanent holdings. For example, the Martin & McCormick Gallery on the second floor is home to Breaking the Mold, an exhibit of about 160 artworks from a 320-piece Native American collection donated in 2003 by Connecticut collector Virginia Vogel Mattern. The multi-themed exhibition features prize-winning artworks from the annual Santa Fe Indian Market dating back to 1962—pieces such as 40 TROUT, a clay pot by Santa Clara artist Jennifer Moquino. Another themed section spotlights works by Native American art innovators such as potter Hubert Candelario and sculptor and potter Al Qoyawayma. Additional exhibitions focus on the well-known pottery dynasties of Nampeyo and Margaret Tafoya as well as pottery, textiles, and paintings from Zuni, San Ildefonso, and Navajo communities.

Orion by Deborah Butterfield

“The new building allows us to present Native American art in an unconventional setting,” says Native Arts curator Deborah Blomberg. “We are trying to show the contemporary nature of these Native artists producing some of the best artworks today.” Blomberg says the space has added an extra excitement to the collection: For example, in one exhibition that she terms a “Libeskind-esque space,” the ceiling slopes from about eight feet and then soars upward to 34 feet. The low-ceilinged area is the perfect stage for displaying miniature pots while the sprawling walls of the high-ceilinged area is harmonious with showcasing large-scale textiles.

Says Peter Hassrick, director of the museum’s Institute of Western American Art, “The new space seems to re-energize the art. The dynamics of the architecture give an extra visual bounce to the pieces; it complements them.”

The western American art exhibition on view at the opening features about 150 works by traditional 19th- and 20th-century artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Raymond Jonson, and Charles Deas, as well as paintings and sculptures by contemporary western artists such as Keith Jacobshagen, Wilson Hurley, and James Bama. In some cases the earlier pieces are hung on one wall and the contemporary pieces are juxtaposed against them on a nearby wall for contrast. Hassrick says, “We want people to know that Denver is proud of its westerness and that we think western culture is worthy and vital today.”

For the opening, the museum is also presenting RADAR: Selections from the Logan Collection in the new Anschutz Gallery, the largest of the new spaces for special exhibitions. Since 2001, Colorado collectors Vicki and Kent Logan have donated more than 300 works to the museum’s modern and contemporary collection. About 70 of the imaginative pieces are on view, including works by prominent international artists such as Katharina Fritsch and Damien Hirst.

While the Hamilton Building is garnering rave reviews from the mayor and the museum staff, one naysayer, Witold Rybczynski, an architecture critic for the online magazine Slate, groused in a July 12 article that he was not impressed. “While it’s too early yet to assess Libeskind’s design, one wonders how it will look in 30 years,” Rybczynski writes. “Will it still startle as it does today, or will it merely make us sigh? Shock is delightful in an amusement park, but in a building it can only, in the long-run, prove an anticlimax.”

Museum director Sharp is not fazed by the negative comments. For him, the criticism is just part of the baggage that accompanies bold visions. “He [Rybczynski] has not had the opportunity to go into the building,” Sharp says. “When you go in and see the collections, they have never looked more beautiful.”

Whether the Libeskind building will merely have shock value is too early to tell. But this spring The New York Times reported that significant changes are already afoot in downtown Denver, resulting, in part, from the new museum addition. In a city not known for its edgy architecture, the article stated, the museum’s Ponti building, the new Libeskind building, and the nearby Denver Public Library designed by Michael Graves are “becoming the city’s architectural core.” An upscale residential space called the Museum Residences, a 56-unit steel-and-glass structure designed by Libeskind, has recently opened on the plaza adjacent to the Hamilton Building, luring suburbanites in traditional homes to move into trendy city digs.

For now, the Denver Art Museum director and staff eagerly await opening day, when the museum stays open for a 35-hour grand celebration with entertainment, tours, and family activities non-stop from Saturday, October 7 at 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday, October 8. “I hope the public expects to be delighted and we deliver on that,” says museum exhibit designer Kohl. “A lot of the public is pretty intrigued about how in the world we are hanging art in a building like this. I hope they think we did it very well.”

Featured in November 2007