As I enjoyed the recent Mark Rothko exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, another visitor slipped into the gallery and studied the canvasses intently. The youngster, who couldn’t have been more than four years old, stepped back from the pictures and declared, in his outdoors voice, “Oh, I can’t believe it!” Christoph Heinrich, Frederick and Jan Mayer director of the Denver Art Museum, smiles at that encounter. Watching him move through the galleries, his tall figure taking long, purposeful strides, or brainstorming with curators in the collaborative spaces of the DAM’s executive office building, it’s clear that he shares that child’s sense of wonder and delight with the treasures surrounding him.
For Heinrich, the font of energy for the DAM and its curators and staff springs forth from the spectacular Hamilton building through which visitors enter. Architect Daniel Libeskind designed the 146,000-square-foot, titanium-clad structure of jutting angles reminiscent of mountain peaks and rock crystals that opened in October 2006. “It’s like this spaceship landed in the middle of the community with new ideas. It is not classic museum space. It was clear that we could expect the unexpected,” Heinrich says.
Gorgeous Eye Candy and Creative Experiences
“The Hamilton Building is an enormous theatre, and Christoph plays well on the entire stage,” DAM trustee Cathey McClain Finlon says. “He has an inherent ability to engage people in art, which he loves. He understands that people want experiences, and he knows the power and importance of experiencing art. He is a good Pied Piper.” DAM curators use the entire museum campus to allow visitors to immerse themselves in all manner of art, weaving themes in a panoply of horizontal programming that delights viewers. Campus-wide exhibitions such as Spun which featured textile arts, Marvelous Mud which was all about ceramics and 2015’s upcoming In Bloom: Painting Flowers in the Age of Impressionism, mix large-scale exhibitions with richly detailed small exhibits tucked into intimate gallery spaces, educational and community events such as the Untitled series, and experiential studios where visitors can take up an artist’s tools and design a bracelet, weave a Navajo rug or paint their own masterpiece. “In the studios, you become the maker. I was amazed at how difficult it is to throw a pot,” Heinrich confesses.
Heinrich’s approach is not didactic; he doesn’t want to tell people what they should feel. “We want to present a broad idea of what culture is. Ancient cultures, cultures around the world, many cultures under one roof. We want to show how complex and multi-layered human culture is,” Heinrich says. Equally conversant in contemporary art and 19th century European art, Heinrich embraces the many artistic expressions contained within the DAM’s walls. “There are many ways of understanding human history and human possibility. Art provides a bigger context, more tolerance and ignites curiosity. I am always interested in asking, ‘Why did this touch me?’ Art spurs learning.”
Go Big or Go Home
“Christoph pays attention to installation razzmatazz in a brilliant, drop-dead way. He’s very much involved in the hanging of shows in all the galleries because he has been a curator,” says Dr. Timothy J. Standring, curator of the 2012-2013 Becoming Van Gogh exhibition. (Before joining the DAM, Heinrich was at the Hamburg Kunsthalle. During his 12-year tenure, he organized more than 50 exhibitions, 18 of which were major loan exhibitions.) “His direction to me on Van Gogh was, ‘Go big.’ He knew I had the connections and could get the loans from other collections and institutions to make Van Gogh a success. He trusted me to do it.”
“Go big is a mantra,” says Heinrich for blockbuster shows as well as for more intimate presentations. Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective “extended the spectrum and showed fashion can be sculptural, painterly.” Nick Cave: Sojourn “pushed the idea of what art is,” he says.
Heinrich came to the DAM in 2007 as curator of modern and contemporary art. In January 2010, he succeeded Lewis Sharp as director. “I was lucky that Lewis handed the reins over to me at a moment when we were ready to do something wild and explore the question of what an art exhibition is and can be,” Heinrich says. “Sharp brought us to the top of international standards. I had a smooth transition with a wonderful team.” Founded in 1893, the museum has amassed a robust collection of more than 70,000 objects from around the world. “We don’t need to grow the collection, we are focused on the quality of our collection,” Heinrich explains. “We need to make sure the collections are strong and are the best we can afford.”
There was one gap Heinrich longed to fill, and he went after it with a dogged determination. He had to look no further than the living room walls of the museum’s chairman emeritus and lead donor of the futuristic Hamilton Building. The Hamilton Collection of 22 Impressionist masterworks bequeathed by philanthropist Frederic C. Hamilton is the DAM’s largest donation ever. “I went after it like a dog after a bone,” Heinrich says. Hamilton agrees, “Yes, he was like a dog with a bone. The museum was deficient in French Impressionists, which is what my collection is. Christoph eloquently pointed out in a letter he wrote to me that the DAM could never afford to assemble such a collection. Even if it could, the pictures would not be available. ‘Hamilton, you’ve got to do this for the museum, for the city,’ he said. I told him that I’d already left these for my children. He said, ‘You can’t let the kids get in the way of the museum.’ He was right; it was important for the city and made sense to keep the collection together. I showed the letter to my kids and they understood.”
Assembled over several decades, the collection includes Edge of a Wheat Field with Poppies, the first painting by Vincent van Gogh to enter the museum’s collection. The works were featured in Nature as Muse: Impressionist Landscapes from the Frederic C. Hamilton Collection and the Denver Art Museum, part of a trio of exhibitions in the Passport to Paris exhibit. Heinrich, who holds a Ph.D. in art history, wrote an accompanying book on the collection. Lavishly illustrated with pictures from both the museum and the Hamilton collections, Nature as Muse explores how French Impressionist artists left their studios to paint outdoors, creating the new genre of landscape painting. “That book showed me Christoph’s great affinity for the art,” Hamilton says. “It is a work of serious scholarship. I was blown away by it.”
“I set my eyes on this collection because it grew over a period of 40 years,” Heinrich says. It has great examples of landscapes from the pre-Impressionists to the post-Impressionists. It’s focused and contains only masterworks. Together with our collection, it can tell the whole story of the birth of Impressionist landscape work.”
What is, and what will be, art?
The Hamilton landscapes dovetail with the DAM’s important holdings of Western art. “Landscape is the topic of the West,” Heinrich explains. “Western artists looked to Impressionists such as Corot, and were even trained by them. American artists that wanted to make a career went to Paris to study.” Artists including Ernest L. Blumenschein, whose work figures prominently in the collection of Henry Roath, which Roath has pledged to the museum’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art. The collection of approximately 50 artworks by masters of the American West including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington and several Taos Society artists is considered one of the best private collections of western American art in the country. “We perceived from the start that acquiring the Roath collection would be a game changer for the Western American Art department, and would elevate us to become the premier institution for Western art,” he says. “Mr. Roath understood that there is a strong commitment from the museum, from the board of trustees and in our programming to Western art.” Just a few decades ago, American Western art was seen as being simply a regional style. That is no longer the case, as values have skyrocketed and the form is recognized as an American art. “We were lucky enough to be on the forefront as the DAM’s collection has come into the spotlight as one of the best,” Heinrich says. His voice holds enthusiasm and admiration for the DAM’s impressive holdings of Western art and The Petrie Institute of Western American art, the national leader in scholarly research and programming in the field. “I think we Germans invented the West, we love it so much,” he laughs. Heinrich has embraced Denver and the West. Born in Frankfurt/Main, Germany in 1960, Heinrich went on to study Art History and Dramatics at the Universitat Wien in Vienna. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Ludwig-Maximilian-Universitat in Munich. He and his wife Kira van Lil have two young children.
Stunning collections and interactive studio experience aside, how do museums stay relevant in today’s online world? Heinrich sighs. “We’ve asked that during my entire career, yet museum attendance continues to rise. You don’t need to go to the movies, you don’t need to go hiking; you can see beautiful mountains online. But it’s not the real thing.” Indeed, all one has to do is to gaze into the depths of Monet’s Waterlilies for a deep understanding of a museum’s value. “A museum is almost like time travel. You bring your pace to a museum. You can look as closely as you want.”
Heinrich’s timeline includes both the next few seasons and a far longer horizon. “Video art probably is the fastest growing part of the collection. What should we call it? Digital art or art that need to be plugged into sockets,” he laughs. It is part of a question he frequently asks—“What will be art in 500 years?” But for now, being in the very presence of great art can astound, delight and inspire. Should you feel so moved, like the young Rothko fan I encountered in the hushed gallery, feel free to use your outdoors voice.
When You Go
Denver Art Museum
100 W. 14th Ave. Pkwy.
Denver, CO 80204
Mon.: - closed
Tue.-Thu.: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Fri.: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Sat.-Sun.: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Bio: Kimberly Field’s taste runs from Mimbres to Monet to Motherwell, and she’s glad she can enjoy it all at the Denver Art Museum.
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