Museum  February 10, 2022  Colleen Smith

AMWA’s Unrivaled Anschutz Collection & the Magnate Behind It

Courtesy AMWA.

Second floor parlor of the American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection.

Anyone familiar with the Midas touch of Philip F. Anschutz won’t be surprised that the magnate has amassed one of the most impressive and important private American Western art collections in the world. The Anschutz Collection, under the aegis of Denver's American Museum of Western Art (AMWA), is housed in the Navarre Building, a brick Victorian listed on both the local and national historic registers.

Originally opened in 1880 as a girls’ school known as the Brinker Collegiate Institute, the building subsequently housed a gentlemen’s club, a gambling hall, a bordello, a jazz club, various restaurants, and an art museum for the Western art collection of William Foxley.

High-rises tower over the historic property on prime downtown Denver commercial real estate. Visitors enter AMWA through a small garden, ring the doorbell, and are granted entry to the past, if not the cordoned-off spiral steel stairway to the basement which opened to a clandestine tunnel connected with Denver’s storied Brown Palace Hotel across the street.

Courtesy AMWA.

Exterior view of the historic Navarre Building, home of the American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection.

Inside the museum, approximately 300 paintings are on permanent exhibition—that’s roughly half of the Anschutz Collection’s works of Western art by 180 artists. The collection is installed chronologically on three floors beginning with works from the early nineteenth century through to the present day. The museum’s walls are covered with paintings of many sizes—including monumental works—jigsaw puzzled together floor to ceiling, salon-style. Many of the pictures are framed exquisitely, the gleaming carved and gilded frames themselves approaching works of art.

Anschutz collected more than 600 works over sixty-plus years, and now AMWA continues to acquire Western art. The collection includes works by Denver’s preeminent artist Vance Kirkland and iconic landscapes by Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and Asher B. Duran.

relatively abstract and emotive landscape of a river cutting between two mountains.
Courtesy AMWA.

Thomas Moran, Children of the Mountain, 1866-67. American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection.

relatively abstract—and beautifully colored with pastels overall and rich jewel-esq skin tones and clothes—view of the indigenous peoples of the Pueblo region
Courtesy AMWA.

Victor Higgins, Pueblo of Taos, Before 1927. American Museum of Western Art – The Anshcutz Collection.

dramatically arranged tableau of cowboys and horses (perhaps mid-training) placed in a typical american west desert landscape below a clear, blue sky
Courtesy AMWA.

Charles Marion Russell, The Chinch Ring, 1909. American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection.

Pieces in the Anschutz Collection range from works by expedition artists, to products of the Hudson River School and California painters, to paintings from the Taos and Santa Fe schools.

Representational paintings of cowboys and indigenous people lead to abstract works such as Red Hills Grey Sky by Georgia O’Keeffe and Phoenix by Helen Frankenthaler. AMWA exhibits art by blue-chip luminaries such as Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Maxfield Parrish, Rockwell Kent, Childe Hassam, and N. C. Wyeth.

Remington sculptures round out the collection and pieces from across the spectrum of media have been loaned throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as to China and the former Soviet Union.

In the historic heart of Denver, the museum’s restored parlors are interior design time capsules with their plush Victorian appointments: period furnishings, leaded and stained glass, carved crown moldings, heavy velvet draperies with silky passementerie. The model trains displayed on bookshelves and above door transoms bear the collector’s thumbprint.

Courtesy AMWA.

Installation view of the American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection.

Though oil originally fueled the Anschutz family fortune, followed by real estate and ranching, Philip has branched out into a stunning array of ventures.

These include railroads, telecommunications, professional sports teams and arenas, entertainment districts, concerts, music festivals and ticketing, newspapers, historic resort hotels, movie theaters and film production, The Grammy Museum, and the collection of fine art. He is also the author of two books about business history in the American West.

Listed as number sixty-six on the 2021 Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, Anschutz is also a philanthropist of the highest order. The Anschutz Family Foundation, established by Philip’s parents in 1982, reports $55.5 million dollars in assets and 10,392 grants totaling more than $58.4 million to nonprofit organizations since its inception. One headline dubbed Phil Anschutz “the mystery billionaire.” His namesake museum keeps an equally low profile.

“We were a private collection prior to the museum establishing and opening to the public. We’re a small, local museum in Denver,” says Colleen Sullivan, the museum’s interpretive and communications specialist since 2016. “AMWA is a hidden gem, the hidden art museum.”

One of Anschutz’s daughters, Sarah Anschutz, serves as museum director, assisted by Darlene Dueck, AMWA’s curator.

The small staff in the small museum make a large impact in the community. More than an opulent display of wealth and patrician artistic taste, and more than a lesson on the history of the American West, the museum’s high-minded mission is at least as beautiful and admirable as its stately building and sumptuous paintings.

Courtesy AMWA.

Ernest Blumenschein, The Peacemaker, c. 1913. American Museum of Western Art – The Anschutz Collection.
 

The introduction to its gallery guide reads, “The museum sits on the traditional land of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples. . . . We acknowledge the indigenous stewards of the lands depicted in the paintings and hope multiple perspectives from the past and present encourage everyone to be stewards of the land.”

The nonprofit museum doubles as a rental space, but moreover provides programming for schools and the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado. Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for school groups and outreach to people with physical or cognitive disabilities.

“We really try and be a local and community access point, making the art and the museum accessible,” Sullivan says. “We are in a historic building significant to downtown Denver, but we’re very friendly.”

If you can’t make it to the Mile High City, AMWA offers virtual experiences for students of all ages.

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime arts writer based in Denver.

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