Adam Lerner’s 10-year run as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA) is coming to an end. The innovative and risk-taking arts leader announced today that he’ll step down when his contract expires in June.
“I knew this was the right time because the MCA has never been in a better situation,” Lerner says. “We’re doing amazingly financially, energetically, creatively. We have staff leadership that is incredibly strong and competent. Everything that I’ve tried to do at the museum is now built into the culture and amongst the staff in general. This is the right time to try new endeavors.”
The MCA has earned a reputation worldwide for exceptional, ambitious, and surprising exhibitions and programming, in large part due to Lerner’s vision. Under his leadership, the MCA has brought in works from the likes of Marilyn Minter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Mark Mothersbaugh. The latter—a 2014 retrospective of the Devo front man’s varied interests—featured thousands (yes, we wrote that correctly) of drawings, sculptures, videos, and more and traveled to six other museums after the MCA show. Lerner calls it “the best thing I’ve ever done creatively.”
Lerner also initiated the beloved Mixed Taste lecture series, which pairs two unrelated topics, and, last year, launched the Animating Museums fellowship to imbue American art museums with more creativity.
“I’ve been able to cultivate a unique voice for an art museum. Our voice is equal part serious, playful, and soulful, and that’s new for an art museum. We really have managed to integrate the sense of play with our sense of seriousness about our subject matter, and that’s a very special voice and that’s unique,” Lerner says. “Denver’s openness is what helped MCA be as interesting as it is. I owe tremendous gratitude to the people of Denver for being so open-minded.”
Since Lerner was hired in 2009, the museum has also experienced incredible growth, with its audience more than doubling over the past decade. Close to 100,000 people will visit the venue in 2018—an institutional record. Lerner, in conjunction with the board, also managed to restructure around $10 million of debt so the museum could reinvest in itself; in addition, he’s overseen a fundraising campaign that has raised more than $17 million since 2016.
“Adam Lerner’s unparalleled vision and willingness to take risks has transformed MCA Denver over the past decade,” said Mike Fries, MCA Denver board chair, in a statement. “Adam has been instrumental not only in making MCA the heart of Denver’s cultural community, but also in rethinking the role of a traditional art institution….”
Lerner stepped into the Mark G. Falcone Director and Chief Animator role after founding and leading the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar (the Lab) in Lakewood from 2004 to 2009. Prior to that, he worked as the master teacher for modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum and curator of the Contemporary Museum, Baltimore.
MCA’s board has already begun a national search for a new director. Lerner hopes to overlap with whoever his replacement is but says he’ll be available as a resource throughout the transition.
As for what’s next for the soon-to-be former director? He’s planning to stay in Denver but is leaving the rest up to fate. “I realize there’s something unsettling about telling people that I don’t know, but I am absolutely certain that what is the right next step for me will emerge if I have a little bit of quiet around me,” he says. “I want to see what I can create with my own steam, my own power.” (And no, he’s not making moves to Meow Wolf. “You can squash this rumor,” he told 5280 today. “I love Meow Wolf, but I have no intentions, nor have I had any conversations with them about that.”)