Denver's art scene soars with new galleries, events

Clark Richert recalls the cultural wasteland that was Denver in the 1960s when he arrived from Kansas City.

"I basically went into shock when I walked into the Denver Art Museum," says the 66-year-old artist, sometimes called the godfather of Colorado contemporary art. "It really was almost non-existent when compared to the (art museum) in Kansas City."

Lounging at the back of Denver's well-known Rule Gallery, which is showing his work through early November, Richert says that for a while, there was only one gallery in Denver exhibiting contemporary art — a pretty pathetic showing for one of the biggest cities between Chicago and Los Angeles.

"When we wanted to see art, we'd go to Colorado Springs," Richert says, chuckling.

How things have changed.

Not only is the gallery scene exploding — witness the crowd of gallery hoppers milling about Richert's large-scale geometric paintings — but this weekend brings the opening of Denver's much-awaited new Museum of Contemporary Art, a $15.5 million showplace for cutting-edge international works that already is drawing national attention. And it's just the latest major cultural landmark to make its debut in the fast-growing city, which suddenly finds itself on the map for more than just its sports teams.

Watch out, Santa Fe. There's a new art mecca taking shape in the Rockies.

"We may not have the critical mass of a New York or Los Angeles," says Lewis Sharp, the longtime director of the Denver Art Museum, as he leads a visitor through its much-ballyhooed, $110 million building that opened last October. "But it really is remarkable what is happening here."

Sharp is eager to show off the striking new structure, designed by international architecture star Daniel Libeskind — an explosion of angled, titanium-clad shapes that dominates the south side of town.

Like Frank Gehry's swirling Guggenheim Bilbao museum in Spain, the sculpturelike construction is an instant icon for the city — and one that many hope will spawn a similar surge in cultural tourists (the so-called "Bilbao effect").

"It started out as an expansion for the museum, but then it grew into something much more ambitious," says Sharp, pausing in one of the building's oddly angled galleries, which have drawn praise as well as scathing criticism. (TheNew York Times called them "tortured geometries" that make it "virtually impossible to enjoy the art.")

The Libeskind building sits next to an older museum building designed by Italy's Gio Ponti and across from the Michael Graves-designed Public Library — a triumvirate of star power sure to get an architecture lover's heart racing.

But Libeskind's building, his first completed in the USA (he also designed the still-in-the-works Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site in New York), also is notable for what it holds. The museum has long been known for its collections of American Indian, Spanish Colonial and pre-Columbian art and now has room to show off its collections of modern and contemporary art.

Two soaring new floors of 20th-century works by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha are as impressive as any west of the Mississippi River and an unexpected cultural find for visitors who have come to the Mile High City expecting little more than Western-themed historic sites such as Buffalo Bill's gravesite and the Victorian home of "unsinkable" Molly Brown.

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