The Denver Arts Museum

Why Minneapolis Outranks Denver Culturally

Forbes, the magazine that loves to categorize things, came out with a new ranking August 20th – The top 10 American cities for cultural tourism.  The results. Not surprising? New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Washington DC are the consecutive top 5. This report based its results on numbers of overnight visits to these cities in 2008, and the number of cultural institutions AOL City Guides lists for each city. (Does that qualify as empirical research?) The list rounds out with Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis (left) and San Francisco (which, as Forbes noted, “merely edged” into the top 10, despite being “the New York of the West.”)

Denver (right) did not make the list. However, Denver did rank in the top 10 cultural capitals of the world also according to Forbes. How is that possible? How can Denver be the only U.S. city in the top 10 global cultural capitals but not make the cut domestically?

(Differing data for editorial selection, obviously.) In 2008 Denver attracted $1.5 billion in cultural tourism dollars and had 12.2 million overnight visitors compared to San Franciscos 16.4 visitors, and Minneapolis 17.9 million. Making this skew more palpable is the historic fact that  in 08 Denver hosted the Democratic National Convention. A crowd of 84,000 gathered at Invesco Field the night Barack Obama accepted his nomination. Even so, Minneapolis (hosting the Republican National Convention) drew nearly 6 million more visitors. Why?

Ive been to Minneapolis. It has that gigantic Mall of America with the roller coaster inside. Skyways connect the convention center to hotels so people can avoid going outdoors in the frigid winters. Minneapolis has great contemporary art, in the Walker Art Center, and excellent theater –  with an updated home for the Guthrie designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel. The Hennepin district draws over 500,000 patrons. But Denver has the 2nd largest performing arts complex in the country, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, attracting more than 1 million people each year. And both Denver Art Museum (DAM) and MCA Denver bet their cultural futures on new houses for art designed by brand-name architects (Daniel Libeskind and David Adjaye, respectively. Libeskind also designed companion condos for DAM culture lovers right across the street). When DAM opened, architect Libeskind told the New York Times that in Denvers ambition to not be just a cow town in the Rockies, it was attempting to focus on the synergy of its now two DAM structures (the first, 1971, by Gio Ponti), next to the Michael Graves-designed Denver Library, as inaugural.

“It is the mark of a young city. The roots of a city like Denver lie elsewhere: in the collision between small-town America and the car culture that erupted in the latter half of the 20th century,” Libeskind told Nicolai Ouroussoff.

Nevertheless, I keep returning to the question, leaving statistics and their damn lies (as the saying goes) aside, why is Minneapolis more respected as a cultural city than Denver?

Is it that Minneapolis has a free comprehensive art museum (Minneapolis Institute of Art) with a collection of over 80,000 objects? But Denver has a pay-to-view comprehensive art museum with  68,000 objects. (Why cant all museums be free?) In a model Denver seems to be emulating now, Minneapoliss two established art museums take differing curatorial approaches: the MIA is enyclopedic; the Walker, developed as a model committed to modern art, is more like MoMa. Minneapolis really created its cultural identity, like MoMa, by embracing the European avant-garde, and thus casting itself as a center where American modernism could thrive subsequently. Denver seems to have foundered on its cow-town soil. While the Gio Ponti DAM (right) opened in 1971 with a castle-like façade and prison-like slit windows, the same year that the new Walker designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes opened, Denvers architectural experiments have been more lampooned than loved by domestic culture critics (left: DAM addition by Libeskind).

Indeed it might be the Walker, uber alles, the first public art gallery west of the Mississippi (founded in 1879), that situates Minneapoliss cultural lineage several rungs higher than Denvers. Notably, Depression-era social programs helped the Walker take root. In 1939, the Works Progress Administration assisted the Minnesota Arts Council in acquiring Walker Art Galleries and changing the name to Walker Art Center. The writer of The History of Modern Art, H. Harvard Arnason – the Midwests Alfred Barr? – took the directors helm in 1951. And former Walker curator Kathy Halbreich, who in 1994 organized a major Bruce Nauman retrospective (with Neal Benezra), and also introduced shows by Joseph Beuys, Fluxus, Kiki Smith, and Kara Walker (before being named, in 07, MoMas associate director for contemporary art), took the Walker into headliner stature nationally.

DAM by comparison didnt get its start until 1890,  and its first permanent building until 1949. When it did, Denvers own unique path automatically situated Denver as a city of the West instead of as a city allied with international modernism. (This makes Denvers statistical placement, now, as the only US city to rank top 10 in international cultural destinations, all the more interesting for what it says about varying fascination with the West between American and international tourists.)

In 1940, DAM was the first museum to collect Native American art as art, not artifact. This direction started in 1925 with a gift from Anne Evans, daughter of Territorial Governor John Evans, who was dismissed because of his role in the Sand Creek Massacre. Anne, obviously had a different opinion of Native Americans than her father.

DAMs first purchase and accession was a collection of Navajo rugs. And WPA funds in Denver were used to pay weavers to repair old Indian and Hispanic textiles. (Coloradans can also thank the WPA for Red Rocks Ampitheater, where many recent visitors to DAMs psychedelic rock posters exhibition touted their memories of Grateful Dead Concerts.)

In 1942, while Denver was focused on Native America, the Walker acquired its first work of the European Der Blaue Reiter group: Franz Marcs “Die Grossen Blauen Pferde” (The Large Blue Horses), painted in 1911. Fauvist-inspired paintings like Marcs classic seem to be flourishing in the current contemporary market in Denver. (Is it a lack of familiarity with modernist precedent leading Denver contemporary painters to go in that particular abstract direction?)

DAM, while building on its Western city identity, has also had a love-hate relationship with its Western heritage.

In 1993, the DAM Contemporary Realism Group was formed to support the acquisition of works of realism by contemporary artists. But with few exceptions the acquisitions have been of works by artists living in the American West. The group is housed within the museum in the Petrie Institute of Western American Art (so named after a significant donation in 2007, by Tom Petrie, was given to the museum to flesh out its Western art collection). And DAMs Western art collections were also buoyed by the donation of the Bill and Dorothy Harmsen Art Collection in 2001. (The Harmsens owned Jolly Rancher candy company). Contemporary realism on display at DAM is shown beside historic Western art. In other words, funds from the Contemporary Realism Group have not gone to purchase international work, say, from the Leipzig School. (Though DAM, not incidentally, was the first museum in the U.S. to acquire a painting by Neo Rauch).

Denver again took a risk in 2006 when they opened the Libeskind designed Hamilton Building, a critically panned fiasco compared to the 2005 Herzog & de Meuron-designed addition to the Walker. And Michael Graves, 1980s postmodernist supreme, designed the expansion of the MIA. If Minneapolis has been much more conservative in its architecture, it has been more dynamic in programming and influence.

Yet still, DAM has been the visionary in many cases. In 1986, DAM was the 2nd U.S. museum (after the Whitney) to acquire a work by Nam June Paik- Electronic Fish. The Walker didnt acquire  TV Bra for Living Sculpture by Paik until 1991. DAM was also the first U.S. museum to acquire Damien Hirst, Sean Scully, David Lynch, Miroslaw Balka and Nicole Eisenman, just to name a few.

If the roots of urban Denver lie in the collision of small-town America and car culture, then where can new roots of urbane cultural Denver take hold? DAM is like a teenager who puts on fancy designer clothes to be popular but doesnt fully embrace the inborn pragmatism of cowboy boots. Can Denver ask: How does contemporary realism by Western artists collide with the contemporary aesthetics of painters of the Leipzig School? Can it show: What is the interaction or lack thereof between DAMs terrific Pre-Columbian art collections and the way it inaugurated new ways of seeing Native American art? How do 300 psychedelic rock posters and the 8000-object AIGA collection acquired by DAM relate to the narrative illustration collection of works by N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and Allen Tupper True (who is being featured in a multi-venue retrospective at DAM, the Colorado History Museum, and the Denver Public Library in October)?

Denvers museums historically missed the avant garde and its too late to catch up, but they could create their own cutting-edge movement today, by exploring through exhibitions the dynamic between contemporary Native American artists and the objects of contemporary artists like Kerry James Marshall or Nicole Eisenman, both in the DAM collection. It could create and sponsor important scholarship on the evolution of Native art as it progressed from functional artifacts to an artform that evolved through a hybrid of European influences and indigenous traditions. DAM must also place itself at the forefront of exploring the role of Western art, particularly American landscape in shaping not only our country but views of it from the outside. After all, it is with the rest of the world that Denver has already established itself as a cultural leader.

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