Analysis of the Denver Art Museum and Kirkland merger

“The Energy of Explosions Twenty-Four Billion Years B.C.” (detail), by Vance Kirkland.

Museums are the foundation of a city’s culture; the more museums a city has, the better off it is.

Every museum — with its own collection and, more important, its own style and curatorial vision for bringing art to the community — is like another dollar bill in your pocket. Some metropolitan regions are rich and some are poor.

In that way, the consolidation of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art and the Denver Art Museum, announced on May 9, makes Denver less well off. For all of the benefits that the union might bring — and, to be clear, there are many possibilities — it scratches a museum off our list. It takes away a dollar.

A photo of Vance Kirkland working ...

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

A photo of Vance Kirkland working on his last painting.

The move is being positioned publicly as a merger, but it will play out more like an annexation. The DAM will eventually control all operations, approve all exhibitions, make all the crucial decisions about how the Kirkland’s magnificent collection is cared for and expanded, and how it is presented to the public. In essence, the Kirkland becomes just another department at an art megaplex that already wrangles 11 of them, from European art to the rapidly growing area of Latin American art.

Yet, in many ways, the move makes sense. The two institutions are across the street from each other. It is easy to view the unification as the creation of a genuine campus for DAM, already the city’s most important visual arts presenter. Pulling the buildings together in a cohesive way is an urban planner’s dream; it will be interesting to see how that integration happens.

Plus, the museums are already great friends.

The local philanthropist Merle Chambers was the driving financial force behind the Kirkland as it expanded over the years, growing its collection to a considerable 30,000 objects by more than 1,500 makers from around the globe.

The museum started out as the steward of paintings by late Colorado artist Vance Kirkland, and it still has about 600 of them. But, thanks to backing by the Merle Chambers Fund, it grew to be (much more crucially) a museum for decorative arts, with a collection that ballooned through the sheer will of Hugh Grant, who was married to Chambers from 1989 until 2017, and who retired recently as the Kirkland’s executive director.

Grant was a compulsive shopper, buying important pieces of furniture and household objects — scores and scores of tables, chairs, vases, lamps, desks, screens, tabletop ceramics and more — from important eras of design and by key historic figures in the discipline. The Kirkland’s collection is mind-boggling, thanks to Chambers and Grant.

The museum was originally housed in Vance Kirkland’s former studio (Kirkland and Grant were friends, and he got the works in the will) from 2003 until 2017. But it moved in 2018 to its larger quarters a 12th and Bannock streets.

As that museum grew, so did DAM, opening its massive Hamilton Building expansion in 2006 and then renovating its original 1971 Martin Building in 2021. The Chambers Fund was a major financial sponsor of both of those multimillion-dollar moves, and Merle Chambers, the Kirkland’s unpaid vice-president, has personally sat on DAM’s board of trustees since 2019.

For all of its panache, the Kirkland remains a small institution. It reported expenses of $1.6 million in 2022, according to Internal Revenue Service filings. DAM, by comparison, reported $71.6 million in expenses that year.

Denver Art Museum's Martin Building photographed in Denver, Colorado on Tuesday, October 25, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Denver Art Museum’s Martin Building photographed in Denver, Colorado on Tuesday, October 25, 2022. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

The Kirkland’s relatively small size kept its profile minimal on the local cultural scene. It cared for its collection, but lacked the curatorial firepower to make the most of its holdings or to promote itself into a national player despite the fact that it has the goods. Its exhibitions were stable but not ambitious and ground-breaking. Not everyone, even in this city, knows what the Kirkland does.

Exhibition-making is DAM’s superpower, and this is where the merger should pay off. It has a team of talented curators, show designers, marketers. It has a massive, world-class collection, a building that stands tall on the landscape and a reputation for excellence that expands well beyond the city’s borders.

The Kirkland’s collections, for which DAM paid nothing, will morph into the Kirkland Institute at the Denver Art Museum. It will have similar standing to other elements at DAM, such as the Petrie Institute of Western American Art, which oversees the museum’s Western American art collection.

One of the Kirkland’s unique features is that it exhibits its possessions “salon-style,” which means it arranges things in groups, placing objects on the walls, floors and ceilings so that they play out more like little dioramas, or packed living rooms, rather than as formal museum-style exhibitions. DAM pledges to maintain that practice.

But with its curatorial firepower, it should be able to showcase these treasures in a more professional and diverse manner, with better packaging and better signage. DAM already has an architecture and design department with 18,000 objects, plus design pieces across the board in its textile, Indigenous and modern and contemporary art collections. The addition of the Kirkland material will allow for shows with much greater depth and interest. DAM has more capacity to borrow other works to round out special exhibitions, and it’s more likely to loan works to other museums for their special exhibitions.

The Kirkland’s objects will get more exposure and so, by extension, will Denver.

The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art that is slated to reopen in its new, custom-designed building on March 10, 2018, having moved from a modest building on Capitol Hill. February 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)
The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art moved to a new, custom-designed building on March 10, 2018. (Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

In a sense, DAM and the Kirkland each told separate chapters of the story of design. Combined, they can write nearly the entire book, at least from a Western and European perspective and over the last few hundred years.

In the short term, DAM will be challenged to make the most of the merger; it has problems of its own. It wants to build attendance, which is rebounding from the coronavirus pandemic, and it is currently dealing with labor strife: Its rank-and-file workers recently opted to unionize and the contract negotiations are sure to be costly and traumatic. It will be difficult for the Kirkland collection, as big as it is, not to get lost in DAM’s bureaucracy. Right now, the union is as much a distraction as it is a bonanza.

But the long-term looks promising. The annexation is among the most significant acquisitions of new work in DAM’s history, a fabulous donation of desirable work from one institution to another.

The move may leave Denver with one less museum, but Chambers and Grant are leaving a lifetime of good work in the hands of a capable new steward.

Ray Mark Rinaldi is a Denver-based freelance writer specializing in fine arts. 

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