Denver Art Museum’s Much-Anticipated Renovation Centers Indigenous Voices

The four-year, $150 million project added 30,000 square feet of exhibition space to the Colorado museum’s high-rise building

An aerial view of a large circular building
The Denver Art Museum's newly renovated campus, with the 50,000-square-foot Sie Welcome Center in the foreground James Florio Photography / Denver Art Museum

Fifty years after the Denver Art Museum (DAM) first opened, its high-rise Lanny & Sharon Martin Building looks more or less like it did in 1971: a Modernist, castle-like façade with thin, asymmetrical windows and semi-circular chunks carved out of its roof.

On the inside, however, a newly concluded, $150 million renovation has transformed each of the Colorado museum’s seven floors. Per a statement, workers renovated the building from top to bottom, adding a rooftop space, a conservation center and an additional elevator shaft to support the crowds flocking to the fast-growing state capital. (As Hilarie M. Sheets reports for the Art Newspaper, DAM’s attendance has more than doubled over the past decade to about 900,000 visitors each year.)

All told, writes Jennifer Castor for Rocky Mountain PBS, the project added more than 30,000 square feet of exhibition space to the Martin Building, which was formerly known as the North Building. Italian architect Gio Ponti designed the original structure with Denver-based architects James Sudler and Joal Cronenwett.

The museum’s campus also boasts a new, 50,000-square-foot event space surrounded by 25-foot-tall, curved glass panels. Dubbed the Sie Welcome Center, the circular structure connects the Martin Building to another architectural gem on DAM’s campus: the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, a silver, spaceship-like structure with a pointed “prow” that appears to hover precariously above Denver’s 13th Avenue.

An interior view of the rehung Indigenous Arts of North American exhibition
View of the Denver Art Museum's new Indigenous Arts of North America galleries James Florio Photography / Denver Art Museum

Staff have spent the past four years reimagining the museum’s galleries and educational spaces, reports Mekialaya White for CBS4. Curators intentionally infused all the galleries with art by modern and contemporary artists. According to Joanne Ostrow of the Colorado Sun, about 20 percent of the contemporary works now on display were previously in storage.

The expansion allows the museum to put more of its encyclopedic holdings (some 70,000 artworks housed across 12 collections) on view. DAM’s collection of Latin American art, for instance, now occupies the Martin Building’s fourth floor. Highlights include a portrait of a woman with a pearl earring, painted by Luis García Hevia in colonial Columbia around 1850, and The River Mom (1952), an abstract swirl of misty gray and bright pinks by Chilean painter Roberto Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren.

On a floor dedicated to Western American art, museumgoers can explore the varied ways in which artists have rendered the expansive American West, from Theodore Waddell’s abstract depictions of bison to Albert Bierstadt’s idyllic 19th-century vistas to Ethel Magafan’s Abstract Expressionist Springtime in the Mountains (1961). Visitors can then step outside onto one of two newly constructed rooftop terraces, which offer sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains themselves.

An interview view of the new Indigenous Arts of North American gallery
Roxanne Swentzell's Mud Woman Rolls On greets visitors as they enter the Indigenous Arts of North America galleries at the Denver Art Museum, which reopened to the public after a $150 million renovation. James Florio Photography / Denver Art Museum

“This is something fresh, something new,” artist Adrian H. Molina, who was involved in the redesign process, tells CBS4. The new galleries “[transport] you to an authentic space that allows you to connect with the art to place yourself in the place and time where the art was created,” he adds.

Of particular note is the Indigenous Arts of North America section on the third floor. It features a gallery, “Home/Land,” with works by artists from the local Arapaho, Cheyenne and Ute tribes, according to the statement. The display acknowledges that the museum sits on the lands of these Indigenous peoples.

Standout artworks from the third floor include Roxanne Swentzell’s enormous Mud Woman Rolls On, a site-specific sculpture commissioned by DAM. In the work, a series of larger-than-life seated figures embrace one another, arranged like Russian nesting dolls from biggest to smallest.

“The Mother holds the largest child, who’s holding the next child, who’s holding the next and so on,” writes Swentzell in an artist’s statement. “I love the perspective of understanding that we all come from the Earth, generation after generation; an endless family of life passing on the seed.”

In Rose Simpson’s Warrior (2012), a standing figure of reddish clay is decorated with strings, markings, photographs of faces and other symbolic “tools” that the artist uses to protect herself. The Scream (2017) by Canadian Cree artist Kent Monkman, meanwhile, reckons with the Catholic Church’s often-violent treatment of Indigenous children, many of whom were forcibly separated from their families and deported to residential boarding schools.

A reddish clay body strung with strings, necklaces, photographs of faces and other ephemera
Rose Simpson, Warrior, 2012 © Rose B. Simpson / Denver Art Museum

Because the themes in some of these works have the potential to trigger trauma responses in viewers, the museum has created a “calming room” where visitors can go to rest and think, reports Ray Mark Rinaldi for the New York Times. The reflection space is decorated with excerpts from the poems of U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, notes Daliah Singer for 5280.

Throughout the galleries, viewers can watch short videos featuring contemporary Indigenous artists and read label texts written by the artists themselves.

“We’re able to have our visitors connect directly with artists and hear the artists’ firsthand accounts of what they’re trying to convey in their art,” curator John Lukavic, tells 5280.

In this way, Lukavic adds, the rehung gallery “is including Indigenous voices. It is centering Indigenous perspectives on social justice issues.”

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