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One of the museum’s many knockout vignettes: An Irving Harper Marshmallow sofa in front of Paul Kontny’s “Cosmic.” Photograph by Kimberly Gavin

The Local Art Museum to See Now

Check out our (design-lover's) guide to the new Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art.

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By now, you’ve likely heard about the expanded Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, which opened to the public in March. And you’re probably aware that moving Denver artist (and museum-namesake) Vance Kirkland’s original, 107-year-old studio to its new Golden Triangle location one mile away was a well-documented, 12-hour spectacle. But if you haven’t visited yet, you may not know that the $22-million-plus, 38,500-square-foot space offers a fresh opportunity to see one of North America’s most important collections of decorative arts. Because lovely home furnishings are sort of our “thing” here at 5280 Home, we scoped out the galleries to create this guide to what you need to know—and see—to soak up all the inspiration.

Inside museum-namesake Vance Kirkland’s carefully preserved art studio. Photograph by Kimberly Gavin

The Namesake

Vance Kirkland—an educator and director of the University of Denver’s School of Art—was an innovative painter who championed the Modern Art movement in Denver. Even as the celebrated Colorado artist reached his 70s, it wasn’t uncommon to see him suspended above a canvas, belly down, in an aerial contraption made of looped straps, with dowel and paint in hand. He used this method to complete his renowned dot paintings at the end of a prolific career that yielded 1,200 pieces—from realist and expressionist watercolors to abstract oil-and-water works—spanning five distinct artistic periods (from 1926 to 1981).

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The Curator

When Kirkland died in 1981, he left his estate to his family friend, exhibit-curator, and mentee Hugh Grant (the other Hugh Grant). In 2003, Grant converted Kirkland’s brick Arts-and-Crafts-style Capitol Hill studio (the oldest commercial art building in Denver) into the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art to showcase not only Kirkland’s work, but also the work of significant Colorado and regional artists.

Vance Kirkland, 1980. Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art

Vance Kirkland was an “appreciator of good design in general,” says Maya D. Wright, education manager and historian at the museum. In addition to his paintings, he left behind a small but impressive collection of Art Deco and Modern furniture, which Grant (who also appreciated design and inherited several pieces of his own from his architect-father) decided to curate into a “decorative arts” exhibition—featuring housewares and home accessories from world-renowned designers—in the original museum. The collection grew, thanks entirely to the shrewd collecting of Grant and Merle Chambers, his wife at the time.

The Building

As the collection expanded, it outgrew the Capitol Hill space, necessitating the move to the Kirkland Museum’s new home—which includes the original studio and an attached, contemporary museum designed by Jim Olson of Seattle-based architecture firm Olson Kundig.

The exterior of the new museum building
features a bright-yellow facade of terra-cotta tiles. Photograph by Kimberly Gavin

Grant painstakingly curated the new museum, even helping Olson pick the color of the exterior terra-cotta tile (architectural products company NBK’s glazed, vertical “baguettes”) in striking shades of yellow and gold. “The color is inspired by Vance Kirkland’s paintings—and by the Colorado sunshine,” Wright says. “This museum is Hugh’s vision. He individually placed every object. He would turn a sculpture so you can see a certain side. It’s kind of harkening back to the earlier model of museums, such as the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, where there was one guy [Albert Barnes] who created everything.”

A gallery vignette shows off the playful Bocca sofa by Studio65, a Gio Ponti Superleggera chair, and artworks by Colorado artists, including Tracy Felix and Sushe Felix. Photograph by Kimberly Gavin

The Experience

The best way to view the collections is to start at one end of the Promenade (which starts at the welcome desk) and work your way chronologically through multiple eras of design displayed in salon-style galleries. Each gallery houses multiple vignettes that showcase how a residential space might be arranged, the overall effect being inspiring yet approachable. “The mission is different at the Kirkland than, say, at the Denver Art Museum,” says Golden Triangle Creative District board member and graphic designer Jackie Noble. “Juxtaposing and interspersing [pieces from] different periods, as one would in a real home, really speaks to the home environment. It’s fun to experience art in that way, where everything’s curated, but it’s showing as a house.” The Promenade ends at Kirkland’s original studio and art school building. In the workroom of the studio, the museum staff has tried to preserve the details as they were when Kirkland died, down to several of his paint tubes and his last unfinished canvas.

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Worth A Few Minutes Of Ogling

As you time-travel through the Kirkland Museum’s galleries, keep an eye out for these noteworthy pieces.

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