Mile-High Aspirations

Daniel Libeskind is beaming. Seven years after he won his first major commission in the United States, the building is finally opening, and the critics seem to have nothing but praise. And why not? He has taken a long forsaken downtown site and turned it into a spectacular monument where generations of Americans and international visitors can connect with Western culture and be exposed to an absorbing collection of modern and contemporary photography, installations, and paintings. No, it’s not pure fantasy encouraged by hyper-realistic digital renderings—it’s just very, very far from downtown Manhattan.

We’re on the high desert plain of the Platte River Valley in the Golden Triangle district of Denver, Colorado, and several scores of reporters and critics are getting their first look at the Denver Art Museum, which opened to the public last weekend. The building, which either resembles the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the distance or the prow of a ship—a Noah’s Ark of culture, maybe—is happily marooned in the Mile High City just across the street from the Colorado State Capital.

It’s quite a piece of work, and Dan Kohl, the museum’s director of design, has done a fine job accommodating a diverse collection within its strangely angled interior spaces, responding to the expressionist architecture with a comparably expressionist series of installations, and tucking sculptures and site-specific projects into the remaining corners. The exhibition displays are clearly a work-in-progress—circulation issues will no doubt have to be worked out after the opening—but the building makes a great first impression. Museum director Lewis Sharp, having been floored by the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997, perhaps rightly predicted that the best way to get a new Gehry once he began imitating himself was to hire a Libeskind.

This is the New West: few people come here for stock shows or rodeos anymore. The new economy has made Denver one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and the museum is just one of the investments in culture and infrastructure—a perfect mash-up of Richard Florida’s creative cities and Joel Kotkin’s pragmatic urbanism—along with a seemingly insatiable market for loft-style condos, that is turning Denver into a regional hub for art and commerce. (The museum, incidentally, was completed on time and within budget thanks to the local Davis Partnership, which is also collaborating with London-based David Adjaye on the new Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, opening next fall.)

In a special referendum almost 20 years ago, voters in the seven-county metro region surrounding Denver approved a one-tenth-of-one-percent sales tax to pay for new cultural and scientific facilities in the area, proving that the blue state-red state categories of the nation’s political party system are mostly big fat lies. Nice job, Colorado. Could you please teach us New Yorkers how it’s done?

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