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Feature

Denver Art Museum

Changes Inside and Out

By Anna Maria Gillis | HUMANITIES, November/December 2006 | Volume 27, Number 6

The Denver Art Museum opened its new Frederic C. Hamilton Building with thirty-five straight hours of festivities this fall. Almost thirty-four thousand people passed through a building that celebrates the geometry of unconventional angles.

The new space will host traveling exhibitions and showcase parts of the permanent Native Arts collections, which includes American Indian, African, and Oceanic objects that in recent years were organized, evaluated, restored, photographed, measured, and rehoused with the help of an NEH grant. Many are on view for the first time.

The building's architect Daniel Libeskind said early in its design that it was inspired by "the light and geology of the Rockies." Clad in nine thousand titanium panels, the Hamilton Building's color appears to change with the slant of sunlight.

Reminiscent of forms heaved from the earth with the help of plate tectonics, the Hamilton Building's exterior appears to have no right angles—the standard for most buildings, municipal and otherwise. Because no angles are alike, the building was first constructed virtually, says museum spokesperson Andrea Kalivas Fulton. When it was time to put up the 2,700 tons of steel beams, each had to be labeled and given x, y, and z coordinates, so they could be placed correctly.

Inside, the building provides 146,000 square feet of space, nearly doubling the museum's original size and giving the museum more room for its sixty thousand works of art.

Libeskind designed galleries of different sizes and shapes—he knew the museum had world art—and Dan Kohl designed the interior gallery walls, says Native Arts curator Nancy Blomberg.

"One of the key benefits of the NEH grant was that it made the collections accessible," says conservator Carl Patterson, who explains that a well-organized collection is easier to evaluate when it is time to create an exhibition.

For many years, Native Arts pieces were badly stored for lack of space. This wasn't a problem unique to the Denver museum, says Blomberg. "It's a relatively recent trend to think about storage. It wasn't unusual for museums to have problems."

They were heaped up and often needed supports to preserve their shapes. African and Oceanic collections especially had pieces with unbound pigments that were fragile.

"We needed to do preventative conservation, which is about addressing environmental conditions. That involved moving material to places where we could practice pest management," says Patterson.

Blomberg notes that masks, clothing, carvings, and other artifacts are especially difficult to preserve because people often made them for one-time use in a ceremony. "They weren't meant to last forever," she says.

The museum's American Indian collection is encyclopedic at nearly twenty thousand pieces, says Blomberg. The museum has collected Indian artifacts since its founding, and, unlike other museums that put the focus mainly on ethnography, the early curators collected Indian artifacts as art. There are Navaho blankets, Pueblo pottery, St. Lawrence Island artifacts, Northwest totem, Plains tipis, Zuni silver, and much more.

Most of the American Indian collection will remain in the North Building, but a few pieces appear in the Western American gallery in the Hamilton Building, and older Pueblo pottery is displayed with contemporary Pueblo ceramics, paintings, and Navajo and Hopi textiles in a temporary exhibit called "Breaking the Mold: The Virginia Vogel Mattern Collection of Contemporary Native American Art."

"Breaking the Mold" includes the work of 150 artists, some of whom are the descendants of well-known Pueblo artisans whose work the museum already held, says Blomberg. "We're focusing on two families—the Tafoya and Nampeyo—five generations of one and four generations of another."

The entire African and Oceanic collections have been moved into gallery and storage spaces in the Hamilton Building. With both groupings, "we're trying to show a range of art forms," says Blomberg. "The Denver Art Museum is the largest resource for this kind of art between Kansas City and San Francisco."

The thousand or so pieces of African art—from bark cloth and beadwork to musical instruments and masks—come from all over the continent. Much was acquired decades ago through trade with other museums. For instance, Benin bronzes gathered by the British Punitive Expedition in 1897 came from the British Museum, and Ashanti weights came from the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford.

Curators gave a lot of thought to how objects should be seen. Many of the objects "were created for performance and we wanted to place them in that context," says Blomberg. For instance, a mount that was created to hold a Yoruba dance mask was adapted so that it could give the mask a sense of movement. Mount maker Steve Osborne created all the mounts, including the tiny ones of bent wire that hold brass weights used to weigh gold in Ghana's Ashanti kingdom.

The Oceanic collection, which has works from Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Australia, is housed in the triangular Anderman gallery. It includes Marquesan bowls, Maori wood, and Fijian tapa cloth. Among the most dramatic items on display is a seven-foot tall orator's stool from Papua New Guinea.

The Hamilton Building also houses modern and contemporary, pre-Columbian, Spanish colonial, Asian, Renaissance, and textile arts. To give people a sense of what happens behind the scenes, in the new storage facilities people will be able to see what we do, says Patterson.

During the coming year, the museum hopes to draw one million visitors to see works that have been in storage for years.