Denver’s Golden Triangle Creative District took on a brighter glow with the recent opening of Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.
The gleam comes not just from the thousands of artworks inside, but from the building itself. The terra cotta bars and gold glass panels designed by architects Jim Olson and Kirsten R. Murray of Seattle-based Olson Kundig are meant to reflect Colorado’s sunny climate as well as the building’s location near other cultural hotspots. Within walking distance are the Denver Art Museum, Clyfford Still Museum, History Colorado Center and many private galleries.
“It sparkles like jewelry,” Olson said of the structure when he visited Denver for the museum’s March debut. He said he took inspiration from the collections when determining the scale of the design, and he wanted it to have a residential feeling. Unusual for an art museum, the Kirkland has glass vitrines displaying decorative items that passersby can view, beckoning them inside.
The Kirkland showcases three collections: international decorative art from 1875 to 1990; a retrospective of works by Colorado painter Vance Kirkland (1904-1981), and more than 7,000 works by 700 additional Colorado and regional artists.
Touring the museum takes visitors time traveling through the high points of more than a century of decorative design. While the styles might be familiar, you may only recognize some of the furniture, lamps and glassware if your grandparents or parents collected objects from such periods as Arts & Crafts, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Pop Art or Postmodern. Galleries off the museum’s Promenade Gallery are arranged chronologically, and salon-style, with art work mingled with furniture and accessories on tabletops and in glass cases. So much is on display at once it can be a bit dizzying. At the entrance to each gallery are enticing vignettes representative of items exhibited inside.
The works of Kirkland are introduced in a gallery near the entrance. The room features paintings from of all five periods of his career, which spanned five decades. Large paintings bookend the terrazzo-floored Promenade Gallery. Above the welcome desk is Concerning Scorpio Ten Billion Years B.C. (1977) and mounted on a brick wall that leads to the museum’s piece de resistance, Kirkland’s original painting studio, is The Illusion of Floating Mysteries in Red Space (1975). The studio, formerly located a little less than a mile away in Capitol Hill, was put on eight sets of remote-controlled rollers and moved to its new home. The effort took extensive preparation before the actual 12 hours of the transport late in 2016.
Kirkland’s studio building has three spaces plus a video room. The Watercolor Room recreates the living room in the artist’s Denver home and an exhibition room features decorative items he collected. Propped in one corner of the Studio Workroom is the painting Kirkland was creating when he died. Shelves are stacked floor-to-ceiling with books, supplies and such collectibles as vintage radios. The four straps suspended from the ceiling over a large central table are a puzzle until visitors learn that the artist used to position himself in the straps and hover over the canvas when he worked on a big painting.
The museum’s founding director and curator, Hugh Grant, inherited most of the artist’s estate when he died in 1981. Grant grew up knowing the artist because his parents were friends of Kirkland and his wife, who had no children. Kirkland’s wife predeceased him, and Grant, who had been curating the artist’s exhibitions, became executor of the estate.
Grant decided to create a museum of Kirkland’s works but realized it would attract more visitors if it had objects in addition to the artist’s works. “Vance once said to me,” Grant recalled via email, ‘If I am going to eat off of something, drink out of something, or sit in something, it is going to be great design.’ That stuck with me and I took the modern and art deco objects he had and the modern pieces that my parents had…and added about 95 percent more of international decorative art to that.”
Grant said he also realized that it made sense to include works by top Colorado and regional artists. “I grew up with Vance taking me to many exhibitions, and I knew how wonderful it is; probably the best of the western states except for New Mexico and California.”
The Vance Kirkland Foundation was created, and in 2003, the first home of the Kirkland museum was opened adjacent to the artist’s studio in Capitol Hill. Construction of the museum was funded by Merle C. Chambers, who had married Grant in 1989. A businesswoman, entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist, Chambers also provided ongoing support and guidance as well as being instrumental in the purchase of the decorative art.
The couple divorced in 2017, but Chambers’ contributions are key to the project’s development. The Merle Chambers Fund provided the $22 million needed for construction of the museum’s new home and Chambers serves on the museum’s board of trustees.
The 38,500 square foot space, which includes a gallery for temporary exhibits and a sculpture gallery, is a fitting showcase for the work of an acclaimed artist. Kirkland was also committed to education, which is an interesting fact considering he was failed by the professor of his Cleveland School of Art freshman watercolor class for “putting colors in landscapes that were not there,” according to a chronology of his career. Kirkland went on to win numerous honors for his work while still in school. After graduating, he moved to Denver to be the founding director of the art school at the University of Denver. He had founded three art schools by the time he was 28. He was also affiliated with DU from 1946-69.
During Kirkland’s lifetime, he created more than 30 series that included designed realism, surrealism, hard edge abstraction, abstract expressionism and his famous dot paintings. He worked in watercolor, oil, and came up with a unique formula of oil and water for the dot paintings.
His work was in shows near and far during his lifetime and it continued to be exhibited after his death. For the 13 European exhibitions of his work staged from 1997 into 2000, Grant said, the venues were able to customize their exhibitions, and all of them chose to present works from all five of Kirkland’s periods. “This shows the respect curators and directors from diverse countries have for Kirkland’s entire career.”
Stan Cuba, in Colorado Heritage magazine in 2001 wrote of Kirkland, “The strength, virtuosity, inventiveness, cohesiveness, and enthusiasm of his creative output places him at the forefront of all the artists associated with Colorado in the twentieth century.”
Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, 1201 Bannock St., Denver, 303-832-8576; kirklandmuseum.org.
Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. No admission to visitors less than 13 years old.
Suzanne S. Brown grew up with an appreciation of antiques collected by her mother, who for many years owned a shop specializing in Art Deco in Winter Park, Florida. She and her husband enjoy hunting for Western art, antiques and collectibles.
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