Inside the $ 175 million Denver Art Museum makeover, which opens this month

In the brightly lit lobby of the Sie Welcome Center at the Denver Art Museum last week, Christoph Heinrich worried about a speech to donors.

“It’s already going on for half an hour,” said the museum director of his speech on Wednesday, October 13, which was written to announce $ 175 million in improvements and additions to the institution. “It’s really a complete overhaul and redefinition of the museum, so it’s hard to fit in all the details.”

As Heinrich, 61, stood in the lobby, employees rushed to carry ladders, tools and paint buckets, a reminder that there was still work to be done. But it was just a detail job: the ambitious project – which added both the Sie Visitor Center and 35,000 square feet to the museum’s iconic 50-year-old North Building – was ultimately executed.

Now called the Lanny and Sharon Martin Building, the gray-tiled tower was designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti and inaugurated in 1971. It was to undergo a major overhaul and preservation, said Heinrich , after its last update 25 years ago. The bond issue approved by Denver voters in 2017 covered $ 35.5 million in infrastructure upgrades and kicked off fundraising for the larger project.

“We haven’t kept anything from the old building plan,” said Heinrich. “Not even a showcase. Everything is new, but it is in Ponti’s mind.

The public will be able to explore the renovated Martin Building, as well as the 50,000 square foot Sie Visitor Center, during the free reopening festivities of the Denver Art Museum on October 24. Full bilingual signage is meant to make Spanish speakers more comfortable at the museum, Heinrich said.

The reopening will reintroduce visitors to its renowned and redesigned collections for the indigenous peoples of North America, Asia-Pacific, Western art and Latin America, while showcasing textiles, contemporary design, photography and more. It also adds comfortable outdoor spaces and a sunken plaza that has a modest “performance arena” to host music and dancing.

The Sie, in particular, invites a reassessment. It shifts the visual balance of the complex from two main buildings to its own spaceship-shaped facade of floor-to-ceiling and fluted windows, which were custom-made in China. The airy three-story public space includes classrooms and play areas for the tens of thousands of students who visit each year; a restaurant run by James Beard Award winner Jennifer Jasinski; A coffee; a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory; archive storage; and a ballroom for rent (the Sturm Grand Pavilion).

The exterior of the new Sie Visitor Center at the Denver Art Museum on October 7, 2021, with the ship-shaped Hamilton Building intruding in the upper left corner. (Photo by Rebecca Slezak / The Denver Post)

Just south of the new and renovated spaces at 1400 W. 14th Parkway is the other half of the art museum complex: the Hamilton Building by architect Daniel Libeskind, which was completed in 2006 and reopened several months ago. ‘last year.

Now, after three years of work and the pandemic delays of 2020 – a gradual opening was due to start over a year ago – the museum pieces are assembled. The reopening is a big milestone for Denver’s art scene, but it’s not the only one this year. The major anniversaries of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (at 25) and the Clyfford Still Museum (10) join the reopening of the Kirkland Museum in Denver after extensive water damage in February (authorities saved most of the work) .

“What’s exciting about the reopening is that it shows how this city has invested in art as an economic engine and as something that unites our communities,” said Joyce Tsai, Director of the Clyfford Still Museum, next door to the Denver Art Museum. in the creative district of the Golden Triangle. “Faced with the pandemic, the cultural sector has become more focused on sharing successes than on competition. “

This is important, because a full-fledged Denver art museum has the potential to slow down pedestrian traffic in the Golden Triangle. Over the past 18 months, the upscale, high-rise neighborhood has been besieged by the same protests, homeless camps and vandalism that have largely carved out downtown corridors.

“I’m excited about the reopening,” wrote Jennifer Larsen, Golden Triangle resident and assistant in her Creative District, via email. “Our museums and galleries bring people into the neighborhood (who) often stay for a meal or a drink, or to explore other offerings.”

Original works by famed Denver-born painter Jordan Casteel are installed behind a protective barrier at the Sie Welcome Center on October 7, 2021. (Photo by Rebecca Slezak / The Denver Post)

The Denver Art Museum, one of the metro area’s top cultural attractions, has averaged about 800,000 visitors a year in recent years, according to a museum report. When Heinrich began his current work in 2010 (he was curator there two years earlier), it was closer to 400,000 annual attendees. Growth is good but it presents problems, said Heinrich, especially strained capacities.

“The city is changing and becoming more and more dense and gentrified,” he said, looking at a closed Civic Center park from the roof of the Martin Building. “But more people can mean more support for the arts and more community around them.”

This was confirmed in the museum’s fundraising campaign, with the Martins’ donation (a capital contribution of $ 25 million) and an anonymous donation of $ 25 million for an endowment joining identical dollars which brought the total to $ 175 million. It funded an energy-efficient makeover, which allowed workers to remove materials to the original walls of the Martin Building, following designs by architects Fentress of Denver and Machado Silvetti of Boston. They filled mezzanine spaces with wooden floors and added newly built rooms to the roof of the seven-story structure.

The Northwest Native Exhibit at the Lanny and Sharon Martin Building in Denver on October 7, 2021. (Photo by Rebecca Slezak / The Denver Post)

The retooling is also a restoration of some of Ponti’s original design cues, with patterns that tilt or conform to its cutout, geometric silhouettes, and touches of terrazzo that pay homage to the old north building. Conceptual lighting schemes, first envisioned over 50 years ago and now possible thanks to LED technology, have been restored. The majestic but accessible design of the galleries has lowered some objects to a touching distance in the eclectic galleries, their walls splashed with vibrant reds and cool greens.

“If I had known ten years ago that it was going to cost $ 175 million, I wouldn’t have tackled it,” Heinrich said with a laugh as he stood next to a 22-foot Haida totem pole. high, dated 1870. “It’s good that we didn’t know that at the time.

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