Stepping over the threshold of the Navarre Building is like entering the inner sanctum of a great art collector. The Navarre houses the American Museum of Western Art (AMWA), permanent home of the Anschutz Collection. Everything about this museum is unusual, from its Victorian jewel box setting to its masses of pictures and treasures everywhere as you gaze up into the three stories of galleries. Every wall is covered with paintings in gilded, carved frames, from your knees to the ceiling. There are no labels, or “tombstones” on the wall describing the art. Instead, docents guide small groups of visitors through the hushed space.
The pictures are hung salon style, which was popular in the 19th century but fell out of favor after World War I. However, this is exactly how art would have been displayed in the Victorian structure, and the pictures feel at home here. The salon hang suits the AMWA’s mission of promoting the understanding and appreciation of Western art and the character of the West. “The collection has a story to tell,” says Curator Darlene Dueck. “It is a survey collection of the development of American art as it pertains to the West.”
A Journey Through History
Touring the collection takes one through more than the development of an artist or genre of art. It is a journey through the history of the West and of America itself. The art is presented chronologically, beginning with artists such as George Catlin who painted Native American life in an ethnographic or journalistic style, through the monumental landscapes of Albert Bierstadt, Taos Society artists including Walter Ufer and Ernest Blumenschein, New Deal art that provided jobs for artists during the Great Depression, and into the abstract expressionists and artists working in the West today.
Built in 1880, the storied Navarre across Tremont Place from The Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver suits the collection of 660 objects including paintings, works on paper and sculpture. “The paintings are actors in this beautiful theatre,” Dueck says. The building has served as a school for young ladies, a ‘sporting house’ and a jazz club. Rumor has it that wealthy patrons accessed the bordello via tunnel from The Brown Palace. The tunnel does exist, although it is now closed. The Navarre was once part of the pot in a poker game (its owner lost) and changed hands several times before The Anschutz Corporation acquired and restored it in 1997. After more than a decade of private showings—Dueck estimates that thousands viewed the collection as they attended charitable gatherings or professional functions—the Museum opened in 2012.
Western art, particularly the works of the Taos Society and Santa Fe schools, is prized, and Denver has become its epicenter. However, that wasn’t always the case. For much of the 20th century, Western art was considered merely a regional art form. Collectors such as Anschutz, Henry Roath and the Harmsen family (those collections are shown at the Denver Art Museum) elevated Western art by acquiring it, and bringing it to the attention of the art world. The Anschutz collection is the focus of scholarly research; its paintings travel to other art venues and the Museum hosts educational programs to further the understanding and appreciation of this truly American art.
An educational series, Artful Insights, gives visitors a chance to delve deeper into individual artists, genres or time periods. Topics have included Hudson River School artist Thomas Moran, whose vivid landscapes of Yellowstone inspired easterners to venture into the exotic new lands of the West, and Taos Society of Artists charter member Eanger Irving Couse, who painted scenes of the Southwest that were used in Santa Fe Railroad marketing. In the early 20th century, artists fell in love with the Southwest. “They painted the very spirit of the people, they had a very pure desire to portray them,” Dueck says. “The railroad liked the artists’ renditions of the people and colors and the rhythms of Native life in the Southwest. These artists needed patrons and the railroad needed marketing materials.” By the early 1970s, these paintings that had hung in the now-closed railroad ticketing offices languished in warehouses. Collectors like Anschutz recognized them as masterpieces of American art.
The children’s education programs at the museum are sophisticated as well. Geared to students eight years old and up, the museum presents the union of art and history in a way that is refreshingly accessible for young viewers. “Viewing art hung salon style gives children the opportunity to stand in front of a painting at their own eye level,” says Museum Educator Kristin Fong. “Some of their favorite works are hung high above their heads, yet they see things adults don’t necessarily see.”
When You Go
Anschutz Museum of Western Art
1727 Tremont Place
Denver, CO 80202
In a nod to its Western roots, and to the many collectors that stream into to Denver for the National Western Stock Show, the Museum will host A Place in the Sun: Student Symposium, Friday, January 8. $5 general admission and Open Range Day, Friday, January 23 with self-guided tours offered all day, 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission includes optional audio guide.
BIO: Frequent Colorado Expression contributor Kimberly Field reviewed Ernest L. Blumenschein: The Life of an American Artist for the Center for the American West.