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Adam Lerner. Photo courtesy of From the Hip Photo

Adam Lerner’s Biggest Risks at the MCA

The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art departs this month, so we put together a retrospective of his most successful gambles.

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If one word describes Adam Lerner’s decadelong leadership of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA), it’s “risky.” “Museums are expected to adhere to strict protocols and professional standards,” says 52-year-old Lerner, director and chief animator of the MCA. “But breaking those rules often pays off.” With Lerner stepping down this month, we decided to give his most ambitious gambles—and the resulting rewards—a museum-worthy retrospective.

March 2009

Risk number one? Taking the job. Lerner and the MCA board of trustees merge the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar, an artsy think tank and museum in Lakewood he founded in 2004, with the MCA, then a struggling 13-year-old institution with $10 million in debt.

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December 2010

The MCA opens Orphan Paintings, a show of unauthenticated Russian avant-garde artworks purchased off eBay by a man in Englewood. The pieces could be real or fake—either way, Lerner’s intent is to force viewers to consider how much an artist’s name affects their appreciation of art.

March 2012

The New York Times praises the MCA as “one of the most successful experimental exhibition spaces in America,” specifically citing Lerner’s Mixed Taste program. The lecture series pairs two experts discussing seemingly unrelated topics, like Nietzsche and puppies. It’s up to the audience to connect them.

October 2014

Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia. Photo courtesy of Trevor Brown.

Most think of Mark Mothersbaugh solely as rock band Devo’s frontman. With the debut of Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia at the MCA, the breadth of his artistry is revealed: oil paintings, rugs, ceramics, and tens of thousands of vibrant postcards. After the exhibition draws more than 30,000 in Denver, Myopia goes on tour to six other museums, further establishing Mothersbaugh’s credibility, Lerner says. (During Lerner’s tenure, 27 institutions hosted shows the MCA developed.)

July 2016

Adam Pendleton: Becoming Imperceptible, which features the East Coast artist’s work across video, sculpture, and vinyl, opens to a huge crowd. “We had a line around the block for an artist most people had not heard of,” Lerner says. “It was a revelatory moment. People know they should be excited about our exhibitions—even if they’ve never heard of the artist.”

September 2018

Tara Donovan’s Fieldwork. Photo courtesy of From the Hip Photo.

Tara Donovan’s Fieldwork combines the Brooklyn artist’s wall-based and freestanding installations—created from everyday materials such as index cards—for the first time. The ambitious show helps the MCA attract a record 89,484 visitors in 2018 (up from about 48,000 in 2009). Bonus: The museum’s debt was chiseled down to $2 million thanks to donor contributions.

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February 2019

Amanda Wachob: Tattoo This. Image courtesy of Amanda Wachob.

Before departing, Lerner takes one last gamble with a medium rarely celebrated in museums. In Amanda Wachob: Tattoo This, the namesake artist presents tattooed objects (like lemons) and inks her signature watercolor-style designs on patrons lucky enough to schedule appointments with the in-demand artist.

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