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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Vance Kirkland As Collector

Visitors to Kirkland Museum are usually surprised by the depth and breadth of the collection. Many come expecting to see only the paintings of Vance Kirkland. In fact, the museum is dedicated to sharing with the public three important aspects of Kirkland′s life and career. In doing so, painting and sculpture by over 170 Colorado artists, and an impressively large collection of international decorative art is also displayed within the museum′s walls. It is believed to be the largest decorative art collection on display in North America.

In addition to being a visionary modernist painter, Vance was also a committed educator and an avid collector. He founded the current School of Art at the University of Denver in 1929, thereby touching the lives and affecting the work of many Colorado artists. He enjoyed a wide range of friendships within the artistic community inside and outside of Denver. He also began collecting the work of artists and designers he admired when he was a very young man. He′s been quoted as saying, “If I′m going to sit on it, eat off it, or drink out of it, it′s going to be great design.”

Here he is, at the age of 32, sitting by his lily pond at 817 Pearl St., Denver in his Art Deco style Machine Age Rocking Chair from the McKay Corporation (c.1930s). You can see the chair today in the museum′s Watercolor Room.

You may have heard that a young Vance Kirkland was the first college student to win a prize at the Cleveland Museum of Art May Show with his watercolor The Brewery, but have you heard what he did with the award money? It was 1927 and he was twenty-three years old. It may surprise you to know that he used his prize money to purchase the winning entry in the ceramics competition of the same show - four Russian Peasant Figures designed by Alexander Blazys and manufactured by the Cowan Pottery. Kirkland had studied ceramics with Blazys and Guy Cowan at the Cowan Pottery Company. The musicians are on display in the Lower Level Corridor.

In January of 1929, Vance hired Anne Gregory Van Briggle, widow of Artus van Briggle and former president of the Van Briggle Company, to teach Life Drawing at DU (just 11 months before her death in November of that year). It is likely that he acquired these two early Van Briggle Vases directly from Anne during that time. The small blue vase dates from 1902 and the brown one from 1904, the same year that Artus Van Briggle died from the tuberculosis which originally brought him to Colorado in search of a cure. Both vases can be seen in Exhibition Room I.

Vance purchased this fantastic hand-blown La Donna Vase (1950) from its designer, Fulvio Bianconi with whom he became acquainted during travels to Italy in the 1950s and ′60s. The artist was reluctant to part with this, as he was with many others of his premium pieces which he thought should be preserved in museums. Vance persevered until he agreed to sell it and, true to his philosophy of actually using the great design objects he collected, he kept the vase filled with flowers on his desk for many years. You can see it, complete with residual water stains, in the Museum Corridor.

As a result of hepatitis contracted during a surgery, Vance endured several hospitalizations during the last years of his life. During the registration process for his final hospital admission, he was asked to state his religious affiliation. With characteristic humor, he directed the clerk to write, “Drinking Buddhist.” This Cambodian Buddha (c.1850) was one of several from his home. It now presides over the Studio Corridor.

In future blogs, we′ll look more closely at Vance Kirkland as an artist and as an educator and art supporter.