Anne Evans (1871–1941) was a Colorado civic leader and patron of the arts who transformed the Denver cultural community. Among her numerous activities, Evans started and helped guide the Denver Art Museum to national prominence, assisted in the development of the Denver Public Library, led the restoration of the Central City Opera House and the establishment of the Central City Opera Festival, supported arts education at the University of Denver, and provided leadership in the creation of Denver’s Civic Center area. An artist herself, Evans was also influential in collecting and promoting American Indian art, making the Denver Art Museum the first in the nation to showcase Indian art and establish a Native Arts Department.
Anne Evans was born in London, England, on January 23, 1871, while her family was on a trip abroad. She was the second daughter (the first died in childhood) and the youngest of four children born to Margaret Patten Gray and John Evans.
Anne Evans’s family was one of the most prominent in Colorado. Her father, John Evans, had arrived in 1862 to serve as territorial governor. Before that, he had been a physician, businessman, and educational benefactor in Illinois, where he founded Northwestern University in Evanston, a town that was named for him. He later founded the University of Denver (DU). Forced to resign his governorship in 1865 for his role in precipitating the Sand Creek Massacre, he became a successful railroad and real estate developer. John and Margaret Evans were devoted Methodists who actively promoted a variety of cultural, philanthropic, and religious causes.
Anne Evans was educated at Miss Mary Street’s School and Wolfe Hall in Denver. Her family appreciated the arts and encouraged her evident talents. The Evans home served as a centerpiece of Denver society, hosting arts gatherings and parties. The family spent winters at their house downtown and summers at the Evans Ranch near Evergreen.
As a child, Anne was known as a “tomboy,” that is, a girl who enjoyed active games and the outdoors. At age fifteen, she was sent to Illinois for a year in the care of her much older cousin Cornelia Gray Lunt, with the aim of turning her into a more conventional young society woman. During this transformative year, Anne’s wilder nature was somewhat tamed and “Cousin Nina,” who was an art patron and civic leader, and who never married, became a lifelong role model for young Anne.
The Artist Years
As a teenager, Evans attended college preparatory classes at DU in 1887 before leaving Colorado for three years of study at the Misses Ferris School in Paris and the Willard School in Berlin. During her years in Europe, Evans honed her art skills and gained an appreciation for art history and cultural institutions devoted to art. In 1891 Evans returned home to Denver, where she began to pursue her own painting career and become involved in the art community.
In 1895 twenty-four-year-old Anne Evans was accepted in the Art Students’ League, a prestigious art school in New York City. She spent four years (not sequential) enrolled in rigorous art classes in New York during the school year, while returning to Evans Ranch in Colorado for the summer.
After the death of John Evans in 1897, Evans and her mother moved in with her brother William Evans at 1310 Bannock Street. The house was remodeled with a large addition to create living space for the two women. Evans lived in the house during winters for the rest of her life. She never married. She enjoyed being part of her brother’s active household and her role as Aunt Anne to his children. She helped to manage the Evans Investment Company with her mother and brothers. Following the death of her mother in 1903, she inherited a modest income that guaranteed her financial security.
In addition to her family, Evans had a close, lifelong friendship with Mary Kent Wallace, who founded Kent Denver School. The women traveled together, spent time at the Evans Ranch, and were both active members of the Denver branch of the Theosophical Society, a religious group that incorporates beliefs from Eastern and Western religions.
The Heart of Denver Arts and Culture
While the men in the Evans family made their mark in Colorado business and politics, Anne Evans devoted her life to arts and culture, starting with her influential role in the creation of Civic Center as a home for the Denver Public Library and Denver Art Museum.
A member of the exclusive Artists’ Club of Denver, Evans belonged to a group at the forefront of producing and promoting the arts in Colorado. She nurtured a nascent artistic community in Denver by encouraging and providing financial assistance to artists, especially young artists who were just beginning their careers. She supported her friends, luminaries of the Denver art scene, by personally commissioning works of art, recommending their works to others, or assisting them in applying for art projects. As she moved from being an active artist to an enthusiastic patron and supporter of the arts, she led the Artists’ Club to acquire a permanent art collection and host art exhibitions in a variety of locations.
In 1904 Mayor Robert Speer appointed Evans to the newly created Denver Art Commission, charged with transforming Denver in line with his City Beautiful ideals. One of the commission’s major goals was to create a Civic Center to serve as the heart of the Denver community. Civic Center took shape slowly over a generation, but its first building, the city’s grand new Greek Revival public library, opened in 1910. Evans, who had also been appointed to the Denver Public Library Commission in 1907, is credited for working out an agreement for the Artists’ Club to get space in the new library for a permanent gallery. This was a first step toward her ultimate goal of getting a dedicated building for art exhibitions at Civic Center.
Denver Public Library
Evans served as president of the library commission in 1910–15, becoming the first woman in the country to hold such a position. She oversaw the construction of the first four branch libraries and made sure that each new building’s budget included funds for commissioned works of art. During her decades on the library commission, serving until 1940, she provided leadership and vision as the library grew and adapted to the changing needs of the growing city.
Denver Art Museum
In 1922 the Artists’ Club gallery moved away from Civic Center, when the group received an unexpected donation of the Chappell House mansion at 1300 Logan Street. The Denver Artists’ Club was renamed the Denver Art Museum, with Evans serving as executive secretary and interim director. She was involved in all aspects of running the museum, including hiring museum directors, locating and negotiating to buy artworks for the collection, overseeing the expansion of the building, and fundraising.
During this period, Evans developed an intense interest in American Indian culture and began to collect and promote indigenous art as fine art rather than folk art. Her efforts to have American Indian art recognized and placed in art museums elevated the Denver Art Museum to national recognition. In 1925, under her direction, the Denver Art Museum was the first in the nation to showcase an exhibition of American Indian art, which included items from Evans’s private collection. She headed a museum committee to acquire American Indian art, and by 1930 the museum hired a full-time curator for its Native Arts Department, the first of its kind in the nation. Later she donated her entire collection of Santos—Native American Christian religious art and other items that included paintings, pottery, and kachinas—to the museum, expanding the collection.
In addition to her promotion of American Indian art, Evans also played a major role in the movement to restore and preserve the mission churches of New Mexico. Working with native peoples, artist communities in Colorado and New Mexico, and architects, Evans raised funds and awareness to preserve these historic buildings.
Within a decade, the Denver Art Museum had outgrown the Chappell House. In 1932 Evans negotiated for gallery space in the new City and County Building at Civic Center and secured a commitment from the city to build a freestanding art museum nearby. In 1948 Denver bought land for the museum at Fourteenth Avenue and Acoma Street, but the building was not completed until 1971.
University of Denver
Evans followed her parents’ legacy of leadership at the University of Denver. Evans’s father had founded the institution, and her mother had insisted it have a School of Fine Arts. Anne Evans served on the three-member advisory board of the Art Department from 1932 until her death. Evans also served on the board of the University Civic Theatre starting in 1929. The university honored Evans with an honorary doctor of letters degree in 1914 and an honorary doctorate in fine arts in 1939, citing her services to the university and the larger Denver community.
Central City Opera
In 1931, while serving on the University Civic Theatre board, Evans and her fellow board member Ida Krause McFarlane convinced DU to accept the gift of the dilapidated Central City Opera House. Built in 1878, the once-elegant opera house had served as a cultural icon in the gold-mining town known as the “richest square mile on earth.” The opera house featured frescoes on the ceiling, a huge chandelier, beautiful murals, and near perfect acoustics, but by 1930 it had fallen into disrepair and was abandoned. Evans believed that reviving the opera house as a fully functioning theater would promote the arts in Colorado while also preserving the state’s cultural and architectural heritage.
Serving on the first board of directors of the Central City Opera House Association, Evans focused on raising funds for the project. She used her connections to convince Denver’s elite to volunteer, support, and contribute to the restoration. Within a year, the crumbling, abandoned theater was transformed to its former glory. The Central City Opera House’s grand opening in 1932 was a huge success, as were the following seasons. Until the late 1930s, when a general manager was hired, Evans and McFarlane were primarily responsible for the success and growth of the Central City Opera Festival.
The opera revitalized and perhaps even saved Central City, which had been in danger of becoming a ghost town. The board was able to lure top Broadway talent to the restored venue during the summers, when New York theaters went dark. In an early version of today’s summer festivals in resorts such as Aspen and Vail, the most famous opera singers and actors of the day came to Colorado to perform at the opera house.
Throughout her life, Evans spent her summers with family and friends on the Evans Ranch, located near Upper Bear Creek above Evergreen. Visitors enjoyed hiking trails, climbing nearby Mt. Evans (named for her father), riding horses, giving dinner parties, and putting on elaborate theatrical productions.
When the original ranch cottage burned down in 1909, Evans built her own mountain home on the property. It was located on a site with magnificent mountain views in all directions. The rustic house had unique vertical log construction and featured American Indian art inside. It provided ample sleeping rooms and large spaces for performances, entertaining, and social events. The house was restored in the 1990s and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
Later Years and Legacy
In 1940, when Evans was sixty-nine years old, she suffered a heart attack. She began to limit her activities. Later that year, she donated her remaining Indian collection to the Denver Art Museum and her mountain properties to her nephew and niece. She gave her personal library to the University of Denver.
On January 6, 1941, Anne Evans died of a heart attack. Newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region, as well as the New York Times, carried obituaries lauding her contributions to the cultural life of Colorado. Easily one of the most important figures in the history of Denver arts and culture, Evans helped establish many of the core institutions that continue to serve the city today. Her energy and vision made Denver into the cultural capital of the Rocky Mountain region.
For unknown reasons, Evans requested that all her personal effects be destroyed upon her death. Her heirs complied with her wishes and destroyed all her letters, artwork, notes, and photographs. The Evans house at 1310 Bannock Street was donated to History Colorado in 1981 and now serves as the Colorado Center for Women’s History at the Byers-Evans House. Visitors can tour the restored house and see Anne Evans’s sitting room and bedroom, as well as two surviving works of art by Evans that escaped destruction.