The Denver Art Museum (DAM) (100 W. 14th Avenue) in the city’s Civic Center boasts more than 70,000 works from across the centuries and the world. Best known for its collection of Indigenous art, it was the first major museum to establish a separate Native American Arts Department (1925) to celebrate such artifacts as art rather than as anthropological and historical curiosities. The Petrie Institute of Western American Art (2007) also makes DAM a major center for Western US art.
Since DAM’s 1893 origins as a center for regional art, it has grown into Colorado’s largest art museum. Its buildings are themselves notable pieces of architecture. The Martin Building (formerly known as the Ponti Building for its architect, Gio Ponti) opened in 1971. Its interior was completely remodeled in 2019–21 as part of a renovation project that also resulted in the circular glass Sie Welcome Center, designed by Boston-based Machado Silvetti and Denver-based Fentress Architects. The third and most spectacular structure is architect Daniel Libeskind’s angular Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opened in 2006. The radically postmodern Martin and Hamilton Buildings became the town’s most talked-about architecture and opened the doors to other daring Civic Center wonders, including the History Colorado Center and the Clyfford Still Museum.
The Denver Artists Club
The Denver Art Museum originated in 1893 as the Artists’ Club “to cultivate and promote a general interest and promotion of the arts.” Among the founders were such prominent artists as Henrietta Bromwell, Emma Richardson Cherry, Anne Evans, Henry Reed, Elizabeth Spaulding, and Elsie Ward. The club’s main objective was to stage exhibitions in various temporary locations such as City Hall and the third floor of the Museum of Natural History. After the 1910 completion of the Denver Public Library in Civic Center, the Artists’ Club found a home and exhibit space on its top floor. The club incorporated in 1917 as the Denver Art Association (DAA).
In 1923 the DAA renamed itself the Denver Art Museum. Two years later, it opened galleries in the Chappell House (1300 Logan Street), the former home of the Delos A. Chappell family. His daughter, Jean Chappell Cranmer, and her brother, Delos A. Chappell Jr., donated the twenty-two-room showpiece to the museum for use as offices and display space.
Many of the artists displayed at the Chappell House were women, most notably Anne Evans. The daughter of former territorial governor John Evans, she was both an artist and a collector. Her collection of Native American basketry, pottery, and weaving formed the nucleus of the museum’s Native American department. Evans also donated her collection of New Mexican Santos as a building block for the museum’s Spanish Colonial art. The Native American department remained at Chappell House until it was demolished in 1970 in preparation for the 1971 move into the Ponti/Martin Building.
Arnold Rōnnebeck, who had studied sculpture in Paris with Auguste Rodin and Aristide Maillol, became the museum’s director in 1926. Besides bringing the work of notable sculptors to Denver, Rōnnebeck was a prominent artist himself and championed the museum in his writing and speeches.
DAM is a nonprofit organization separate from the city of Denver. Beginning in 1932, however, it received a small contribution from the city ($3,000 the first year), a free home in the City and County Building, and city-paid staff salaries. DAM has largely depended, to this day, on donations to build its collections. One of the most remarkable came from an otherwise little-known Denver schoolteacher, Helen Dill. Through astute real estate investments, she left about $120,000 to DAM at her death in 1928. This windfall allowed DAM to move into galleries in the City and County Building and to purchase major impressionist works, including one of Claude Monet’s famous water lily pond paintings.
Otto Bach and the Ponti Building
DAM experienced various scattered, temporary homes and nine directors or acting directors between 1893 and 1944, when Otto Karl Bach became the director for the next thirty years. The son of a prosperous Chicago brickmaker, Bach was raised in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Evanston, Illinois, and educated at Dartmouth, the University of Chicago, and the Sorbonne. He was determined to make DAM “a museum in which the cultures of the world were presented.” He created Asian (1956) and New World / Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial (1968) Departments. Ongoing donations by the Neusteter family of Denver clothing store fame led to the 1955 creation of a textiles department. Bach’s energetic wife Cile organized DAM children’s activities and, as a professional journalist, she handled public relations for the museum as well. Noting that more than 90 percent of DAM’s collection was Native American, Bach began a controversial program to deaccession and sell or trade some Indigenous art in exchange for art from other regions.
The ever-growing collection, scattered throughout five different DAM buildings, led Bach to begin planning for a consolidated building as early as 1963. Bach, the board, and DAM architect James Sudler began shopping for an internationally acclaimed architect who would make the new building itself a work of art. Sudler steered them to Gio Ponti, a well-known Milan modernist famous not only as an architect but also as a designer of cars, ships, cutlery, furniture, and even espresso machines (some of which are on display at DAM).
Ponti’s seven-story, 210,000-square-foot castle of culture opened in 1971 at Bannock Street and West Fourteenth Avenue. The architect’s only completed US design wears an exterior of twenty-eight precast concrete vertical sides sheathed in more than a million reflective gray glass tiles custom designed by the Corning Glass Company. The structure’s strong vertical lines, scattered slit-like windows, and crenellated roof line give it the appearance of a castle guarded by a sunken garden comparable to a moat. One critic suggested that it is indeed a fortress designed to protect art treasures stolen from around the world. Everyone agreed that this highly original structure looked like no other museum in the world.
While Ponti did the exterior, Bach and Sudler designed the interior as twin 10,000-square-foot galleries on stacked exhibit floors in one of the world’s few high-rise art museums. This novel arrangement avoids the long hallways so typical of horizontal museums that leave walk-weary visitors looking for a place to sit.
New World Collections
The Indigenous arts collection first blossomed under Anne Evans, founding curator Frederic “Eric” Douglas, and his successor, curator Richard Conn, who acquired a major Navajo textile collection, the Bax Collection of Plains Indian artifacts, as well as Indigenous art from all major cultures of the United States and Canada. Conn’s successor, Nancy Blomberg, oversaw the 1988 construction of a large, state-of-the-art gallery to display Native American art, including contemporary Indigenous art.
Of many oil people contributing to DAM, Frederick R. Mayer and his wife Jan not only donated dollars but also, over the course of several decades, their sterling collection of pre-Columbian Costa Rican art. The Mayers’ collection, the Freyer donation of Peruvian art, and Anne Evans’ New Mexican Santos made the New World one of the museum’s strongest collections.
Following procedures established by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, the museum has returned many items to their respective nations. On an international level, DAM had already signed onto UNESCO’s 1973 Treaty on Illicit Export, Import and Transfer of Cultural Property.
During the 1980s oil bust, DAM faced financial troubles. The hard-pressed city of Denver cut back half of its funding. The museum rented out facilities for private parties, expanded its gift shop, stepped up annual fundraising, cut staff, shortened hours, closed galleries on a rotating schedule, and relied on a measly endowment of $1 million. The museum also began charging admission for the first time, a blow softened by a few free days. Soon DAM joined other major Denver cultural institutions to propose a new 0.1 percent sales tax to provide stable funding. Implemented in 1989, the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) tax brought DAM $2.4 million in its first year and continues to grow.
Also in 1989, Lewis I. Sharp was appointed director. Formerly a curator and administrator of the American wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sharp “transformed DAM,” recalled curator emeritus Timothy Standing in 2021. “He introduced the idea of sharing responsibilities for exhibitions, installations, and interpretative programs. Teams . . . worked together to make exhibits more meaningful to the broader general public without losing their intellectual fiber.” Sharp doubled the museum’s photographic and pre-Columbian holdings and spearheaded the museum’s collaboration with the Denver Public Library and History Colorado in the Civic Center Cultural Complex.
Frederic C. Hamilton Building
Sharp also oversaw the museum’s expansion into the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building. In 1999 Denver voters approved $62.5 million to construct a new DAM wing if the museum could come up with a matching $50 million. Of eighteen architects responding to a call for proposals, Daniel Libeskind (working with the local firm of Davis Partnership) won the competition. Libeskind designed a 146,000-square-foot building that architectural critic Mary Voeltz Chandler called “a titanium clad explosion of shards, a signature Libeskind statement, with a massive prow that stretches across West Thirteenth Avenue.” Critic Paul Goldberger called it “egocentric.” The prominent prow points to the Gio Ponti Building, to which it is connected by a glassed-in walkway over West Thirteenth Avenue. The $110 million building, opened in 2006, is named for longtime DAM board president Frederic C. Hamilton, who donated $20 million to build it and in 2014 left twenty-two major impressionist works to the museum. The four-story Hamilton Building houses the museum’s modern and contemporary art, African and Oceanic art, nineteenth-century European and American art, and special exhibition spaces.
Special exhibitions starring Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Christian Dior, the Star Wars franchise, Rembrandt, Norman Rockwell, and others have distinguished the directorship of Christoph Heinrich. Born, raised, and educated in Germany, he came to DAM as curator of modern and contemporary art in 2007, succeeding the accomplished Dianne Vanderlip, and became the museum’s director in 2010. In addition to attracting blockbuster special exhibitions, he has secured such major donations as Frederic Hamilton’s collection of Impressionist landscapes, the Berger Collection of British Art, and Esmond Bradley Martin’s collection of Italian and French drawings. Under Heinrich, DAM has extended its efforts to diversify the art world through exhibitions focusing on contemporary Indigenous and African American artists, fashion designers such as Louis Cartier, Christian Dior, and Yves St. Laurent, and the art behind Western movies and Star Wars.
Renovation and Expansion
In 2015 DAM constructed an $11 million administration building for the staff on Bannock Street. This work was a prelude to a $150 million renovation and expansion project funded by Denver voters, who approved a $35.5 million bond issue in 2018; by J. Lanny and Sharon Martin, for whom the Ponti Building was renamed; and by plenty of other private donors and foundations. Completed in 2021, the project completely remodeled the fifty-year-old Martin Building. As Director Christoph Heinrich reflected, “Redoing the Ponti Building has given us much flexible space, including room to showcase exhibitions of the 90 percent of our collections in storage.”
The project also added the Sie Welcome Center to DAM’s campus. Anna and John J. Sie, founder of the Starz Entertainment Group, pledged $12 million to build the round, glass-clad structure designed by Machado Silvetti, a Boston-based architecture and urban design firm, and Denver’s Fentress Architects. In addition to providing a visitor-friendly entrance attached to the Martin Building, the Sie Center houses a restaurant and café, special events space, the conservation lab, storage space, and the education department.
After a long period of surviving on starving-artist budgets, DAM has blossomed. Before the 2020–21 COVID-19 pandemic, DAM entertained 850,000 visitors a year. As of 2021, the museum has a staff of approximately 375, an annual budget of around $30 million, an endowment of more than $150 million, and a global reach, making it a prominent anchor of Denver’s cultural landscape.