The 2010s will, no doubt, go down as a golden age in Denver art, powered by a downtown construction boom not seen here in a century. The decade’s build-big trend coincided with its buy-local fad and that has meant millions of dollars in sales for artists, particularly to hotels, which use regional painters, sculptors, photographers and graphic designers to brand themselves as made-in-Colorado.
The Maven Hotel at Dairy Block, which opened this spring, spent $1 million alone on its whimsical, wide-ranging collection, and there have been serious and significant commissions for individual artists, worth tens of thousands of dollars, at sites like the sleek, soon-to-open Le Méridien, and at existing establishments like The Curtis Hotel, which have been picking up their game as they contend with an influx of hospitality business competitors.
The Hotel Born, which began welcoming guests last week, has pushed this art rush forward in the best of ways, amassing more than 700 pieces by 32 local artists. The work is terrific, important even, in the way it defines the current level of talent in the region across generations. Displayed throughout the lobby, hallways and rooms, it feels more like a contemporary museum exhibit than it does a commercial collection.
I’d like to say that it’s stunning, but frankly, it isn’t. For sure, it’s striking, and it has a few showy moments, but it’s better described as subtle and thoughtful, adventurous at its easiest, disturbing at its most challenging. While other hotels have gone for punchy and colorful art moments — big objects meant to supply happy thrills — the Born has opted for something richer, a collection that captures a range of emotions, something that begs to be looked at, examined and experienced.
And so along with some quick hits, like David Zimmer’s elevator-side sculptures of digitized birds chirping away, you might encounter a mysterious drawing by Bill Stockman, based on a poem by W. B. Yeats about obsessive love, which the poet described with the line “a fire was in my head.” Yes, Stockman’s line drawing features a man with his head on fire, along with a ghostly doppelgänger on his right and an unexplained, jagged patch of red on his left. It’s not all that alarming, really, but it isn’t what you see at the Holiday Inn either, and it will be endlessly compelling for the people who get to sleep, meet and work in the building.
There are more examples. The hotel courtyard features a massive fence, based on the work of artist Joel Swanson, that endlessly repeats the word “THERE.” The typography is laid out so that there is equal space between words and letters, and it’s impossible to discern where things start and stop. Does it read “THE” or “HER” or “HERE”? It’s a thoughtful, entertaining guessing game that deconstructs language.
Compare that to a number of pieces inside by artists like Molly Bounds, whose paintings capture faceless female forms that appear caught in a state of anxiety, or Mark Sink’s vintage photo of long-dead society women with their faces blotted out. There are Laura Shill’s semi-sexually violent romance novel covers and Caleb Hahne’s paintings of disembodied classical deities. Throughout, the scenes are stormy, shadowy and obscured.
It’s all there — though things sound more ominous than they look. That’s because curator Adam Lerner, who runs the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver down the street, opted in most cases to commission smaller works. In the hotel art world, bigger is nearly always thought of as better.
Bur smaller has its advantages, and they are at work here. It allows a little weirdness in without turning the place into the Bates Motel. The art can go to deeper places and not turn intimidating.
The sheer quantity of work — artists were commissioned to make multiple pieces, often iterations of the same idea — provides its impact. Much of the art is displayed on shelves that are hung in the hallways, and Lerner has arranged them in sets of threes. The trios have diverse content but they come together through organic relationships; they might have similar shapes or colors in common. It’s tasteful.
The same can be said about the Born itself. It is a luxurious hotel, but not overly trendy or ostentatious. The place has a high design, but one that fits in with, and understands, a changing Denver. There’s a lot of natural, knotty pine, which you rarely see in a contemporary space, coupled with a good deal of exposed concrete. The windows are floor-to-ceiling and many look out at the white, woven canopy over the track of Union Station next door. The designers — Denver’s Semple Brown architects collaborating with Ellen Bruss Design — found a way to connect old ideas and new.
The hotel, which has 200 rooms, was developed by Continuum Partners, which is headed by CEO Mark Falcone, who also happens to be a long-time advocate for local art causes. He is married to Ellen Bruss, and the couple’s financial support has been crucial to the success of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
In a sense, that gave the Born an art-friendly dream team going in. Expectations were high. But still, the final product is surprising.
Much of that has to do with what the artists produced. Lerner asked them to work small, but pushed them to think differently than they usually do, and you can see a lot of personal growth in the process. Many of Denver’s well-known names — artists who have shown at the MCA, such as Kim Dickey, Derrick Velasquez, Ian Fisher, Lanny Devuono, John McEnroe, Stephen Batura and others — have come up with unexpected, off-style ideas.
That may be a little insider-y for folks who don’t know the local scene, and that probably includes most of the out-of-towners who will stay at the Born. Who knows what they will think of the curious works on the walls. They’ll likely notice right away that it’s different, and many of them may think it is all a bit odd.
It’s a huge investment in little works, probably around $700,000, and there’s no guarantee it will be good for business. But it’s good for Denver, good for local artists, and a good example of what’s possible during this golden age.
The Hotel Born’s new art collection is important in the way it capsulizes Denver’s art scene, circa 2017. The roster includes top talents, across genre, across generations, across reputations.
Here is the list:
- Ana Maria Hernando
- April Frankenstein
- Bill Stockman
- Caleb Hahne
- Christine Buchsbaum
- Daisy Patton
- David Zimmer
- Derrick Velasquez
- Evan Anderman
- Gretchen Marie Schaefer
- Ian Fisher
- Fill Hadley Hopper
- Joel Swanson
- John McEnroe
- Julio Alegandro
- Kevin O’Connell
- Kim Allen
- Kim Dickey
- Kristin Sink
- Lanny Devuono
- Laura Shill
- Mario Zoots
- Mark Sink
- Mary Ehrin
- Molly Bounds
- Nick Silci
- Phil Bender
- Richard Peterson
- Stephen Batura
- Suchitra Mattai
- William Matthews