The Denver Art Museum was founded in 1893 as the Denver Artists’ Club. Today it is one of the largest art museums between Chicago and the West Coast with global art collections that represent cultures around the world as well as work by artists from Denver and the Rocky Mountain region. Internationally known for its holdings of American Indian art, the museum has also assembled an extensive group of pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art objects now considered one of the finest collections in the world.
Denver Art Museum experienced various scattered, temporary homes and nine directors or acting directors between 1893 and 1944 when Otto Karl Bach became the director for the next thirty years. He was determined to make DAM a museum in which the cultures of the world were presented. He created the Asian (1956) and New World / Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial (1968) Departments. Ongoing donations by the Neusteter family in Denver, Colorado clothing store fame led to the 1955 creation of a textiles department. Bach’s energetic wife, Cile, organized DAM children’s activities, and, as a professional journalist, she handled public relations for the museum as well. Noting that more than 90 percent of DAM’s collection was Native American.
The ever-growing collection, scattered throughout five different DAM buildings, led Bach to begin planning for a consolidated building as early as 1963. Bach, the board, and DAM architect James Sudler began shopping for an internationally acclaimed architect who would make the new building itself a work of art. Sudler steered them to Gio Ponti, a well-known Milan modernist famous not only as an architect but also as a designer of cars, ships, cutlery, furniture, and even espresso machine. The Ponti’s seven-story, 210,000-square-foot castle of culture opened in 1971 at Bannock Street and West Fourteenth Avenue. The structure’s strong vertical lines, scattered slit-like windows, and crenelated roofline give it the appearance of a castle guarded by a sunken garden comparable to a moat. While Ponti did the exterior, Bach and Sudler designed the interior as twin 10,000-square-foot galleries on stacked exhibit floors in one of the world’s few high-rise art museums. This novel arrangement avoids the long hallways so typical of horizontal museums that leave walk-weary visitors looking for a place to sit.
Additionally, the Indigenous art collection first blossomed under Anne Evans, founding curator Frederic Douglas, and his successor, curator Richard Conn. Conn’s successor, Nancy Blomberg, oversaw the 1988 construction of a large, state-of-the-art gallery to display Native American art, including contemporary Indigenous art. Of many oil people contributing to DAM, Frederick R. Mayer and his wife, Jan, not only donated dollars but also, for several decades, their sterling collection of pre-Columbian Costa Rican art. The Mayers’ collection, the Freyer donation of Peruvian art, and Anne Evans’s New Mexican Santos made the New World one of the museum’s strongest collections. Following procedures established by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, the museum has returned many items to their respective nations.
And the resulting Frederic C. Hamilton Building opened to the public in 2006. The Hamilton Building includes the museum’s major exhibition spaces for special presentations and traveling art shows while the newly opened Martin Building is home to the museum’s encyclopedic collections and innovative Learning & Engagement Center, which brings the museum’s world-renowned museum education programming for all ages to the center of the campus.
In 2015, following efforts to focus on equal access to the arts and art education for young people, the Denver Art Museum announced its groundbreaking Free for Kids program, underwriting admission for all youth ages 18 and under. The program was created with leadership and support from museum trustee Scott Reiman, and additional support from corporate sponsors. In 2016, following several years of increased attendance growth as well as a change in how the museum serves the wider community, the Denver Art Museum announced a significant renovation and expansion of the North end of the campus to better serve its 800,000 annual visitors. And in October 2021, the Denver Art Museum opened its reimagined expanded campus which includes the complete renovation of the 50-year-old Ponti-designed building, as well as the new Anna and John J. Sie Welcome Center, which houses guest services and two dining options.
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