Life According To... Lewis Sharp

He's the man who made the Denver Art Museum the institution it is today: During his 20-year tenure, Lewis Sharp widened the DAM's collection, raised the endowment from $11 million to $100 million, and oversaw the construction of the Daniel Libeskind-designed addition, before stepping down in December. Here, Sharp talks about Denver's changes since the 1980s, his civic pride, and running a museum.

March 2010

Denver was a complicated city when I arrived in 1989 from New York; it was still pretty depressed from the oil and gas industry bust. But I was amazed at the goodwill—the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District bond had just passed, and I was impressed with the city center. I thought, "With a place that's this beautiful, and with an art museum with a board of trustees that is committed, this is an amazing city."

When I took over at the Denver Art Museum, it was very lean, but it had great merit and you could sense its potential and the ambition of the board. Over the 20 years I was the director, I never had a board that was anything but 100 percent committed to the vision.

Denver is large enough that we can support organizations and programs of national significance, but small enough that, when push comes to shove, you can sit down with the mayor or governor or the private sector to get things done. Here, you can put a dozen people in a room and they will work together.

The three mayors we've had while I was at the museum—Federico Peña, Wellington Webb, and John Hickenlooper—were all committed to cultural institutions. No other mayor knows a city's cultural institutions like John Hickenlooper does. Hickenlooper for governor? I would support Hickenlooper for president!

We're a remarkable city for a city this size. Sure, it's nice going to Los Angeles and New York, but you can live your entire life in Denver and have a rich cultural life and make a living. We have a balance.

Daniel Libeskind is one of the most energizing, talented individuals I've ever worked with. He came recently to see how the artists were using the building, and he was nothing but thrilled to see it. We called him and told him that we were making changes, and he wrote back, "Bravo, it needs to be a living building."

I think my greatest contribution to the museum was its stability for the future. We've built a building and complex that allows us to operate at an international level. Our endowment is stronger today, and we have a new administration, under Christoph Heinrich, that will lead us into the future.

Christoph's new exhibit "Embrace!" really embraces our time and the city. On the very first free Saturday of his tenure, around 10,000 members of the community showed up to embrace him.

Twenty years is a long time for any director, and change is always good for an institution. Once you reach 20 years, you start thinking about when you want to retire. And then the long-range decisions start getting put on hold, and you become less visionary for new opportunities for the museum. It was time for me to leave.

I'm working for my son these days, who owns four small orchards in central California. There's no connection whatsoever between the art world and orchards—I just do the gopher work. I'm just there for my family and the adventure.