The Anschutz Collection in Denver is a must-visit destination for lovers of western American art
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the October 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art October 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Visitors to the American Museum of Western Art, which is home to the Anschutz Collection, can expect to travel back in time to another era—the Victorian age. The museum is housed in the historic four-story Navarre Building in the heart of downtown Denver, which was constructed in 1880. Its collection sprawls across three floors that are brimming with western art from the 1820s to the present day. Every floor boasts a small entry or alcove reminiscent of a Victorian library, complete with fringed lampshades, antique chairs, dark wood paneling and crown moldings, and glass-windowed bookcases filled with volumes about the West.
From the Victorian-style libraries, visitors step into galleries that display more than 300 artworks from the once-private collection of Denver businessman Philip Anschutz. The works became accessible to the public for the first time when the museum opened in 2010. The majority are paintings and drawings, hung salon-style and arranged in user-friendly chronological order, tracing both the history and art history of the West.
The breadth and scope of the collection are jaw-dropping. Works by legendary artists abound here, including paintings by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Nicolai Fechin, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The collection is notably rich in paintings by members of the Taos Society of Artists like Ernest L. Blumenschein, Walter Ufer, and Victor Higgins.
There are paintings on display that stretch across entire walls, such as Alfred Jacob Miller’s THE CROWS ATTEMPTING TO PROVOKE AN ATTACK FROM THE WHITES ON THE BIG HORN RIVER, EAST OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS, which is nearly 9 feet long. Other paintings captivate the viewer because of the raw emotion portrayed. In THE LAST SHOT [see page 96] by William Tylee Ranney, the trapper’s eyes are bulging in sheer terror, suggesting an imminent Indian attack.
Generally the artworks are arranged in such a way that each generation of artists is followed by the next generation; only occasionally does a painting appear out of chronological order. For example, a 1935 painting, DESERT JOURNEY by Maynard Dixon, hangs next to a cubist-style painting from 2009, FLASHING STORM, by contemporary Arizona artist Ed Mell. But a visitor soon learns the reasoning: Mell is influenced by Dixon and also collects his paintings and drawings, and both artists are masters of geometric forms and shapes.
In fact, discovering unexpected and surprising features is one of the pleasures of visiting the museum. For example, in the midst of artists well-known for painting in the West, a painting by an artist long associated with the East Coast pops up: Who knew that Childe Hassam traveled to Oregon? Sure enough, one learns that in 1904 the New York painter created SAND SPRINGS, BUTTE NEAR THE MALHEUR-HARNEY DESERT. And how amazing to find a painting by New York abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler in the collection. Frankenthaler visited Arizona briefly in the 1970s and painted a bright-orange canvas called PHOENIX 1976. On the visit she took home samples of the native red rock to re-create what she called “Sedona red,” the desert red-orange she used in the painting.
Peter Hassrick, director emeritus and senior scholar at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY, considers the Denver museum “a high point in the nation’s museum history” and says that the nation should be profoundly grateful for this gift. “Its collections are of the highest caliber, its facility is a historic gem, and its ascendance from a private collection to a public institution is a monumental cultural achievement,” Hassrick says. “It is one in a rather short list of distinguished organizations devoted to western American art that were started by celebrated art aficionados and philanthropists.”
Hassrick adds that the museum easily joins the ranks of such renowned institutions as the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK, founded by oilman Thomas Gilcrease in the 1940s; the Whitney Western Art Museum in Cody, WY, established in 1959 by sculptor and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney; and the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum, founded in 2007 and named after patron and investment banker Tom Petrie and his wife, Jane.
While Philip Anschutz is often described as a “Denver-based businessman,” that label doesn’t quite do justice to his wide-ranging endeavors and influence. In addition to amassing an impressive collection of western art, Anschutz has also amassed a fortune, with holdings over the years in the oil and gas industry, real estate, newspapers, railroads, entertainment venues, movies and movie theaters, and professional sports such as Major League Soccer and the Los Angeles Lakers. He regularly lands on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. His philanthropy is extensive as well, including millions donated to the University of Colorado’s medical center in Aurora, CO, now called the Anschutz Medical Campus. By all accounts Anschutz, who began collecting art in the early 1960s, is an intensely private person. He almost never gives interviews and is known to eschew references to himself as a billionaire.
Anschutz would, however, probably be pleased to be described as an avid and passionate collector of western American art, according to his daughter Sarah A. Hunt, who wrote about the collection in the 2000 book, Painters and the American West: The Anschutz Collection. In her conversations with her father about his art collection, one impression stands out above all others, she says: “The tangible joy my father derives from his collecting activities.” Hunt goes on to explain that her father believes that people “should collect for the sheer delight of the paintings or objects themselves. He has consistently cautioned against collecting art solely as an investment.”
Today Hunt is the museum’s director, carrying her father’s vision for the collection forward into the future. She points out that the re-creation of Victorian times that greets museum-goers offers a unique viewing experience. “The salon-style exhibition is in keeping with the era in which the building was constructed,” she says. “In fact, many of the artists on view participated in salons or exhibitions featuring their work and would have anticipated hanging their paintings in just this manner. By enhancing the experience with period-specific furniture and settings, visitors can truly step back in time and enjoy the artwork in a setting similar to the way the paintings would have originally been enjoyed.”
For Hunt there are many highlights in the museum’s collection, which totals about 650 paintings, drawings, and sculptures by more than 180 artists. But she points out that a trio of George Catlin paintings are some of the most significant because the artist’s surviving works are so rare. Among these is Catlin’s INTERIOR OF THE MEDICINE LODGE, MANDAN O-KEE-PA CEREMONY, painted in 1832. As a youngster growing up with the collection, Hunt often heard stories about artists such as Catlin and learned from her father how Catlin observed the tribal ceremonies of the Mandan Indians just years before they were almost decimated by smallpox and the many other challenges faced by Native Americans.
Since the collection is arranged in chronological order, the trio of Catlin paintings are usually the first works a visitor peruses. In fact, the chronological order of the paintings is one of the strengths of the presentation, displaying the depth of the collection, Hunt points out. As she has said in the past, her father wanted his collection to illustrate how each generation chose to represent the West and the subsequent impact their work had on succeeding generations. Thus viewers see an array of subject matter, styles, and scenes from history as the West evolves from the early 19th century onward.
Another significant highlight of the collection, according to Hunt and others, is the group of paintings Anschutz acquired from the Santa Fe Railroad in 1972. At that time the company held numerous works in the basement of its Chicago headquarters. But eventually Anschutz was able to purchase 82 of the paintings, the majority of which are excellent examples of work from the Taos and Santa Fe painters. “I would say that the Taos Society of Artists works as a group marked an important milestone in the collection’s evolution, as they were purchased as a group and immediately elevated the status of the Anschutz Collection in its early years,” she says.
Indeed, for students of the Taos artists, the museum offers an abundance of outstanding works to explore. It boasts works by all six founders of the Taos Society of Artists, although one takes precedence, according to Hunt: “Ernest Blumenschein’s SANGRE DE CRISTO MOUNTAINS [see page 90] is an absolute masterpiece and is widely considered to be his finest work,” she says. “We are extremely lucky to have this work in the museum.” Anschutz purchased the painting in 1973 from a Canadian museum, which was shifting its focus to Canada’s artists.
Looking toward the future, Hunt notes that one of the museum’s main missions is education. Outreach to area schools is ongoing, and this year 600 students visited, triple the number from the year before. The plan is to continue increasing that number in the years ahead. “The paintings create a wonderful resource and dialogue for students to engage with history in a visual way,” Hunt says.
Finally, according to Hunt, her father’s career has often been mirrored in the broad themes of the collection. She says both his business ventures and his art feature “a sense of adventure into the unknown, the triumph over adversity, a passion for exploration, and the desire to create something of lasting value. He has chosen to collect a type of art that embodies themes to which he, and most Americans, can relate,” Hunt has written.
All of which adds up to make the American Museum of Western Art a must-visit destination for those who are passionate about the history and art of the American West.
A Colorful Past
Few museum buildings in this country can claim such a colorful, storied past as the Navarre Building, which is home to the American Museum of Western Art. Today the Victorian-era building is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it has undergone a number of reincarnations before arriving at that designation. Located in downtown Denver, the Navarre Building was constructed in 1880 and began its eclectic life as The Brinker Collegiate Institute, a school for young women who wanted to study “customary Christian virtues,” according to historian Jan MacKell.
In 1889 two businessmen purchased the building and opened it as the Richelieu Hotel. However, a few months later, legend has it that the building was lost in a poker game. The new owners christened the building The Navarre, after France’s King Henry of Navarre [1553-1610]. The king was known as a devotee of the high life—and for a complicated love life that featured an array of mistresses. His name on the building was a harbinger of what was to come. The Navarre emerged as a gambling hall and popular bordello, where “customers” rendezvoused with “ladies of the night.”
After efforts to shut down prostitution in the city surfaced, the bustling bordello disappeared and a dining club took its place. Eventually the club was considered one of the city’s finest eateries, famous for its humongous Colorado steaks and bottomless martinis. In 1964, when the owner became ill, the dining club went up for sale. Peanuts Hucko, a well-known jazz clarinetist who played with Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller, bought the building. The Navarre Building next morphed into Peanuts Hucko’s Navarre, a hot spot for jazz in the city.
In 1997 the Anschutz Corporation acquired the Navarre Building, restoring, redecorating, and refurbishing it. In 2010 it became the permanent home for the once-private Anschutz Collection. In some ways, the former 19th-century school for young women has returned to its educational roots: One of the museum’s main missions today is education, and it gives regular free tours to area school children. —Bonnie Gangelhoff
Images courtesy the American Museum of Western Art—The Anschutz Collection.
Featured in the October 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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