Road Trip Report: Inside the new Denver Art Museum
The reimagined and expanded Denver Art Museum is a road trip-worthy new destination on Colorado’s cultural map, with the much-hyped and landscape-altering new 50,000-square-foot Sie Welcome Center, rebuilt and redesigned galleries in the museum’s 50-year-old Gio Ponti building, an industry-leading new education center for young people’s programs, a new sensory garden, two new restaurants, and so on – all opening Oct. 24 with a free admission day following three years of construction (and one year of pandemic delay).
Yes, $175 million still goes a long way for a museum expansion.
The re-opening of the expanded Denver Art Museum is Oct. 24 when admission is free. Reservations are required for opening day and advance tickets are required thereafter. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. denverartmuseum.org
But for Aspenites and devotees of the Bauhaus and Aspen’s own Herbert Bayer, the first stop must be the new 2nd floor design gallery and interactive Design Studio.
It includes “Herbert Bayer’s Earthworks,” an exhibit devoted to Bayer’s land sculptures in Aspen that began in the 1950s, “Earth Mound” and Anderson Park, as well as his final Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park in Washington.
The display brings 16 previously un-exhibited Bayer pieces out for public consumption, including pastel drawings and crayon renderings of the original mound, sketches of the earth mound ringed in water, photographs and sketches and collages of what would become Anderson Park as well as a 1982 three-dimensional model of plaster and other materials for an “environmental mound” during preparations for Mill Creek.
“I don’t think these have ever been shown,” said the museum’s architecture and design curator Darrin Alfred. “To be able to have this opportunity, going through the archive and finding these works in particular, it’s incredible.”
Steps away, in the Design Studio, an interactive display – combining traditional behind-glass cases with pull-out drawers holding much more – is a treasure trove of more Bayer that’s being shown publicly for the first time. The collections are in three large drawers, broken down as “Colorado Ski Country,” sharing some of his more familiar early Aspen skiing marketing work, “Landscapes,” a fascinating group of works on paper inspired by Aspen that depict mountainscapes, Hallam Lake and studies of flowers and plant life, and “Native Plants,” which collects pastel drawings of various seedpods, plants and driftwood dated to 1947, which would have been Bayer’s first summer in Aspen. This is Bayer as plein air artist – showing us what he saw here, including a herd of sheep in his early days as an Aspenite.
The Design Studio also prominently displays early- to mid- 1970s ski trail maps from Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk and Snowmass by John Rieben, who introduced the International Typographical Stye to ski country and defined the ski map.
Along with the widely expanded design collection where I found Bayer’s corners, the high points of the reopened galleries are the massive North American Indigenous collection – thrillingly mixing historic pieces with contemporary works – and the collection of Western Art on the top floor of the new Martin building.
The Western Art collection flows onto new balcony spaces – constructed by Ponti with dramatically curved turrets, but not previously accessible by the public – which offer panoramic views of Denver and the mountains to the West. It’s a curatorial touch as genius as it is obvious, placing Western American art in its most fitting setting where the actual Rockies compete for your attention against artistic depictions of them.
“It’s an extraordinary platform to look at the landscape to connect the collection of the American West with the American West,” said architect Jorge Silvetti, whose Boston-based firm shares architectural credit for the new project with Colorado’s Fentress Architects.
When I broke off from my designated guide and group of journalists at a mid-October media preview, I stepped out on one of the terraces and found Silvetti alone there looking out at the horizon. “Oh. My. God,” he said to himself, a proper response to the setting if there is one, before turning to greet me.
Herbert Bayer pops up again in the Western Art collection. His “Green Center Over Horizon” (1970) gets a prime spot here among four large format works displayed on free-standing walls – an Agnes Martin, an Ethel Magafan and Andy Warhol’s “The American Indian (Russell Means)” complementing this signature Bayer.
The Bayers are among countless works coming out of the proverbial mothballs of the museum collection and into the light for the public at the reimagined museum.
“When you work towards a new building, you work towards new galleries, you really get energetic and incentivized to bring in new art, new collections and new gifts,” museum director Christoph Henrich said.
Or as Lanny Martin, the donor whose $25 million got this project rolling, put it: “This is not just a renovation, this is a re-imagination of how we show the critical art objects that we display to all of you.”