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
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.
1727 Tremont Place, anschutzcollection.org
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
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.
1250 Bannock St., clyffordstillmuseum.org
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
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.
100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, denverartmuseum.org
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
Did You Know: The Gardens offer myriad classes, including cooking, garden education, and even trips. Find out what’s coming up here.
1007 York St., botanicgardens.org
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.
400 S. Kearney St., mizelmuseum.org
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.
861 Santa Fe Dr., museo.org
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
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
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.
1485 Delgany St., mcadenver.org
Bonus: Six Road-Trip-Worthy Museums
Aspen Art Museum
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.
637 E. Hyman Ave., Aspen, aspenartmuseum.org
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.
1750 13th St., Boulder, bmoca.org
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Museum
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.
30 W. Dale St., Colorado Springs, csfineartscenter.org/museum
Loveland Museum Gallery
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.
503 N. Lincoln Ave., Loveland, lovelandmuseumgallery.org
Museum of Outdoor Arts
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.
1000 Englewood Parkway, Englewood, moaonline.org
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.
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.