What a museum wants to be in the 21st century

This article is part of our last Fine Arts & Exhibitions special report, on how artistic institutions help the public to discover new options for the future.


DENVER – What if an old art museum could start over, emptying walls, cleaning floors, dismantling everything that hangs from ceilings and resting on pedestals, then put it all back together with current museum practices in mind? What would that look like in the 21st century?

For the Denver Art Museum, who has spent the last four years renovation of the seven-story tower calling it home, the result is a rare opportunity to see many ideas that contemporary curators enjoy coming together at once. The 102-year-old institution reopens its headquarters today, 16 months behind a schedule shaken by a pandemic, but just in time with current trends.

That is, with a significant shift in emphasis from 19th century Europe to the world of the 20th century; an endorsement of fashion and furniture design as equal partners of painting and sculpture in the encyclopedic hierarchy of museums; a global effort to be socially awakened; and with a sincere invitation to visitors to get their hands on things.

DAM wants its 800,000 annual guests to be themselves – and see themselves – in the museum. He spent $ 150 million to revamp the art but also to strengthen the interactive spaces, such as the “thread” studio integrated into its textile galleries, where visitors can practice their own sewing and knitting, and the design laboratory, where they can marvel at the modern museum. sofas and lamps, then imagine their own home accessories.

In each gallery, the emphasis is on the present, with contemporary artists on a par, if not in the lead, alongside institutional classics. Visitors to Asian galleries, for example, are first greeted by a recent and irreverent piece “Mao Jacket” by Chinese sculptor Sui Jianguo. before they pass to the ancient treasures of DAM of Cambodia, Japan and India.

The museum has one of the best collections of Native North American art in the country, and it dates back centuries. But the new twist is current with works by contemporary contributors like Kent Monkman and Fritz Scholder positioned ahead of traditional blankets and rugs.

“There are baskets and there are pottery and beautiful beads, but we really wanted to show the active peoples and tribes,” said museum director Christoph Heinrich. The museum added public-activated kiosks that showcase recently commissioned videos of Native Americans sharing stories about their heritage and identity.

DAM has tried to be sensitive to the environment – its remodel is LEED certified – as well as to its various constituencies. All signage and public messaging is in English and Spanish. Inside the Native Galleries, there is a “Calming Room” so that visitors whose trauma may be triggered by the artifacts have a place to express their feelings.

When the museum reinstalled artifacts, such as monumental carved poles and ceremonial masks and weavings in its Northwest Coast collection, it worked with Indigenous leaders to organize re-dedication ceremonies recognizing their sacred value.

If DAM knows what its customers need, it has also learned what they want, and that would be premium design, especially from the 20th century. The museum has produced a series of special exhibitions in recent years featuring works by names in haute couture like Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, and each has been a success, drawing large crowds and the support of donors (including, last month a anonymous donation of $ 25 million for textiles). As with other major cultural institutions in the United States, fashion has become a major concern and the museum has worked diligently, under the direction of fashion curator Florence Müller, to build its fund.

This effort manifests itself in its reorganization. For a century, DAM’s textile galleries have focused on things like quilts, embroidery and Chinese dresses, and these items remain on display. But the spotlight for the unveiling falls on an exhibition led by Müller on the “tailor-made female suit” showcasing many of DAM’s recent acquisitions.

DAM capitalized on this fascination with the last century in the New Order. The photography galleries were doubled, and the architecture and design galleries expanded from the small passageway they once occupied to 11,000 square feet of open space. They’re filled with curved plywood tables, office chairs, and other items made by the biggest names of the day, including Colorado-connected Herbert Bayer.

In addition, the curator of architecture and design, Darrin Alfred, mounted a special exhibition of accessories for the house of architect Gio Ponti. The clever and avant-garde range of plates, cutlery and side tables are intended to strengthen the stature of the famous Italian designer, who died in 1979.

This exhibition can be considered as a strategic step on the part of the museum because its own reputation is linked to that of Ponti; he also designed the structure that he devoted all these efforts to its renovation.

The Ponti building is a curious attraction. It was his only completed commission in the United States, and he made a show of it, shaping the place into two connected towers that some locals adoringly call “the castle” and others mock “the prison”. Ponti has sprinkled it with a few narrow, rectangular windows and clad the rest with over a million panes of glass that glisten in shades of gray and silver depending on the sunlight.

But it can look imposing from a distance – and drab when the clouds are out. There’s a reason so few museums are designed as skyscrapers: tall buildings with relatively few windows can appear austere and imposing. But that was the job DAM put the architect half a century ago when she hired him, according to architect Jorge Silvetti, whose Boston-based firm Machado Silvetti led the renovation. .

“The building is not pure Ponti,” said Mr. Silvetti. “It’s not what he could have done, but what he did with what he got.”

Together with local firm Fentress Architects, the design team worked to bring out the best of Ponti. He updated the building with new elevators and skylights, and increased the exhibition space by inserting a floor into a two-story atrium creating a brand new upper room to display objects. Realizing Ponti’s original plan, he added an open-air deck on top. Visitors can now walk on the rooftop and take in spectacular views of the nearby Rocky Mountains.

Machado Silvetti also designed an addition, a 50,000 square foot two-story “visitor center”, which allowed him to put his own stamp on the museum’s cultural campus, which also includes a Addition of 146,000 square feet designed by Daniel Libeskind in 2006.

The visitor center, which will house counters, two restaurants and meeting spaces, is distinguished by its elliptical shape and floor-to-ceiling windows on its upper level, each a concave panel 25 feet high and 8 feet high. large. When lit from the inside, it glows like a lantern at night.

The new building will serve as a metaphorical beacon for art lovers who have patiently waited for the institution to put its best wares back on display. DAM closed the Ponti building for construction in 2018 with plans to start reopening spaces in May 2020. The coronavirus has forced a delay in unveiling, which is expected to draw large crowds.

The content that these visitors come across may seem familiar. There are a few recently acquired objects in the remix, although DAM’s usual attractions – including Western art with its Taos school superstars, and Latin American art, which spans four millennia – remain in full force. part the same. But everything will be displayed with a refreshed demeanor meant to make every guest feel at home.

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About Carlos V. Mitchell

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