Denver faces hurdles with Still museum


September 07, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

It seems a pity that Maryland has apparently lost its chance to build a one-man museum for the seminal abstract-expressionist painter Clyfford Still.

But the city of Denver, which successfully wooed Still's widow for the artist's legacy, may have unwittingly bitten off more than it can chew.

Last month, Denver's mayor, John Hickenlooper, announced that his city had reached an agreement with Still's estate to build a museum that would house more than 2,000 of the painter's artworks that have been stored in rural Maryland since the artist's death in 1980.

Hickenlooper's announcement came as a surprise to local arts boosters who had hoped to keep Still's artworks in the Baltimore region.

The group, which included architect Alex Castro and developer C. William Struever, had been negotiating with Still's estate for the past year to create a museum in Baltimore that would satisfy the stringent requirements of the artist's will.

Among other things, the artist stipulated that his artworks could only be given to a U.S. city that promised to build a museum dedicated exclusively to him. No other artist's works could be shown in the museum, and the museum would also be prohibited from loaning any of its works to other museums.

In addition, Still left detailed instructions on the size of the museum, the manner in which the artworks were to be displayed, even the exact shade of Benjamin Moore paint on its walls.

Denver apparently agreed to all of these conditions, though a draft of the agreement between the city and Still's estate made available to The Sun last week contained remarkably few specifics regarding the building's size and construction.

The agreement did, however, commit the city to raise roughly $7.5 million in private funds over the next 10 years to build and maintain a free-standing museum for the artist's work - a condition Hickenlooper insisted the city can easily meet.

Some observers, both here and in Denver, aren't so sure about that, however.

"Has the city pulled off a major coup that will significantly boost Denver as a cultural destination?" asked a writer for the Denver Post. "Or has the city managed to lasso a white elephant ... that will not live up to attendance projections and end up costing the city much-needed money for other projects?"

In Baltimore, both Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Rebecca Hoffberger, who directs the American Visionary Art Museum, have questioned whether a museum dedicated to a single artist, and operating under the kinds of restrictions Still imposed, can be financially viable.

The viability issue, in fact, goes to the heart of the question of whether a Still museum in Baltimore represents a great lost opportunity or a potential boondoggle that Denver has now graciously spared us.

I talked last week to former BMA director Arnold Lehman, who said he had had conversations about such a project with Still's widow, Patricia, as far back as the late 1980s.

Lehman suggested then that in order to satisfy the spirit of Still's will, Baltimore might build what he called "a museum within a museum" - a separate structure to display Still's work under the auspices of the BMA. But that idea went nowhere.

"The requirements were simply too stringent for us to be able to move forward," Lehman recalled. "There was to be no interaction whatever, no commingling [of Still's work with the BMA's collection] even in storage. The restrictive nature of the requirements set by Mrs. Still and the quite onerous burden in terms of financial obligations made it an impossible situation for the BMA."

Lehman also noted "there were all sorts of problems with the storage of the paintings. We were very concerned as to the conservation issues that were related to the pictures and how they were being stored."

Lehman said most of the 750 paintings Still left were not on stretchers and would need extensive - and expensive - conservation work before they could be displayed properly.

"Unfortunately, it became a non-starter," he said. "We thought we had a responsibility to at least attempt to see what could be done, but there's a point at which an institution has to look to its overall responsibilities, as opposed to a single-artist institution, which has only to exhibit the work of one artist."

Moreover, there are other potential pitfalls to a Still museum that Denver will have to resolve.

One is cost. Though the draft agreement between Denver and Still's estate doesn't specify the exact size of the proposed museum, the Baltimore group that considered the matter concluded the building would have to be at least 25,000 square feet to satisfy the terms of Still's will.

At the current rate of $500 to $700 per square foot for top-notch museum construction, that would put the cost of the building at more than $12 million - substantially more than the $7.5 million Denver is budgeting. (Denver must also raise about $10 million for the museum's operating endowment.)

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