A project initiated by

MCA Denver

“We don’t think about it as simply a place of exhibitions. We really see ourselves as a machine that creates meaning in people’s lives.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art was established in Denver, Colorado in 1996 through the efforts of a philanthropist, Sue Cannon, and a group of volunteers. It moved into its permanent home in 2007, and Adam Lerner became director in 2009. He leads a staff of 23 full-time employees, supplemented by part-time security, cafe and gallery staff. The museum operates to an annual budget of $4.5m, of which roughly $250,000 is received in public funding from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, and the large majority through individual philanthropic contributions.

Custodians of creative life

Most case studies in this library begin with reflections on the organisation’s mission. But for Adam Lerner, director at MCA Denver, that word is too weighty: “The mission will continually revolve over the course of decades, but the vision is responsive to specific circumstances and lasts for more like five to eight years.” With an audience predominantly of young people – “about 70% of our visitors are under the age of 45” – that fleetness of vision is designed to foster an atmosphere of vitality. The museum presents eight to 10 exhibitions per year, but, says Lerner: “We don’t think about it as simply a place of exhibitions. We really see ourselves as a machine that creates meaning in people’s lives.”

As “custodians of creative life in Denver, ensuring that the city’s prosperity includes the creativity and the artists who make the place interesting”, MCA aims to be “a laboratory for thinking about what the future of an art museum can be, and especially thinking through what the future of art might be”. This relates to Lerner’s wider belief that the “museum serves a certain function in the relationship to culture: it distils and filters, but also energises the culture around it”. Most museums, he argues, are more interested in “the field of arts, the traditional. And so they’re looking at a very small aspect of the culture around them, a rarefied aspect.” Whereas MCA aims to reflect and inspire “a broader sense of creativity. It’s about placing the tradition of arts into the context of what kinds of creativity makes cities interesting.”

“The museum serves a certain function in the relationship to culture: it distils and filters, but also energises the culture around it.”

The changing practice of art

MCA’s exhibitions programme aims to bring the same “academic rigour” to tracing “the traditions of art that travel through skate culture, surf culture, street art, tattoo art, and other kinds of subculture” as more conventional museums bring to traditional art. One recent exhibition looked at the period in Jean Michel Basquiat’s career “between when he was a street artist and when he became a professional painter; we put that in context of another exhibition about the origins of graffiti; and then we put those two in the context of another exhibition of the art of Ryan McGinley, a street artist and skateboarder whose photography emerged out of his street life”. Another focused on Mark Mothersbaugh, co-founder of the band Devo: Lerner curated this exhibition, Mothersbaugh’s first retrospective, “because he’s one of the most creative people of the past 50 years in this country and the museum world didn’t even recognise him as an artist”. That exhibition went on to be presented at six others across the US: testament to MCA’s ability to shift the conversation about how alternative art practices sit in the field of art.

Popular and participatory

Alongside the exhibitions programme is an integrated programme, “as important as the core programme”, of activities that “feel fresh, that feel like there’s a creative voice, an authorship to them, that feel courageous. Things have energy to them and that energy bleeds outward into the city and creates an impression in people’s minds about what it means to live in that city.” Alongside more conventional workshops, artist lectures and gallery tours, this “widely popular” programme has included:

“Things have energy to them and that energy bleeds outward into the city and creates an impression in people’s minds about what it means to live in that city.”

  1. Black Sheep Fridays

Taking place in the cafe, these weekly events are curated not by the gallery programmers but the cafe managers. These tend to be creative and participatory: for instance, attendees might “make sock puppets then sing karaoke”, make X-rated crafts, or do “extreme glamour shots: fashion photographers do make-up and take photos of people while they’re doing shots”. The mood is deliberately “hilarious and absurd”.

2: Mixed Taste

This programme ran for a decade and was, says Lerner, “our most popular for many years. We paired two completely unrelated lecturers on the same night, so you’d have a lecturer speak about Ludwig Wittgenstein and a lecturer speak about hula dancing, and then you’d have questions and answers with both at the same time.” Although not participatory to the same extent as Black Sheep Friday events, none the less the juxtapositions created “a kind of dynamism that feels fresh and interesting”.

3: Feminism & Co

This dedicated feminism programme began a decade ago as a series, but is now presented as a festival, and brings together “performance artists and writers with public intellectuals and activists”. It also offers a feminism- and gender-specific strand of Mixed Taste programming, again pairing unusual combinations of speakers: for instance, when discussing “women in power, we’d have women body builders talk and women activists who work on getting more women on the ballot”. Another session brought together “1970s-era self-defence practitioners from the early feminist movement, with roller girls, who probably could not have happened without that earlier generation of women”. Although the format is “very deliberately entertainment and leisure”, the programme creates its own activism through cross-generational and cross-silo feminist discussion that might struggles for space elsewhere.

Creative conflict

Lerner admits that the “jokey attitude” that drives MCA’s activities didn’t initially appeal to its philanthropic donors, who worried that “we were deflating the elevated status of the museum. I’ve managed to persuade people based upon success: we’re buying our right to be wacky through our academic integrity.” It’s to MCA’s advantage that its donors are primarily “not art collectors, and not invested in contemporary art as a field”: it means that their primary consideration is civic, and “what an art museum can do to make Denver a more interesting city”.

“I’ve managed to persuade people based upon success: we’re buying our right to be wacky through our academic integrity.”

MCA’s desire “to have a creative voice alongside the art” can also put it in conflict with artists who “want the museum to be as neutral a space as possible, so that their art can show the entire context. That’s a balance we have to strike, between making sure that the art exhibition has its full domain and still the museum has the voice that makes it the interesting place it is.”

What next?

Generally, MCA has preferred to programme within its own walls, rather than extend its activities across the city. Says Lerner: “I see everything we do as creating energy within the building, sending waves of oxygenated creative blood out into the city, and then drawing in the energy of the city. Creating energy is a hard thing to do and the walls of the museum give a tight context for the energy to bounce off.” Even the outreach work that happens in schools is focused on “developing closer relationships with students so they will see the museum as a place for their own cultural, creative, intellectual, social growth”.

That said, “we’re starting to think more about what we can do in the city”, and one new programme being developed is a lending library of new art, called “The Octopus Initiative, because we’re putting art in the hands of many. It’s a programme that both supports the leading artists of the city by buying their work, and then connecting the public to that by allowing anybody in the city to have access to that art.”

Similarly, Lerner wants to move towards “engaging with arenas that are outside the traditional areas of contemporary arts, but only arbitrarily. For example, DJ culture has always intersected with the field of contemporary arts. We’re interested in connecting with those art forms that have much wider play within the city and finding ways of collaborating with people who are producing them.” One model being investigated is collaboration with music festivals.

“We’re interested in connecting with those art forms that have much wider play within the city and finding ways of collaborating with people who are producing them.”

MCA has also received a three-year grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to “train 14 art museum professionals from institutions around the country, including some of the largest, on how to be more creative”. It’s through such sharing of practice that MCA can share the energy it creates far beyond its own city.

(Image: Black Sheep Friday. Hibachi Mariachi, From the Hip Photography. Courtesy of MCA Denver)

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