Love for the Denver Art Museum

I spent the evening on Friday at the Denver Art Museum. I have had a membership for the last three years, and only manage to go once per year, which means that I’m totally overpaying for this. But I find that I don’t mind, and here’s why:

I’ve been to some of the great art museums of the world. Musee D’Orsay, the Louvre, the Prado, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery, in Washington D.C., among others. Let me own up front that the Denver Art Museum’s collections and exhibits are not as impressive as these places. But I think I love it better than all of those places, and not just because it’s my hometown art museum. I loved the Prado and the Art Institute of Chicago, in particular— their collections were awe inspiring. I’m someone who can spend hours and hours in an art museum and never be bored. I soak up the art like a sponge. But, for example, in the Louvre, the sheer volume of it was overwhelming. It took almost no time for me to narrow my focus to only sculpture and to skip all the other galleries, because I didn’t know what to look at. I developed a distaste for portraiture in the Louvre, because it was so entirely overwhelming. I didn’t know what I was supposed to see in all these faces. It struck me as more of an invaluable art warehouse than a museum I could enjoy exploring.

The good thing for me, in the Prado, was that we focused on the work of three artists— El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez. Our guide helped us understand what was special about these paintings. We explored how technique played into how we felt and the “story” each painting told us.

With the Institute of Art in Chicago, I got a sense for their exhibits— I also saw them in my late 30s, with a more practiced eye than I saw the Louvre and the Prado at 18.

But the Denver Art Museum goes much farther. When I arrived, on the ground level, there was an interactive lab on motion. You could make a puppet or animate your own drawing or do all kinds of interactive work. Though I often go into the interactive lab, I was aware that my time was short (only 3.5 hours— the way I measure these things makes me laugh), so I made my way upstairs.

I was there to see an exhibit on the Women of Abstract Expressionism, but the second level was the exhibit on dance. I thought I’d hit it quickly on my way up to the fourth floor.

My eye was caught by the Dance lab. Floor to ceiling screens displayed people moving in rhythm to music. But not dancing, per se— some odd combination of leaning and pointing. As I processed what I was seeing, I recognized some of the people on the screen as the people who were on their way out of the dancelab as I was on my way in. Behind me were screens where you could record yourself following along to prescribed motions for 2 minutes. Sure enough, once you’d done it, your motions were synched to the music and you were on the floor-to-ceiling screens. You were the art! It was kind of cool.

I moved into the dance exhibit proper, but first, was invited to think about a memory of dance, and record it on a cutout of a shoe-print— like those shoe prints that teach you dance steps in books and old movies? I thought about what dance meant to me.

From there, they invited you to see a video with Yo-Yo Ma playing a classic ballet piece and a hip-hop dancer dancing to it. You’d later encounter Anna Petrova’s costume from 100 years ago, when she immortalized the ballet to that piece. Across the hall from that was a recreation of giant silver mylar balloons from an Andy Warhol performance piece with which you could play, thinking about your body in motion relative to the “cloud pillows.”

The rest of the dance exhibit was more traditional, but they interspersed the costume with artistic representations of Anna Petrova and her contemporaries, pieces from Martha Graham and other dancers. They had iPads where you could see and hear traditional dances that the paintings and sculptures referenced.

It was such a rich, memorable experience.

There was an exhibit I wanted to check out on the third floor, on my way to the top floor. Called “Audacious,” I noticed there were clear test tubes near some of the paintings, filled with little plastic cubes of varying shades of pink and blue. I wandered over to a stand of bowls of plastic cubes and read that I should look at the artwork and see which color (there was a key near every applicable painting) corresponded to my reaction to the painting, and then consider whether others had felt the same way about it. It was a phenomenal way to engage with the art. If you stop to think about how the art makes you feel, it doesn’t bounce off you. If you assign a single emotion to it, you commit to it in a concrete way. If you take it a step further and think “wow— it seems like someone else was empowered by this, while it made me angry,” that’s another step, and if you think about how something that makes you angry could make someone else feel empowered, that’s a step further. It was a brilliant way to get people more engaged and thoughtful about what they were seeing.

When I finally got to the fourth floor, and the exhibit I had gone there to see, there was a tour there. A loud woman with about 50 people trailing behind her. I’m an introvert, so I immediately tried to place as much distance between me and the tour guide as possible. I went in the opposite direction, and made my way to the interactive exercise. It was less compelling than the others— valuable, but less compelling— an exploration of the roles that the artists filled: friend, activist, etc., and asking you to write about a time when you had been in that role and file it with other stories. Because you filed it, you could see the other stories.

When I returned to the exhibit, I ran smack into the tour, but when I listened to the guide, it became clear that she was the curator of the exhibit. As she talked about where she found each piece and the negotiating she did to arrange for its inclusion, I felt like I understood the whole exhibit process better. She talked about what pieces would travel with the exhibit around the country, she talked about why she included some painters and not others, why she looked for certain works. It was fascinating, and strongly enhanced my experience of the exhibit.

I saw a small fraction of what there was to see at the DAM on Friday— I didn’t spend any time on existing collections and little time on smaller exhibits, but it was so valuable to me. And I don’t think I’d have gotten as much from the same amount of time at the Louvre. I’m grateful that the DAM is so thoughtful about the way they invite patrons to encounter the art!


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