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“It’s succeeded beyond our expectations”: Adam Lerner, MCA Denver’s chief animator, is leaving at a high point

Adam Lerner is a high-brow academic with a playful side, which allowed him to cultivate a new generation of museumgoers, sometimes at the expense of traditional supporters. About 10,000 teens visited MCA Denver in 2017.

Museum of Contemporary Art Denver director Adam Lerner in the museum at 1485 Delgany St. He's curated the museum for a decade and plans to depart in June. He will not be involved in the search for his successor and will not accept any sort of emeritus role if offered. "I want to see how somebody else takes it in a new direction.” (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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When he leaves his post as head of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in June after an acclaimed 10-year run, Adam Lerner will not be involved in the search for his successor, will not accept any sort of emeritus role if offered, and hopes to be merely a donating patron.

Won’t he at least want to be an informal advisor to whoever comes next?

“Of course I want to rule from the grave,” he said, noting that his ego would like to have a say. “But MCA Denver will carry on. Also, I want to see how somebody else takes it in a new direction.”

Lerner, 52, is staying mum about what’s next.

“I just want to get a little quiet around me,” he said. “I’m like a recent graduate entering the world, I want to see what emerges naturally from me.” He believes he can do more for the city, and more artfully, away from the office of a museum director.

“I’m really satisfied with what I’ve been able to achieve,” he said, and he is “thrilled” to stay in Denver. (He rules out a jump to Meow Wolf.)

The “director and chief animator” of Denver’s small but influential contemporary art museum is going out on a high. He has propelled the MCA to record attendance, erased $10 million in debt,  secured a significant endowment, increased teen participation exponentially and drawn international recognition.

As a hedge against sounding cocky in light of such glory, and as he prepares to leap into … whatever…, he makes fun of himself: “I can just see me five years from now, alone at a bar, telling the bartender, ‘I was in the New York Times’…”

Beyond the quantifiable success (75,000 annual visitors and counting), Lerner deserves credit for injecting life and energy into the city.

At a table in the museum’s top floor cafe recently, Lerner talked about his restlessness, his favorite exhibition and his enduring interest in juxtaposing high- and low- art forms, the institutionally approved versus the pop-culturally fun, the “transcendent aspect of art different from everyday life, and also the artfulness of our daily lives.”

The MCA spirit

His interest in such high-low, inside-out mashups inspired his signature program, Mixed Taste: Tag-Team Lectures on Unrelated Topics, developed at MCA precursor The Lab at Belmar in 2004. In the oddball series, produced by Sarah Kate Baie, the museum’s director of programing and chief of fictions, experts discuss such mismatched topics as Hula Dancing and Wittgenstein, or Crop Circles and Prenups, and find commonalities. Call it Dada or call it geeks’ night out, the series has been a hit.

“It’s my nature, but it’s become the MCA spirit,” he said.

Museum of Contemporary Art chief animator Adam Lerner often dresses distinctively. “I’m fascinated by the fact that my relationship to clothes both triggers my greatest insecurities and also provides me with a continual source of creativity and self-exploration.” (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He and the museum have flourished here, he believes, because it’s fertile ground. “Denver likes to be sophisticated even as it undermines its own pretenses. This is a city that doesn’t do well with pretense, yet wants to be sophisticated.”

Wearing a custom pinstripe suit jacket trimmed in burgundy and blue with eye-popping burgundy and blue lapels, a pocket square and kerchief over a grey T-shirt, and accessorized with several necklaces and bracelets, Lerner walks the walk. No longer worried about striving to fit in, as he was through college, he displays his belief, stated in his blog, that “my clothes are about me. I’m fascinated by the fact that my relationship to clothes both triggers my greatest insecurities and also provides me with a continual source of creativity and self-exploration.”

As a museum director, he’s been interested in creating sometimes uncomfortably new experiences, playing to a young crowd and sparking connections. “We don’t want to be a small version of a big museum,” he said.

From the start, when he joined MCA in 2009, he dared to risk alienating traditional funders. It wasn’t easy to convince some of the regulars to support a place that aspired to be a welcoming hangout for teens.

“We had to turn away some funding, telling people, ‘no, it’s not about schools, no, it’s not about families, it’s about high-school, a place to be after school.’ It’s succeeded beyond our expectations,” he said.

In 2017 more than 10,000 teens showed up.

“They come to hang out, they feel it’s their place,” Lerner said. “It warms my heart.”

On Adam Lerner’s has curated unexpected exhibits for MCA Denver, including the work of tattoo artist Amanda Wachob, who tattooed people live in the galleries, and the paintings of DEVO founding member Mark Mothersbaugh. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I led with creativity and hired smart people”

Lerner is an academic (Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, master’s from Cambridge) with a playful side, who deserves credit for hooking a new generation of museum-goers.

The museum world has followed Lerner’s example. In 2017 MCA Denver won a $400,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to train arts professionals from across the country on their innovative practices. Funders have come around: in 2017 the museum raised $13 million toward the $18 million Elevated Heartbeat Campaign to support the next phase of growth.

Lerner regularly speaks to museums looking for models, and will continue to do so once he leaves MCA, although he doesn’t want a consulting gig to get in the way of his artistic focus. He reports that in the field generally, “museums are starting to loosen up.”

Several MCA shows have made waves, including a groundbreaking Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition, still on tour nationally. While the MCA’s Tara Donovan show drew 52,376 visitors (September 2018–January 2019) to become the museum’s most attended show ever, Lerner’s personal favorite was the Mark Mothersbaugh “Myopia” show, which drew 32,566 visitors (October 2014-April 2015.)

Lerner says Mothersbaugh, the cofounder of DEVO — noted for music but also painting, photographs, sculpture and more — opened his mind. Lerner’s highbrow curator self had to evolve to love Mothersbaugh’s quirky art: “He changed a lot for me.”

Approaching his exit, Lerner jokes that the real reason he’s leaving is that his dogs want to spend more time with him during this important period in their lives, before heading off to college. (He has imagined rich characters for his two dachshunds. “Kingsley wants to major in sociology, which I support. Kristofferson is more into theater.”)

He’s not leaving the MCA because he’s burned out on bureaucratic responsibilities, he said. “I led with creativity and hired smart people” to handle the administrative functions. It’s more about recharging.

So will Lerner’s next step be more performative, like the lectures he’s mounted or collaborations he’s done with DCPA’s Off-Center? Will he devote himself to writing (he had a book in the works not long ago)? Or might he lead in unimagined directions?

Louis Grachos, head of The Contemporary Austin since 2013, isn’t surprised Lerner is stepping down. “There’s a seven- to 10-year cycle that seems to be the rhythm of the field,” Grachos said. “I understand it. Adam is so creative, I can imagine him wanting to explore different opportunities.”

An impact nationally

In a 2012 New York Times story, Grachos, then director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, said, “Adam is reshaping what has become a stale model for a contemporary art museum.” Now, Grachos said by phone, Lerner “is ahead of the curve in terms of understanding contemporary art spaces and the importance of  bringing people together from different disciples. Adam has had an impact nationally. We’re all going to miss him.”

When Grachos brought the Lerner-curated Mothersbaugh retrospective to Austin, “it allowed us to reach out into the music- and art-making communities. Frankly, it was one of our most successful exhibitions.”

MCA Denver board chairman Mike Fries said Lerner’s “vision, creativity and willingness to take risks has transformed MCA Denver over the past decade.”

Fries said, via email, the board is grateful “for all that he has done to integrate the MCA into the hearts and minds of our audiences, to push the boundaries of what traditional museums do and how they interact with their visitors, and for nurturing the MCA into an institution that is both cutting edge and community-building. We’re going to miss him, but we know that he’s leaving the institution in the perfect place for the next director to come in and take the MCA into its next phase.”

Before he goes, Lerner will deliver a lecture, “How I Art and Why,” on April 10 (details at the museum’s website).

Eluding orthodoxy

Lerner credits his father with planting the seed that led to the Mixed Taste programs, by dint of the Orthodox Jewish immigrant’s rabid embrace of square dancing when he arrived in Queens, New York, from Poland, aiming to be Americanized. (Lerner and his sister square danced, too, but gave it up when they hit their teens.) In a blog post, “My Father, the Jewish Square Dancer,” Lerner writes that he admires the courage his father displayed, giving up the familiar in favor of the new.

“That openness to exploration is the essence of an artistic approach to the world, which, at its core, is also the ability to grasp the world like a new immigrant,” he writes. “It is the ability to elude orthodoxy, which is the enemy of a modern approach to life, and discover new possibilities where the old rules don’t apply and new ones have not yet been formed.”

Lerner is about to give up a secure gig at the height of remarkable success to face new possibilities — the essence of living the artistic life.