Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art Thrives in its New Home

Kirkland Museum Exterior, Bannock Street Side. Featuring David Mazza’s 2008 sculpture “Procyon” (at left) and Robert Mangold’s 1982 sculpture “Double Tetrahedralhypersphere No. 41” (mounted at right)

Kirkland Museum
Kirkland Museum Exterior, Bannock Street Side. Featuring David Mazza’s 2008 sculpture “Procyon” (at left) and Robert Mangold’s 1982 sculpture “Double Tetrahedralhypersphere  No. 41” (mounted at right)
In Denver's Golden Triangle Creative District, the Kirkland Museum's recently transplanted historic studio and decorative arts collection shine.

In Denver's Golden Triangle Creative District, the Kirkland Museum's recently transplanted historic studio and decorative arts collection shine.

Collection Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.

The Energy of Explosions Twenty-Four Billion Years B.C. (1978) by Vance Kirkland, part of his Energy of Explosions in Space Series, which utilized his signature oil paint and water technique with dots overlaid. Collection Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.

“While the layout and elevations of the building are calm and simple, the materials cladding the exterior are full of energy. … The façade will sparkle in the Colorado sunshine like a Kirkland painting.”

Jim Olson, Architect

Seattle-based architect Jim Olson, who designed Denver’s new Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, fondly refers to the building as a jewel box. Inside and out, the museum that opened to the public March 10 is no question a treasure, the gilded vision of founder and curator Hugh Grant and Merle Chambers, his former wife.

Even before entering the new museum at 1201 Bannock Street, visitors get a sense of the extraordinary quality of the 38,500 square foot museum built at a cost of $22 million with a land purchase of $7.7 million. The Kirkland offers passers-by representative views of objects d’art displayed in exterior-mounted glass showcases.

In his architect’s statement, Olson wrote, “While the layout and elevations of the building are calm and simple, the materials cladding the exterior are full of energy. The main element of the building will be a large yellow box clad with vibrant terra cotta bars of varying shades of yellow. These bars will be punctuated by glass backed in gold. The façade will sparkle in the Colorado sunshine like a Kirkland painting.”

The museum’s namesake, Vance Kirkland, was an American artist who lived from 1904–1981, and arguably ranks as Colorado’s most celebrated painter. The museum spotlights Kirkland’s five major periods: Designed Realism, Surrealism, Hard Edge Abstraction/Abstractions from Nature, Abstract Expressionism and the Dot Paintings for which the artist is most well known. Kirkland was also an avid collector of decorative arts, which rounds out the museum’s collection.

The golden Kirkland adds to Denver’s increasingly impressive Golden Triangle Creative District. The district includes Denver Art Museum’s North Building by Gio Ponti, the Hamilton Building by Daniel Libeskind, the Clyfford Still Museum, and the central branch of Denver Public Library by Michael Graves.

“The museum building by itself is sublime,” said BJ Dyer, a Denver florist who owns Bouquets and served on the planning team for the Kirkland’s gala. “It's minimalist without being stark. The building acknowledges the pedestrian view, as well as the scenic view of the structure. The collection it will hold is amazing. The combination of the two creates a magic synergy.”

In addition to the showy façade, the museum exterior also reveals a more humble Arts & Crafts structure from 1910-1911 — the building that had served as Vance Kirkland’s art school, painting studio, and eventually his namesake museum. For historic and sentimental reasons, the Kirkland relocated the building.

“We would not have moved the museum if it were not possible to take the studio along,” said Maya D. Wright, the Kirkland’s historian. “Watching a three-room brick building roll down the street on remote-controlled articulated wheels was one of the most memorable days of my career.”

Relocating the building, which was the brainchild of Chambers, allowed the museum to maintain its membership to Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“This membership ties us to illustrious national artist sites including the homes and studios of Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner, Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Burchfield, N. C. Wyeth, Grant Wood and others,” said Wright.

William Morris Wall Hanging Room
Wes Magyar

Kirkland Museum Arts & Crafts Vignette featuring the Peacock and Dragon Wall Hanging (c. 1878) designed by William Morris; furniture designed (L-R) by Eliel Saarinen, Gustave Serrurier-Bovy, Roycroft Shops and William Price; Realism paintings by Colorado artists.

Ruhlmann Table and Chairs
Wes Magyar

Kirkland Museum Art Deco Vignette featuring the Dubly Games Table (c. 1927) and Drouant Chairs with original upholstery (1924) designed by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann; 6-Panel Lacquered Wood Screen by Jean Dunand (1925 or before) featuring his signature “Dunand Deco fish and water;” Daum Lamp (c. 1928).

Kirkland Museum’s central Promenade Gallery
Wes Magyar

View of Kirkland Museum’s central Promenade Gallery designed by Jim Olson, with a view at the end of a Vance Kirkland painting on the wall of Kirkland’s studio & art school building. A Postmodern Vignette (left) and Arts & Crafts Vignette (right) are also visible with paintings by Colorado artists.

Kirkland Museum Italian Modern Vignette
Wes Magyar

Kirkland Museum Italian Modern Vignette featuring the Bocca (Lips) Sofa (1970–1972) designed by Studio65; Coffee Table (1950s), Lounge Table (c. 1964) and Superleggera Chair (1957) designed by Gio Ponti; Nesting Tables (1951) designed by Ico & LuisaParisi and Referential Abstraction paintings by Colorado artists William Sanderson, James Mills, Tracy Felix, Trine Bumiller and Sushe Felix.

Kirkland Museum Art Nouveau Vignette
Wes Magyar

Kirkland Museum Art Nouveau Vignette featuring Aux Orchidées Bed (c. 1899–1900) designed by Louis Majorelle; Dragonfly Lamp (designed 1899) by Clara Wolcott Driscollon Majorelle Table (c. 1900); Marquetry Table (left; c. 1900) designed by Émile Gallé. Impressionism paintings by Colorado artists Charles Harmon, Charles Adams and Helen Hoyt.

Arabesque Lounge Chair (1955) by Folke Jansson
Collection Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.

Arabesque Lounge Chair (1955) by Folke Jansson, with black and yellow original upholstery.

Kirkland Museum De Stijl Vignette
Wes Magyar

Kirkland Museum De Stijl Vignette featuring rare furniture designed by Gerrit Reitveldand Regionalism paintings by Colorado artists.

Fulvio Bianconi’s La Donna Vase
Collection Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.

Fulvio Bianconi’s La Donna Vase (1950) a hand-blown, glass vase in the shape of a woman’s dress.

The Aesthetic and Bugatti Room
Wes Magyar

The Aesthetic and Bugatti Room: Corner Cabinet (c. 1873) designed by Edward William Godwin; Three Panel Screen (c. 1880) designed by Christopher Dresser; Cabinet and Sedia Chair (both c. 1900) designed by Carlo Bugatti. 

“Visitors can see the space where Kirkland painted, including the iconic straps he used to suspend himself face down over his later paintings,” she said. “It’s amazing to have the studio as part of the beautiful new structure and continue to tell the story of Vance Kirkland using the space he painted in during his lifetime.”

The new space is about four times larger than the former museum and exhibits about twice as many Kirkland’s paintings, as well as items from his collection of decorative arts. Like William Morris, who’s represented in the museum’s Arts & Crafts gallery, Kirkland wanted everyday items of quality and beauty.

Kirkland mentored founder Hugh Grant, who enjoyed an avuncular relationship with the artist. With fervor, Grant grew the collection Kirkland bequeathed him into a dazzling array of international decorative arts and regional art from the 19th and 20th centuries. With some 30,000 items by more than 1,500 artists and designers, the museum has something for everyone—that is everyone over age 13. Due to the exposed nature of the installations and the value of the art, the Kirkland does not admit children

“It’s amazing to have the studio as part of the beautiful new structure and continue to tell the story of Vance Kirkland using the space he painted in during his lifetime.” —Maya D. Wright

At the Kirkland, even the tables that hold guest books are vintage pieces. The museum’s scale, described by the architect as “somewhat residential,” reflects the fact that most items in the collection were intended for homes from 1875 to about 1990. The new museum’s galleries provide a chronological context.

“The salon style vignettes, where fine art — painting and sculpture — is shown in context with decorative art — furniture, tableware, radios, et cetera — is very different from the atmosphere created by most large museums,” Wright said. “It enables you to see the work at the scale and in the context the designer intended, as if you were in a home. It also allows us to show more of the collection than a typical museum.”

Older visitors will recognize some of the decorative arts from their own households or those of their parents or grandparents — everything from teapots to champagne glasses.

Wright said, “The new museum features the same intimate atmosphere and ‘more is more’ aesthetic, but with a chronological flow, a museum store, a temporary exhibition gallery and a lecture hall in the lower level.”

The museum triumphs in presenting a collection simultaneously indigenous to Denver, but also encompassing the Rocky Mountain West and an international scope.

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime arts writer based in Denver.