Increasing Denver's Cultural Pitch One Still at a Time

The Denver Art Museum and a largely unknown but hugely influential artist of the American abstract expressionism movement, Clyfford Still, are part of Denver’s cultural heavy weights that generated $1.76 billion in economic activity in the metro area in 2011.
It’s impossible to walk near the Denver Art Museum without hearing something about the “Becoming Van Gogh” exhibit, a vast collection of the artist's work that runs through Jan. 20, 2013 and testament to the city's artistic tenacity (it took nine years to procure).

But, as we recently found out, no one sees the more than 70 paintings without an advance ticket. Van Gogh is a big deal for Denver and so is Clyfford Still, who isn’t as widely talked about but equally important in the growth of the metro area’s $1.76 billion arts and culture industry.  

While Clyfford Still is not a household name like Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, the American abstract painter is having a profound effect on Denver’s cultural scene. The Clyfford Still Museum, which opened in 2011, was a catalyst for getting the “Becoming Van Gogh” exhibit to the Denver Art Museum and is a big attraction for abstract aficionados, who cannot get as much Still anywhere else. 

While “Becoming Van Gogh” was in the works years before the Clyfford Still Museum opened, both artists shared a creative vision. The fact that Still’s widow, who had her choice of cities, wanted the majority of his work housed in Denver, created a natural pairing between the Van Gogh exhibit and the Still museum. 

Original artwork at the Clyfford Still Museum.“They viewed being an artist in similar ways,” says Clyfford Sill Museum Director Dean Sobel. “Both Van Gogh and Still were very actively involved with their artistic past. In many ways the exhibit is about how artists are all related.”

Sobel points to Van Gogh’s painting “Night Café (Le Café de nuit)”, created in 1888, and Still’s image of a pool hall painted in 1936 as one example of how these artists chose similar subject matter. There are dozens of examples where color, scenes, forms, and other likenesses are apparent in each artist’s work. 

In celebration of the Denver Art Museum’s feat, the Clyfford Still Museum, which is next door, plays off the “Becoming Van Gogh” exhibit, allowing visitors to compare Sill to Van Gogh on an iPad screen. 

Sobel says the “Becoming Van Gogh” exhibit, the collaboration between the two museums, the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and the addition of a substantial wing to the Denver Art Museum to host blockbuster shows like the Yves Saint Laurent and “Becoming Van Gogh” have had and will continue to have a profound effect on Denver. 
"The city has done this much in less than 10 years and that is indicative of how Denver feels about arts," says Clyfford Still Museum Director Dean Sobel.

“The city has done this much in less than 10 years and that is indicative of how Denver feels about arts,” Sobel says. “It’s a good investment in Denver’s quality of life.” 

Still Drawn to Denver’s Grand Vision
Unlike the Van Gogh exhibit, which leaves the city in January, Clyfford Still is here to stay adding another element to Denver’s dynamic cultural scene. 

“This collection is about as high a quality as you can get and it is here forever,” Sobel says. 

It’s interesting that a relatively unknown artist originally from North Dakota who lived in Canada and Washington and taught art in San Francisco, has had such an impact on Denver.

In the 1930s, Still’s work became more abstract. By the 1940s, he was showing in New York City galleries, which became known for introducing American abstract expressionism to the art world. Although he had significant gallery and museum exhibits and artists such as Pollock and Rothko spoke highly of his work, Still left the city for the Maryland countryside. 

When he died in 1980, his will stipulated that his work be given in entirety to an American city that would create a space dedicated solely to him. About a dozen cities visited Still’s widow with offers, but it wasn’t until 2004 when then-mayor John Hickenlooper (currently Colorado’s governor) connected Still to Denver.

Sobel says Hickenlooper shared Denver’s vision to position itself for substantial growth in arts and culture with Still’s widow. His argument was convincing and in late 2011, the museum opened. 

The Clyfford Still Museum collection represents 94 percent of Still’s work -- 825 paintings, 1,575 drawings and prints and three sculptures. Journals, photographs, sketchbooks and other documentation of Still’s work are also displayed.  

Art enthusiasts sit in front of an original Clyfford Still.The $1.76 Billion
The grand vision of Denver as an arts and cultural center -- the Denver Performing Arts Complex is 12 acres and rivals other cities’ arts and cultural density -- has been a collaborative effort of dozens of arts groups.

While the Van Goghs should and do receive a lot of the attention, even as a newbie on the city’s culture scene, the Clyfford Still Museum is an important player in the economic impact of culture in Denver. 

The Colorado Business Committee for the Arts released a biennial study about the economic impact of the arts in the Denver area and found a 36 percent increase from the 2009 economic impact. According to the study, jobs with arts, cultural and scientific groups increased seven percent in 2011. Overall, the arts generated $1.76 billion in economic activity in the metro area in 2011. 

Because the Vincent|Clyfford exhibit opened this fall, a little less than a year after the museum’s grand opening, it is hard to tell if there will be a significant increase in attendance at the museum because of it. 

“Attendance has been very stable,” says Sobel. “We might still be too new to see a dramatic increase in visitation.”

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn
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Read more articles by Mindy Sink.

Mindy is a freelance writer and author of Walking DenverMoon Handbooks Guide to Denver and co-author of Colorado Organic: Cooking Seasonally, Eating Locally
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