The tiny Kirkland Museum lives in the shadows of Denver's sleek and expensive temples of culture and history, but its eclectic collection of art and oddities reminds visitors of how museums started — and where they can go.
Let's face it. Some curators probably shudder when they enter the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, because of the sheer plethora of objects packed into every conceivable cranny and the seeming disorder of it all.
Same for the Kirkland's visitors. Painting, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, a hodgepdoge of now-classic, mass-produced consumer goods from the past hundred years or so; it's a jarring, if adventurous, place to spend an afternoon.
Yet, it all works.
Denver's museum landscape has been redrawn over the past few years. More than $100 million later, the city has a giant addition to the Denver Art Museum and a shiny new home for the Museum of Contemporary Art. The city is much better off because of both.
Somehow, though, the Kirkland still stands out.
By today's museum standards, which put an emphasis on the slick, streamlined and structured, the Kirkland is hopelessly out of step. It happily takes a kind of Victorian approach to showing its collections, however modern or contemporary the objects themselves might be.
What started out in April 2003 as a modest museum to showcase longtime Denver artist Vance Kirkland's art and studio has evolved into one of the country's top displays of 20th-century decorative arts and a repository of Colorado art from 1875 to the present.
Kirkland leaders guess, and "guess" is the right word, that about 4,000 objects are crowded into just a little more than 5,000 square feet of exhibition space, including the main stairwell and even the walls of the elevator. That's about one- 30th the size of DAM's new Hamilton wing.
But if the overflowing displays and some other aspects of the museum can be frustrating, the eclectic institution does offer some useful lessons to its competitors near and far (including, coincidentally, the 5,500 attendees expected today through Thursday in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums).
Those "lessons" are among the reasons why locals in the know make a point of taking out-of-towners to the Kirkland and why residents who haven't yet ventured to the museum should give it a try.
In the spirit of the Kirkland itself, here are five reasons why — in no particular order.
Quirky is good. With so many art museums nationwide drawing from the same playbooks, a numbing homogenization has set in, as they too often race to show the same artists and play copycat on many fronts, including the way they exhibit and interpret the works on their walls. If you've seen one recent exhibit of Chinese contemporary art, for example, you can pretty much predict how the others will play out.
But the Kirkland avoids that trap. Perhaps because director Hugh Grant is not a museum curator by training, there is a refreshingly unbridled, free- form approach to everything the Kirkland does.
He does things the way he sees fit and is not always looking around to see if his approach conforms to what every other gallery in town is showing.
Be yourself. The Kirkland does not try to be all things to all people. It has established a few well-defined areas of emphasis for itself, and it hews to them. It hopes to spark visitor curiosity with at least one, but it simply accepts that not everyone will be interested by what it has to offer. In fact, children under 13 aren't allowed in, ever.
While the spotlight on the decorative arts springs from Kirkland's own collecting in the field, the museum's more recent foray into Colorado art derives from discerning a gap in what other area institutions are doing and shrewdly and aggressively acting to fill it.
Focus on the permanent. Blockbuster exhibitions have become the programming drivers of many art museums intent on boosting attendance and gaining recognition. But these nonstop offerings exhaust resources and force a cycle of ever-rising expectations that become increasingly difficult to satisfy.
Like the equally distinctive Frick Collection in New York City, the Kirkland has smartly put its ever-expanding permanent collection at the center of everything it does, primarily drawing on its holdings for the small, tightly focused temporary shows it does mount each year.
No dumbing down. While the Kirkland probably can be frustrating at times to museumgoers who have little or no background in the material on view, there is something thrilling about simply plunging in and exploring what is there.
Rather than telling visitors what to look at or how to think about it, the Kirkland allows — indeed tacitly encourages — them to go in their own directions, make their own discoveries and draw their own conclusions.
Smaller can be smarter. At a time when museums across the country are constructing massive expansions, the obvious question is: When does bigger become too big? With admission as much as $20 at the Denver Art Museum and elsewhere, viewers feel compelled to squeeze in as much as possible at one time, so visits become madcap dashes from gallery to gallery.
The intimacy and retreat- like atmosphere of the Kirkland offer a welcome antidote to such bigness and hecticness. With admission at a relatively low $6, visitors can spend a half-hour or so and get a sense of the small museum or feel comfortable staying in one room and studying one set of objects.
The Kirkland is Denver's version of Sir John Soane's Museum in London, a cabinet of curiosities that has become a popular, out-of-the-way tourist destination. It is fun, offbeat and utterly unique — everything a museum should be, right?