A New Director in Denver

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Denver Art Museum Addition, Daniel Libeskind, 2006/photo: Jeff Wells, DAM

Denver Art Museum Addition, Daniel Libeskind, 2006/photo: Jeff Wells, DAM

As a rule museum directors tend to step down within a few years after completing a major expansion. Marc Wilson, who saw through the great Steven Holl addition to the Nelson-Atkins, will be leaving his job soon. And as we’ve known for a while, Lewis Sharp, 63, will be retiring at the end of December after 20 years as head of the Denver Museum of Art. It was Sharp who presided over the construction of the Daniel Libeskind addition to the museum that was completed three years ago. The spiky interior spaces of Libeskind’s building have made it a challenge for some curators, though they’ve been fine by me.

This morning the museum announced that Sharp’s successor would be Christoph Heinrich, 49, the deputy director of the DAM since 2007. He arrived at that job from the Hamburg Kunsthalle, where he had been chief curator.

This makes DAM the second big American museum to choose a new director from within its own ranks — and a foreign-born one too. (Last year the Metropolitan Museum in New York picked one of its own curators, the British-born Thomas Campbell, to succeed Philippe de Montebello.) It was also Heinrich who organized “Embrace!”, a show that will open at DAM next month and that will consist of 17 site-specific projects. I’ve always assumed the show was at least partly an attempt to demonstrate that some kinds of art fit perfectly within the unorthodox spaces of Libeskind’s angular galleries, which is probably not a bad idea.

The Libeskind addition, one of the singular buildings anywhere in the U.S., will be the high point of Sharp’s tenure at DAM, who also tripled the size of the permanent collection. The not-so-high-point would be his dealings with billionaire Denver collector Philip Anschutz. Last year the museum entered into an unusual deal under which the Anschutz Collection, a non-profit controlled by Anschutz, made a joint purchase with the museum of a Thomas Eakins oil, Cowboy Singing, with the Anschutz Collection also financing the museum’s share of the purchase. At the same time DAM gave to the Anschutz Collection a 50% interest in a painting the museum already owned, Charles Deas’ Long Jakes (The Rocky Mountain Man) — a picture that DAM’s own Institute for Western American Art described on its website as “the single most influential image in Rocky Mountain iconography”. The two works now rotate between the museum and the Collection.

That unusual “fractional deaccession” led to an inquiry by the Association of Art Museum Directors. In February the AAMD issued a statement saying, in effect, that the deal didn’t violate any of its guidelines because those guidelines had never envisioned such a thing happening. It also “strongly encouraged” its members not to try the same thing, and announced it would eventually revise its guidelines to address similar situations.

For good measure, it was also under Sharp that the DAM made the decision to accept the lamentable King Tut show that was organized and toured by Anschutz’s AEG Live, an entertainment company. Sometimes it’s hard to say no to the local billionaires. It will be interesting to see how Heinrich handles it.