“One of the things we consider to be our responsibility is, in a way, to bring the world to Denver. Because that’s how Denver is going to start to recognize its place in that world.” Blake Milteer, then-assistant curator for the Modern and Contemporary Art galleries at the Denver Art Museum, and I were standing in the bright expanse of the new wing at the museum. He and his associates recognize the transition of the city from small cow-town to national—and perhaps international—player. They are working hard to ensure that Denver is part of a progressive and challenging art community. Daniel Libeskind’s breathtaking addition thrust Denver into the international eye; now Milteer and his associates are working hard to bring new and exciting pieces to fill the space.
Dianne Vanderlip, curator for modern and contemporary art, has long had a vision for her department; her instinct for who will be a major player in the art world has been spot-on for years. “Because of Dianne, we are the first museum to bring in many of these artists,” Milteer said of the international work hanging from the slanted walls. “Not just in this region, but in the country, in the United States. For many of the international artists you see in the collection, this is their first work in a major US installation.”
Milteer grew up in Houston, coming to Denver eleven years ago to attend DU for a master’s in art history. Specializing in museum studies meant an internship with the Denver Art Museum. After working in the photography department for a semester, Milteer decided to keep one day a week devoted to the museum. “One of the smartest things I’ve ever been told in terms of a job you really want is to make yourself indispensable. That’s a great creed to live by, so I tried that here. I kept one foot in the door.
“After three months, an opportunity came up—we were having a Matisse exhibition—and they needed someone to orchestrate the audio tour for the exhibition. I had never done anything like that before, but because I was here, was dependable, I was the person they thought of. That brought me on with a six-month contract and after that I was kept on another two year contract.” He has been serving in his current capacity full-time for a year and a half.
When asked what possible trends were that are shaping the art world today, Milteer said, “That’s one of the hardest aspects of art today because it’s almost impossible to wrap your brain around. For those of us who are looking at art there is a continuing sense that we need quality, we need to see a sense of skill, we need to see a sense of awareness of the world in the artist and we need to see a sense of individuality as well.”
“A lot of attention is being granted to artists who are working in a part of the world that we sense something new happening. As in the “Radar” collection, those areas of the world that were oppressed are now producing exciting art: China, Africa, Eastern European countries. It’s not that the media is different or even the style is unfamiliar, but the subject matter is reasserting itself because of the social situation.”
As we wrapped around the corner on the fourth floor we came upon Milteer’s two favorite pieces. “The Richard Serra and the Anish Kapoor are both very much about our age. They’re about the kinds of materials that we’ve come to know on an every day basis raised to an extraordinary level. They’re about a clear sense of beauty here in the Anish Kapoor and a sense of beauty here in the Richard Serra that’s much less accessible in fact. For many people I know, it’s hard to come to this piece and see anything other than two slabs of industrial steel. And yet, if you give it your time and try to go a little further, try to find out something about it—it’s about material and the artist simply knowing that material and creating a beautiful piece of work. Each slab weighs three thousand pounds, they are not welded or attached in any way. They are simply sitting there with gravity, with their weight holding them in place.”
Coming to the plaza outside the new wing, I mentioned the resemblance to Washington, D.C. Milteer said, “I think this plaza is really going to come alive when they get all this (construction and installation) done. When you put all the museums in one place you’ve experienced the Mall and you’ve been part of some kind of public experience. When you’re in D.C. it feels like an important place. I think that’s where we’re heading here and things like this plaza go a long way toward that. You can come out here and have an experience with public art, have an experience with other people. It feels civic; it feels pedestrian friendly, which Denver was well on it’s way to not becoming. I think that if Libeskind has done nothing else, he’s given us this. This is a where a big part of the future of the city is.”
Reflecting on the new wing, Milteer said, “I think if you give a little, you get a lot. It’s different for people to look at something that’s very much of our own time and have an appreciation for it as an important object. As with many things it’s in hindsight, in retrospect, that we value what we see and what we experience. I think that one of the most difficult things about contemporary art is that the artists working today are dealing with the same things that we are all experiencing now. We don’t have our brains wrapped around it. We can’t just look at a work of art and understand it immediately because we don’t understand what’s going on behind it.”
But the art and the experience are important and relevant and not to by passed over. “There are pieces here that are hard to deny. If you’re looking for ideas, they’re there. If you’re looking for beauty, it’s there. If you are looking for something challenging, it’s there. There’s something for everyone.”