The Mile High City boasts some of the best art collections in the country. We've rounded up where to view them—and why it's worth the gas to visit six out-of-town venues.
Night falls on one of Denver's most beloved art museums; photo by Kelly Shroads
Denver's art scene may skew contemporary, but at our art museums, you'll find everything from 19th century Western paintings to modern sculptures to works inspired by social justice. And with constantly rotating exhibitions, there's always something new to discover. Here's the lowdown on seven of the city's most prominent art museums—including some secrets even longtime members may not know—plus, some artsy destinations to visit across the state.
American Museum of Western Art
William Jacob Hays' "The Gathering of the Herds," 1866; photo courtesy of the American Museum of Western Art—the Anschutz Collection
One of downtown Denver's hidden gems, the nonprofit American Museum of Western Art, which opened to the public in 2012, houses the Anschutz Collection: more than 350 works depicting the American West from the 1820s to present day. These masterpieces—most of which are paintings in gilded frames—are presented salon style across three floors of the historic Navarre Building, which was built in 1880 and has a unique history of its own. The venue is only open Mondays and Wednesdays, and general admission costs just $5. (Guided tours are available at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. for $10.)
"The more time you spend here, the more you see." —Kristin Fong, guests services and museum educator
Don't Miss: Visit the parlors at the front of each floor, which have been furnished with period-appropriate furniture, rugs, and more (ignore the modern elevator), and offer a reminder of the building's history. In the second-floor parlor, look for the portrait of George Washington; it was painted circa 1823 and is the museum's oldest acquisition.
Did You Know: The museum teams up with Lighthouse Writers Workshop for monthly "Writing the West" events ($5). Instructors provide Western-themed writing prompts, and attendees are able to explore the museum, searching for inspiration for their writing. The next event is Wednesday, November 16 at 2:30 p.m.
On View: There are no rotating exhibitions here, but check the events page for upcoming special programs.
1727 Tremont Place, anschutzcollection.org
Clyfford Still Museum
A selection of Clyfford Still's works on display; photo by Raul Garcia, courtesy of the Clyfford Still Museum
The only museum in town dedicated to the work of a single artist, the Clyfford Still Museum brought national—and international—attention to Denver's arts scene when it opened five years ago. Walking through the light-filled galleries, visitors are afforded a unique opportunity to study one of the most talented but relatively unknown abstract expressionist painters of the 20th century and watch his style evolve over time.
"More than money or fame or adulation or respect, Clyfford Still wanted his work to be seen and felt... [he] said his paintings were life itself, his life, on canvas." —Excerpt from "Clyfford Still's Unyielding Will," 5280, November 2011
Don't Miss: CSM is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, and the festivities begin on November 18 with three days (Friday through Sunday) of free admission, followed by a free family day (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) on November 19.
Did You Know: Over the past five years, CSM has exhibited approximately 280 paintings—which amounts to just 33 percent of the paintings known to be in its collections.
On View: Clyfford Still: The Works on Paper—the museum's largest exhibition ever—features more than 260 of Still's graphic art pieces and is on view until January 15. Look out for three exhibitions curated by well-known contemporary creatives in 2017 as part of the museum's new(ish) Artists Select series (the first opens January 20).
1250 Bannock St., clyffordstillmuseum.org
Denver Art Museum
The DAM's African gallery; photo courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
The DAM, as locals call it, is an "encyclopedic museum," meaning it focuses on many different types of art to help promote understanding and spark creativity. A recently hired textile art and fashion curator also means visitors can expect more fashion-related exhibitions in the future.
"We have some of the best collections in the whole country when it comes to certain types of [art, such as] pre-Colombian and Spanish colonial." —Shadia Lemus, communications manager
Don't Miss: Don't just view art—get artsy in the costume studio, which opens November 11 in advance of the Star Wars and the Power of Costume exhibit (opening November 13). Here, you can sketch your own costume, design a character and imagine the world he or she (or it) would live in, or catch a live artist demonstration.
Did You Know: You can find kids' activities—many of which are hands-on—on every floor of the museum, including in the permanent collections. You can also pick up a family backpack full of games, puzzles, and art-making tools to give kids with a new way to experience the museum.
Coming Soon: Mi Terra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place (opening February 19) features site-specific installations about migration, place, borders, and more by 13 Latino artists, including two who are based in Denver.
100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, denverartmuseum.org
Denver Botanic Gardens
Art and nature become one in Barry Flanagan's "Hare on Bell on Portland Stone Piers," 1983; photo courtesy of the Denver Botanic Gardens
Sure, you visit the Botanic Gardens to smell the sweetly scented flowers, to get ideas for a sturdy Colorado garden, and to enjoy Blossoms of Light, but the venue is also an accredited museum (the plants are considered a "living collection"). Since 2006, it's been home to outdoor sculptures—both permanent and traveling exhibits—and two indoor galleries that host small shows of local and regional artists, including by students at the Gardens' School of Botanical Art & Illustration. So, yes, even in the winter, a visit to the Gardens should be on your calendar.
"A lot of people...see the plants as art and nature as art because they’re just so whimsical and striking. They feel it as this art experience...even if there’s not a traditional work of art before them." —Erin Bird, communications manager
Don't Miss: Get your gift shopping done early at the Winter Gift Market (November 11 and 12); admission is free to the Gardens on those days too. The sneak peek on November 10 ($10 for nonmembers, $8 for members) includes complimentary hot cocoa and cookies.
Did You Know: The Gardens offer myriad classes, including cooking, garden education, and even trips. Find out what's coming up here.
On View: Edible: Botanical Art & Illustration opens November 20 and focuses on works depicting edible plants, all of which were created by Gardens' students.
1007 York St., botanicgardens.org
Noah's Ark, created by Colorado artist Scott Lyon for the Mizel Museum's permanent "Gathering Sparks" exhibit; photo courtesy of the Mizel Museum
As museum spokesperson Melanie Avner so aptly put it, the Mizel "is not a typical museum, where people come for the exhibit." Instead, the building is home to the permanent 4,000 Year Road Trip: Gathering Sparks—a collection of installations, artifacts, and stunning artworks rooted in the Jewish experience, but intended to "spark" a broader conversation about tolerance and acceptance. Mizel also engages the community on themes such as cross-cultural understanding, social justice, and Holocaust awareness through public events, school programming, and more. The museum is open on weekdays by appointment.
"Art is a great way to educate because [it has] a personal message. We can use art to tell a story through culture." —Penny Nisson, director of education
Don't Miss: One of the most stirring artworks in the museum is the collection of 12 portraits of Holocaust survivors (some of whom lived locally), drawn by Denver artist Deborah Howard. Four of her portraits are now part of the permanent collection at the Holocaust Art Museum at Yad Vashem in Israel.
Did You Know: The Samsonite luggage company was created in Colorado by the five Shwayder brothers. Learn about them and more local history in the Jewish Colorado room toward the end of the Gathering Sparks exhibit.
Coming Soon: The annual Klezfest, a celebration of Jewish Klezmer music, returns December 24 at Mercury Cafe. Listen to three bands, including Tsibele, an all-female, Klezmer group from Brooklyn.
400 S. Kearney St., mizelmuseum.org
Museo de las Americas
Museo's final exhibition of the year focuses on hand-woven textiles; photo courtesy of Museo de las Americas
Museo de las Americas opened 25 years ago as a place to celebrate the diversity of Latino Americano art, culture, and traditions—both modern and ancient. Museo serves as a hub to explore and improve our understanding of other cultures and peoples and has long been an anchoring presence in the Art District on Santa Fe. Exhibitions range from celebrations of individual artists (like last year's Jerry De La Cruz retrospective) to explorations of issues of contemporary importance (such as a study of the Chicano movement or an exhibit focused on our connection with the natural world).
"Museo plays an important role in building pride in the Latino community’s heritage and promoting understanding among cultures." —Museo's website
Don't Miss: The museum's only permanent exhibit is the orange-hued La Cocina, a replica of executive director Maruca Salazar's grandmother's kitchen in Mexico. Explore the folk art and serving dishes to get a feel for our southern neighbors' everyday life.
Did You Know: Each year, Museo welcomes the holiday season with Mercado de Navidad (November 18, 5–8 p.m.); the handcrafted wares on sale including everything from jewelry to alpaca hats to yummy sweets.
On View: A Mano/By Hand, a display of 60 handmade textiles from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, runs through January 13.
861 Santa Fe Dr., museo.org
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
Kim Dickey's "The Fall Set," 2000; photo courtesy of the artist
One of the goals of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is to create a "culturally engaged community." And they have no trouble doing so: Between diverse and always intriguing exhibitions, quirky programming, and an easy-to-reach modern venue in LoDo, the MCA is the place in town to discover what's hip and talked about in the contemporary art world.
"MCA Denver is an innovative forum for contemporary art that inspires and challenges all audiences, creating understanding and dialog about the art of our time." —from MCA's curatorial statement
Don't Miss: Black Sheep Fridays, evenings of "sophisticated nonsense" (and, of course, adult beverages), kick off for a seventh season this month. First up is Folked Up Karaoke on November 11 (5–8 p.m., $5) featuring a live folk band from Swallow Hill Music.
Did You Know: Throughout Arts Week, Colorado residents can enjoy penny admission at MCA Denver. And don't forget to stop by the museum shop, which is stocked with goodies from almost all Colorado-based merchants and vendors.
On View: Kim Dickey: Words Are Leaves (on view through January 22) is a major survey of the Boulder artist's famed ceramics; it also includes a selection of her work in other mediums, including textile and photography.
1485 Delgany St., mcadenver.org
Bonus: Six Road-Trip-Worthy Museums
Aspen Art Museum
The Aspen Art Museum, designed by Shigeru Ban Architects, is a work of art itself; photo courtesy of Michael Moran/OTTO
Whether you're visiting Aspen for the skiing, the food, or chance celebrity sightings, you should make time to visit the striking Aspen Art Museum, which opened in its new location in August 2014. Deputy director John-Paul Schaefer says the venue focuses on presented work by underrepresented artists; group shows surrounding a topical political or social theme; and exhibiting works by artists in a medium that they're not known for (an exhibit a few years back featured drawings by sculptors). Before you leave, head to the third-floor roof deck for views of Aspen Mountain and Independence Pass. Museum admission is free, courtesy of a grant by local philanthropists Amy and John Phelan.
On View: Julian Schnabel may be best known as a film director (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), but he's also a practicing artist. In Julian Schnabel Plate Paintings 1978–86—the first museum exhibition focused on these works—visitors will see his development as an artist experimenting with surface, texture, and abstraction (on view through February 19).
637 E. Hyman Ave., Aspen, aspenartmuseum.org
Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art
A scene from BMoCA's "Evolving Visions of Land and Landscape" exhibition; photo courtesy of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art
The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art was founded in 1972 by a group of local artists. Besides showing "significant art of our time," BMoCA has a particular skill for connecting audiences with art and artists beyond simply viewing the work. Take Ménage à Trois, for example: The three-part program series is led by the exhibiting artists, and includes conversations with creatives and curators, hands-on art-making, and interactive experiences.
On View: See how the natural world has inspired 26 artists—all of whom lived in Boulder at one time—from the mid-1800s to the present in Evolving Visions of Land and Landscape, on view through January 15. The event is part of the community-wide Celebration! A History of the Visual Arts in Boulder.
1750 13th St., Boulder, bmoca.org
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Museum
Sculptures and floor-to-ceiling windows welcome visitors at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Museum; photo courtesy of Phillip Spears
The museum (officially called the Taylor Museum) is just one part of this fantastic nonprofit arts center, which opened as the FAC in 1936 and underwent a renovation and expansion in 2007; the venue is also home to a professional theater and an art school. The first-floor galleries feature a rotating display from the museum's permanent collection, which contains more than 20,000 pieces. Upstairs, art seekers will find traveling exhibitions that vary widely in theme, medium, and style.
On View: Husband-and-wife team James Surls and Charmaine Locke, who have lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1997 and rarely show their art together, are exhibiting their large-scale sculptures and 2-D works as a pair in All I Ever Wanted (on view through January 15).
30 W. Dale St., Colorado Springs, csfineartscenter.org/museum
Loveland Museum Gallery
Salvador Dali's "Supremes of Lilliputian Malaises," 1971, is on view through December 4; photo courtesy of Castellani Art Museum
No, this isn't near the ski hill. This 79-year-old museum is located in downtown Loveland, about one hour north of Denver. With a combination of art and history collections, Loveland is the only accredited museum in northern Colorado. The site regularly showcases work by local and regional artists and is home to the annual Governor's Art Show. And we can't forget to mention that general admission is free, and it's only $5 for big-ticket exhibitions.
On View: A retrospective of more than 100 impressionistic landscapes by Loveland artist Richard Schilling opens December 10. While you wait for that to open, don't miss Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Miró: A Collector’s Vision (on view through November 27), and 12 food-themed lithographs by Salvador Dalí, which are up until December 4.
503 N. Lincoln Ave., Loveland, lovelandmuseumgallery.org
Museum of Outdoor Arts
The Museum of Outdoor Arts also has a beautiful indoor gallery space; photo courtesy of MOA
While the Museum of Outdoor Arts does have a substantial outdoor sculpture collection—including more than 150 works, spread throughout Englewood, Greenwood Village, and Denver—that's not all its known for. The Englewood space also contains a more classic gallery experience. Each year, the staff chooses an overarching theme; 2017's is "In Development." Note: The museum’s Marjorie Park site—which is located on the north side of Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre and named after Marjorie Madden, one of MOA's three founders—is unstaffed, but free self-guided walking tours are available; you can also call the staff ahead of time to set up a more traditional tour.
On View: Twenty-one Colorado artists show off their skills in Reinventing the Image (on view through December 17), a multi-media exhibition with a focus on photography. MOA also recently converted a Victorian bus stop at the Marjorie Park location into a diorama: Visit "Autumn in Wonderland" (by Scott M. Soffa & Benjamin Pound from SMS Studio) at night to see it lit up and completely transformed.
1000 Englewood Parkway, Englewood, moaonline.org
Steamboat Art Museum
Steamboat Art Museum celebrates 10 years with a wide-ranging exhibition, which includes this work by Jim Norton; photo courtesy of Steamboat Art Museum
Located in a historic building (actually, two buildings) on Steamboat's main drag, the SAM's "primary focus is the culture and heritage of northwest Colorado," says executive director Betse Grassby. Most exhibitions showcase the efforts of living artists, across various mediums. Heads up: Renovations o refurbish the back part of the venue and thereby double the museum's exhibition space start in April of 2017. The SAM will be closed during construction and will reopen the following September.
On View: What does a decade as an art museum look like? SAM's 10th anniversary exhibit features works from 30 different shows. It opens December 2. Mark your calendars for February 4; that's the night of the 10th anniversary gala, and some of the exhibiting artists will be in attendance.
801 Lincoln Ave., Steamboat Springs, steamboatartmuseum.org
Plan Your Visit: Many of the museums in this guide host regular free days. Check out this calendar to find upcoming dates.