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Denver Art Museum shakes off the stuffiness as it unveils a $150 million, forward-looking overhaul 

The Martin Building has been “reimagined,” curators say, in an overhaul that unites three museum structures as a campus. It reopens to the public with a free day on Oct. 24.

The Martin Building, designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti, peeks out above the new undulating glass Anna and John Sie welcome center, with the prow of the Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton building drawing the eye toward the southern part of the Denver Art Museum campus. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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More mind-blowing than Meow Wolf! More windows than ever! More square footage of artwork out of storage. And double the number of elevators!

The Denver Art Museum this week unveiled a thoughtful and physically stunning overhaul of the Martin Building — it’s been not just renovated but “reimagined,” the curators like to say — in advance of reopening to the public with a free day on Oct. 24.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

At a preview, with tables set for 500 in the background of the pavilion to show off the rentable event space, the director, architects, funders and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock were uniformly effusive in praise of the completed $150 million project.

Lanny Martin, DAM’s chairman of the board who with his wife, Sharon, donated $25 million, praised “the healing power of art.” 

Especially these days when health safety rules are in effect, Martin’s wasn’t the last reference to the pandemic, which caused multiple delays to the opening. Hancock cited the success of the public/private partnership in this effort, noting more than $30 million was raised from a Denver bond issue.

Looking from above the Northwest Coast and Alaska Native Art gallery, on Level 2 of the Martin Building at the Denver Art Museum. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Architect Curtis Fentress coyly noted he’s “done a few things” for the city, including Denver International Airport and the Colorado Convention Center. The head of Fentress Architects said he hopes the renovation will carry the museum for the next 50 years. 

The 37-foot tall convex glass panels of the Anna and John J. Sie Welcome Center and the new unseen elevator shafts were the trickiest aspects of construction, he said.

And architect Jorge Silvetti of Machado Silvetti explained that his  job was to fix the chaotic urban mess of three buildings not working together. It’s unclear that they work together now. Some will never like Gio Ponti’s original fortress-like design, others love to hate the pointy Daniel Libeskind-designed Hamilton Building, plus the Michael Graves-designed Central Library adds to the architectural confusion on the block… but count the interior revamp of the Martin Building a success.

The two architects whose designs were used to restore and renovate the Martin Building at the Denver Art Museum, Curtis Fentress of Fentress Architects, right, and Jorge Silvetti of Machado Silvetti, pause for a moment near the main entrance of the building. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Dating to 1971, the Martin building (previously known as the North Building and twice the size of the Hamilton Building) is considered one of the first high-rise art museums. In time for its 50th anniversary, the building fills eight floors with a rather progressive overall vision. Under-represented artists and points of view matter.

Before you even get to a gallery, note a rebuilt drop-off area for school buses in a sunken garden that avoids the hazards of Lincoln Street, and new dining options (The Ponti, by executive chef Jennifer Jasinski). Does the rounded glass function as a beacon or a magnet for visitors, as Silvetti imagines? That remains to be seen, but the whole really does feel more like a campus now.

DAM is well aware that most American museums have been slow and/or stuffy on the subject of minority representation, colonization and Eurocentrism, and is carefully pushing toward diversity and inclusivity in its thinking. Indigenous and Latin American art get spotlights.

Inside the Western American Art gallery on the Level 7 of the Martin Building at the Denver Art Museum, works are displayed chrono-thematically, noting the confluence of cultures over time. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

DAM claims the best collection of Latin colonial art in the nation, showcasing works geographically and thematically, with the influence of the Catholic church prominently displayed.

The indigenous art, which DAM has been collecting since 1925, explores multi-racial identity and examines history through indigenous eyes. Some of the artworks depicting oppression could be “triggering,” curator John Lukavic noted, and so the exhibition space includes a set aside quiet place where visitors can process emotions. (Hotline numbers are offered for further healing help.)

The ideology is stated upfront, in text flashed onscreen during opening remarks by museum director Christoph Heinrich: “Museums have benefited from the displacement of Indigenous people and the removal and historical misrepresentation of their arts often resulting in deep harm to originating communities.”

DAM seeks to make amends.

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The museum’s renowned Western American collections are displayed chrono-thematically, noting the confluence of cultures over time, a recurring theme throughout the building. About 20% of the contemporary works are newly out of storage.

There is more than the brain can process in a single visit. Sculptures, paintings, textiles, furniture — the treasures seem endless. But among the most dramatic sights are the building itself and the views it offers, often through Ponti’s distinctive window slits. Some windows have been uncovered, with alcoves built to shield the artworks from the light; others are covered with a filter to preserve fragile items. Repeatedly, the art competes with the views.

Not to dump on that other recent addition to Denver’s cultural scene, but while Meow Wolf may be fascinating to those interested in puzzle solving and game playing, the art is not really the draw. At DAM, there are historical, cultural and artistic puzzles to solve along with quality artworks.

Newly accessible terrace space on the Level 7 of the Martin Building at the Denver Art Museum gives visitors an expansive view of Denver’s cityscape and the entire Front Range. The terrace had not been open to the public in the 50 years since the Gio Ponti-designed building opened. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Don’t miss:

  • The seventh floor holds the Western American Art collections and offers exquisite panoramas of the West itself on the terrace. This is the first time the historic and contemporary collections are together in shared space. Previously seen only by the building’s flag raiser, the roof is finished with 10,000 square feet of space and vast Rocky Mountain views
  •  The Jesse & Nellie Shwayder Asian Art Galleries on Level 5 hold some 850 works spanning 6,000 years from prehistoric to contemporary art. Again, the confluence of cultures is key. Newly appointed curator Hyonjeong “HJ” Kim Han said the Asian art collection is on par with that of the Chicago Institute of Art and San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.
  • The debut exhibition in the Textile Art and Fashion gallery on  Level 6 is less intellectual, more fun: “Suited: Empowered Feminine Fashion.” The now classic women’s suit was once revolutionary, fashion curator Florence Müller said.
Clothing by French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is displayed in the Textile Art and Fashion gallery on the sixth level of the Martin Building at the Denver Art Museum. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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