Arts & Culture / Spring 2018

Denver’s Kirkland Museum makes a major move

Furniture designed by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and a lacquered wood screen by Jean Dunand are among the pieces on display at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. Photo: Wes Magyar

In spring of 1981, the 76-year-old Vance Kirkland lay dying in a Denver hospital. Knowing his days were dwindling, the city’s most famous modern artist wanted nothing more than to paint.

Enter his longtime friend Hugh Grant. “I set up his hospital room as a studio,” Grant recalls, noting that the artist would repeatedly ask for more brushes, paints and colors. Grant would deliver more yellow, more blue, but particularly more cadmium scarlet. Always more scarlet.

Kirkland completed that painting, a pulsating installment in his famous dot series, and then moved to still another canvas, which he was diligently confronting when his productive life came to an end.

Art lovers can see Kirkland’s final works, as well as paintings from his major creative periods, at the new home of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, which opened in March in Denver’s Golden Triangle Creative District. With its sunshiny yellow exterior, the 38,500-square-foot building sits just steps away from the Clyfford Still Museum and the Denver Art Museum.

For Kirkland fans like Grant, the Golden Triangle location puts the artist right where he belongs: at the center of a vibrant museum scene oozing cultural cachet. And Kirkland’s name promises to burnish that cachet — after all, aficionados from all over the world admire his surrealistic watercolors and mind-blowing abstractions of nebulae and galaxies. In Denver, meanwhile, he is remembered for founding DU’s School of Art and Art History in 1929.

But no one remembers him as well as Grant. As the museum’s director, he serves as the keeper of Kirkland lore. His parents were the artist’s good friends, and Grant grew up in Kirkland’s milieu, learning about art and artful living. Upon Kirkland’s death, he inherited most of the artist’s estate — a legacy he converted into the original Kirkland Museum, located at the artist’s studio in Capitol Hill. Over the years, Grant built the museum’s collection and dreamed of acquiring additional space for showcasing its art.

Grant shared that dream with Merle Catherine Chambers, the donor behind DU’s Chambers Center for the Advancement of Women. Chambers, too, thought the collection needed more room and suggested relocating to the Golden Triangle, an idea Grant initially dismissed, assuming it meant abandoning Kirkland’s quirky workspace. “We can’t move down there,” Grant told her. “I won’t leave the studio.” Chambers’ response? “Pick it up and move it.”

Which, with support from the Merle Chambers Fund, is exactly what they did. The studio move took place in fall 2016, when the structure was hoisted from its Pearl Street perch and transported down East 13th Avenue. The building was then positioned at the north end of the new site, where it offers insight into how Kirkland approached the blank canvas.

The museum provides more than a retrospective of Kirkland’s work. It also displays international decorative art and works by 700 Colorado and regional artists, among them DU’s own Maynard Tischler, a longtime faculty member known for his ceramics. (The facility has countless DU connections; four of its staff members are alumni.)

At DU, Grant says, Kirkland was known for transforming a small art department offering non-credit classes into a school staffed by professionals. Among those pros were a number of women, whose hiring stirred considerable controversy. In fact, when news broke that Kirkland planned to bring on a female instructor, he was chastised for giving a man’s job to a woman. As Grant remembers, “He said, ‘To hell with it. I’ll hire her.’”

For Grant, the new museum pays tribute not just to Kirkland’s career, but to his support of Colorado’s creative community. What would Kirkland think of the facility? Grant can’t be sure, but, he says, “I think he’d be pleased that we are showing so many of the Colorado artists he championed.”


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