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Denver’s art scene may skew contemporary, but you’ll find everything at the Mile High City’s art museums—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 eight 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.
Editor’s Note: This guide was updated on August 15, 2022.
One of downtown Denver’s hidden gems, the nonprofit American Museum of Western Art (AMWA), which opened to the public in 2012, houses the Anschutz Collection: more than 600 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, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and general admission costs just $5. (Guided tours are available at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. for $7–10.)
“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 offers sensory friendly tours and other accessibility programming, along with free school tours (in-person or even virtually), and an online education resource hub with dedicated activities for deeper understanding of the people, places, and stories shown in the collection. Attendees can also explore the galleries and search for inspiration for their own writing using the museum’s online DIY Western-themed writing prompts—covering topics from “frontier myths” to “progress & protest”—courtesy of instructors from the AMWA’s former “Writing the West” events in collaboration with Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
1727 Tremont Place, anschutzcollection.org
The only museum in town dedicated to the work of a single artist, the Clyfford Still Museum (CSM) brought national—and international—attention to Denver’s arts scene when it opened in the fall of 2011. 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 see his style evolve over time. With frequent guest curators, themed exhibitions, and weekly community events like meditations in the galleries, museum staff work year-round to find fresh ways to showcase the enduring relevance of the late artist’s work. And new director Joyce Tsai hopes to foster an inclusive and welcoming art experience for everyone in the community—with programming such as this year’s lauded Clyfford Still, Art, and the Young Mind, an exhibit curated by and for kids, as well as the upcoming You Select: A Community-Curated Exhibition (August 19–February 12, 2023) featuring numerous never-before-seen pieces voted on by fellow Coloradans.
“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 12 years, CSM has exhibited approximately 830 of Still’s paintings, merely scratching the surface of the collection’s thousands of works created by the artist before his death in 1980.
1250 Bannock St., clyffordstillmuseum.org
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. The museum also draws visitors with esteemed traveling exhibitions, including, in recent years, work by the likes of Frida Kahlo, as well as the DAM’s own 2018–2019 Dior: From Paris to the World, a showcase of 70 years worth of the French fashion house’s designs.
Designed by renowned Italian architect Gio Ponti in 1971 (the only building the late designer ever built in North America), the museum’s recently renovated north campus and Martin Building reopened to art enthusiasts in fall 2021, with a new focus on storytelling elements and revamped spaces dedicated to architecture and design, contemporary Western American art, the Indigenous Arts of North America gallery, as well as the studio for DAM’s Native Arts artist-in-residence program.
“We’re able to have our visitors connect directly with artists and hear the artists’ firsthand accounts of what they’re trying to convey in their art and the themes that are important to them,” —John Lukavic, curator of Native Arts, in 5280, October 2021
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 a new way to experience the museum.
100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, denverartmuseum.org
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 recently became only one of 12 gardens around the world to display internationally renowned artwork through the immersive augmented reality exhibit, Seeing the Invisible. The two indoor galleries on site at the York Street institution also host frequent 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
Opened in 2003 in honor of renowned Colorado painter Vance Kirkland—and quite literally constructed around his original studio—the salon-style museum displays a whimsical assemblage of paintings, Art Deco and Modern furniture, accessories, and international decorative art from Kirkland’s personal 30,000-piece collection. The pieces span every major design period from the 1870s to present, which Kirkland wanted to display in hopes of helping visitors discover the beauty of art in a “unique and approachable way.” Inside its new Golden Triangle location, which was completed in 2018 after the museum outgrew its Capitol Hill digs, three permanent galleries and two spaces for rotating exhibitions showcase Kirland’s own works alongside evolving selections from more than 1,500 regional and international artists like Frank Lloyd Wright and visionaries of the Bauhaus movement.
“[Architect Jim Olson] wanted the building to be a part of the collection; to be a piece of art. Inspired by the Denver sunshine and Vance Kirkland’s paintings, he played off the vibrant colors of the collection.” —Maya Wright, the museum’s education manager and historian in 5280, February 2018
Did You Know: Kirkland was the founding director of the University of Denver’s School of Art, working in various styles from realism to abstraction across his career. Even in his 70s, he would frequently paint by hanging from an aerial rig to complete his large-scale “dot paintings.”
Don’t Miss: The museum is designed to be experienced like walking through “vignettes,” or rooms, of a house. Start at the welcome area promenade and finish your journey inside Kirkland’s original 1910 Arts & Crafts–style studio, which staff painstakingly preserved by picking up and moving the 1,384-square-foot building one mile from its original location to the new Bannock Street facility.
1201 Bannock St., kirklandmuseum.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. (Note: The museum is currently closed to the public; join the mailing list here to be notified when the museum reopens for weekday visits 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 opened more than 30 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 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
One of the goals of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA) is to create a “culturally engaged community.” And they have no trouble doing so: Between its easy-to-reach modern venue in LoDo, quirky programming, and diverse and always intriguing exhibitions—spotlighting everything from Keith Haring’s and Jean-Michel Basquiat‘s works to rising local artists—the MCA is the place in town to discover what’s hip and talked about in the contemporary art world. In spring 2022, on the heels of its 25th anniversary, MCA signed a seven-year lease at the Highland neighborhood’s longstanding Holiday Theater, where the museum will now host more informal, community-focused programming, including artist talks, film screenings, performances, and more.
“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
7 Road-Trip-Worthy Museums
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 (one of the museum’s earliest exhibits 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
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 with ongoing interactive experiences and public programming.
1750 13th St., Boulder, bmoca.org
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, fac.coloradocollege.edu/museum
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 one of the few 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
The Museum of Outdoor Arts (MOA) is home to a substantial outdoor sculpture collection—including more than 150 works, spread throughout Englewood, Greenwood Village, and Denver—with a mission of “making art a part of everyday life.” The museum’s 2.1-acre 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—received a facelift in 2021, reopening as the institution’s new headquarters in place of its now-closed indoor galleries in Englewood. The reimagined park features a sculpture walk, “labyrinth-like” hardscape centerpiece, as well kinetic and lifesize art, and the museum hosts regular concert series, lectures, fitness classes, and more on site. While MOA plans to announce regular hours, park membership options, and more ongoing programming in the fall of 2022, the park is currently unstaffed outside of planned events. Free self-guided walking tours are available; you can also call the staff ahead of time to set up a more traditional tour.
6331 S. Fiddler’s Green Circle, Greenwood Village, moaonline.org
Opened in the summer of 2022, the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies (aka the Bayer Center) is part of the Aspen Institute campus and pays homage to internationally renowned artist and master of the Bauhaus movement Herber Bayer. Bayer, who was born in Austria, lived in Colorado from 1946 to 1974. His multidisciplinary work is known for its continued influence on Colorado’s art, architecture, and design scene, and is credited for revitalizing Aspen’s postwar physical and cultural landscape, shaping the mountain town into the international destination for recreation and culture (and noted favorite of pioneering artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg) we know it as today. The Center serves as both a permanent home for Bayer’s work—its inaugural exhibition brings visitors along a visual journey of Bayer’s artistic career—as well as a space for other exhibitions, research, community events, public programming, and more.
610 Gillespie Ave, Aspen, thebayercenter.org
Located in a historic building (actually, two buildings) on Steamboat’s main drag, the Steamboat Art Museum’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. The museum has also hosted several National Juried Exhibition of Traditional Oils—the winning 200 paintings from the 31st rendition of the annual competition are currently on display at the Steamboat Art Museum through August 27.
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.
Additional reporting by Madi Skahill