Every city has its hidden gems. One of Denver’s is the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. Located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, east of downtown, this compact museum opened in 2003. While there are museums with more important collections of decorative art, Kirkland, has been cited by some as having the best collection of decorative on view in the US. Art Knowledge Magazine called it “a nationally important display of international decorative art.”
The museum is crammed full of an eclectic collection of furniture, pottery, glassware, paintings, prints, fine art and more from the late 19th century through 1980. (The exception is their collection of Colorado paintings that contains current works.) The over 3,500 pieces of decorative art and over 500 pieces of fine art are housed in a 1911 Arts and Crafts-style brick building, originally designed and built to house Henry Read’s Student’s School of Art.
In 1932 renowned Colorado Modernist painter Vance Kirkland, left his position as founding Director of the School of Art at the University of Denver to open his own art school. The Kirkland School of Art was here until 1946 when he closed it and returned to the university. The building then became his studio.
While Kirkland began the collection, his friend and heir, Hugh Grant collected about 90 per cent of the museums treasures. It took Grant, Kirkland’s Founding Director and Curator, over 20 years to complete the collection and open the museum. He added almost 8,000 square feet to the original 3,000 square foot building to house and display his extensive collection.
Going through the rooms, visitors are transported back in time. Rooms are filled with furniture and objets d′art spanning over 100 years of art and design. The austere and functional Arts and Crafts period, with its Mission-style pieces, is represented by pieces from designers such as Gustav Stickley, Roycroft and Frank Lloyd Wright. Art Deco furniture groupings take you back to a time of luxurious ocean liners (a settee from the SS Normandie is in the collection), sumptuous pre-war apartments and posh hotels There are Bauhaus pieces from pre-war German designers including Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer and Herbert Bayer (who lived in Aspen in the late 1940s, designed the prestigious Aspen Institute). The collection of mid-century modern furniture features pieces designed by icons such as Herman Miller, Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen and Isamu Noguchi.
Tables display Art Nouveau lamps from designers such as Tiffany and are cases upon cases filled with art glass from famous designers such as Lalique and Bianconi. You’ll also find examples of mass-produced items such as Depression glass and Fiestaware pottery (still produced today). The extensive pottery collection also includes production pieces from all the major Ohio pottery companies (as well as others that left their mark in the 19th and 20th centuries) and one of a kind pieces from various potters, known and unknown.
The museum’s collection of fine art, including Kirkland’s paintings and those of other Colorado artists, adorn the walls. Make sure to ride (or peek in) the elevator, yet another display space for Kirkland’s paintings.
In Kirkland’s studio at the back of the original building, visitors will encounter straps hanging from the ceiling. The artist used to suspend himself above his canvases from these. His later paintings were done from a paint mixture he invented that combined oil and water. As the two don’t mix, the paintings had to lie flat until the paint dried so that it didn’t run off. He came up with this ingenious solution.
If you time your visit right, you can take a tour of the museum to get an understanding of the treasures housed here. Tours are offered Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 1:30pm. With advance notice, special tours can be arranged for groups of 10 or more. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from11am to 5pm. They are closed Mondays and major holidays. There is an admission charge.
The Kirkland Museum should definitely be a stop on any art lover’s Denver itinerary. If you haven’t been exposed to the treasures found in this genre, there are few better places to start.