Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Five Questions with the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art

Denver, Colorado

Colorado artist Vance Kirkland---whose eponymous school of art is now the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art---also founded the School of Art at the University of Denver. Visitors can find the Kirkland Museum at 1311 Pearl Street, Denver. Photo courtesy of the museum

The site on which Denver's Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art sits has always been a gathering place for the city's artists. Built in 1910 by one of the founders of the Denver Art Museum, the location has twiced served as an arts school---the Read's Student's School of Arts circa 1910 and the Kirkland School of Art in 1932---and twice as a museum---the fledgling Denver Museum of Art in the early 1920s and, since 1996, the Kirkland Museum. We spoke with  Mary Beth Orr, the museum's coordinator of volunteers and public programs, about this uniquely historical Colorado museum.

NEA: Please tell me a little bit about the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art and what makes it unique.

MARY BETH ORR: Kirkland Museum displays an internationally important collection of decorative art from 1880 to 1980 with more than 3,300 works on view, including notable examples of the Aesthetic Movement, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Glasgow Style, Wiener Werkstätte, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Modern, and Pop Art. Regional modernist art with a focus on Colorado art is also documented, with more than 160 artists represented by more than 600 works. The museum features a retrospective of Colorado’s distinguished painter, Vance Kirkland (1904-1981). All three collections are housed in a 1911 Arts & Crafts building, the oldest commercial art building in Denver and the second oldest in Colorado. Kirkland Museum is a member of Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

With more than 3,300 objects on display, the general public, as well as numerous university and college classes, benefit from the extraordinary opportunity to see a modern international decorative art collection unsurpassed in the United States. The museum is unique in its manner of display, which makes it accessible to diverse local audiences and of significant interest to the national and international museum communities. The international decorative art and Colorado fine art are displayed together in a rich salon style that serves to contextualize and enliven both.

NEA: What’s your favorite object in the collection and why?

ORR: I am a huge fan of our extensive collection of chairs. My favorite is the Papa Bear Chair and Ottoman (1951) by Danish designer Hans Wegner. The exposed wood parts of the chair and ottoman are exquisitely shaped and beautifully finished. It’s upholstered in a fantastic wooly chartreuse fabric. The name may come from the tale of Goldilocks---a very large Papa Bear would certainly find it comfortable. It might also derive from its shape; with its very broad “shoulders” and extended arms, the chair looks like it’s preparing to give the sitter a great big bear hug!


Studio Exhibition Room. Photo by Ron Ruscio     

NEA: What’s on exhibit now at the museum?

ORR: We have just  executed a major reinstallation of the museum from our extensive permanent collection of Vance Kirkland paintings, important Colorado art, and international decorative arts. (Only about 10 to 15 percent of the collection is able to be displayed at any given time.)

NEA: What do you hope visitors to the Kirkland Museum take away from the experience?

ORR: Certainly we hope Coloradans leave with a sense of wonder and pride, and with an appreciation for the extraordinary contribution this state has made to the art history of America in the 20th century. The collection includes fine examples of impressionism, regionalism, surrealism, and abstraction.  For those previously unfamiliar with Vance Kirkland, we have no doubt they will come away touched and inspired by his masterful early watercolors and his visionary later works in oil and water.

Modern vignette with Herbert Bayer carpet and Vance Kirkland painting. Photo courtesy of Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art

NEA: Aside from the Kirkland Museum, what’s your own favorite museum to visit and why?

ORR: I seek out art museums in every city I have a chance to visit. In fact, the only personal “collection” I allow myself is one of museum catalogs! The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is one of my favorites. Like the Kirkland, the Clark is the creation of one person with a strong and singular passion. The atmosphere of both museums reflects that; Hugh Grant and Sterling Clark have each gifted their respective states with a great and lasting treasure.

To learn more or plan your visit, visit the Kirkland Museum website. And visit the Blue Star Museums page on the NEA website to find out more about the more than 750 museums participating in the program through Labor Day.

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