A stunning collection of Colorado art is hidden in a spot you might not expect

The Denver Public Library’s art collection is one of Colorado’s least-appreciated cultural treasures, a well-kept, well-cataloged and loosely connected assemblage of colorful and impressive objects that span multiple art movements. Thanks to the state’s world-class geography, it’s particularly strong in landscapes.

But perhaps more than that, the sprawling compilation is an important civic asset, holding a century-plus of offerings from Denver’s biggest names in painting and sculpture, artists who rose to the top of their fields and defined the creative eras in which they lived.

It’s also full of surprises, as the current, greatest-hits exhibition at the Central Library’s Vida Ellison Gallery reveals.

If you go

DPL’s current exhibit of selected works from its holdings can be viewed during regular library hours in the Vida Ellison Gallery, on the seventh floor of the Central Library, 10 W. 14th Avenue Parkway. Info: 720-865-1821 or denverlibrary.org.

“We have a wonderful and fairly extensive collection, and it’s relatively unknown,” said Rachel Vagts, DPL’s special collections and digital archives manager. “This is really an opportunity for us to showcase it.”

It’s best to say, upfront, that the library’s collection is not finely tuned. No doubt, the roster is impressive, and familiar names include Albert Bierstadt, Herbert Bayer, Allen Tupper True, Vance Kirkland, Angelo di Benedetto, William Sanderson, Frank Mechau, Roland Bernier and others.

There are also some of the city’s more recent art stars in the mix, including Steven Batura, Sushe Felix, Mel Strawn, Evan Anderman and Carlos Fresquez.

And there are skilled artists who have been overlooked (not surprisingly, they are largely female): Martha Epp, Elisabeth Spaulding, Amelia Potter and Reba Lee Savageau.

But these artists’ best works are not necessarily represented. There is one undisputed masterpiece in the collection, Albert Bierstadt’s grand, 1877 “Estes Park, Long’s Peak,” though that’s in the care of the Denver Art Museum, the library’s “good, across-the-street partner,” as Vagts puts it, and an institution better-equipped to foster important works. But better examples of many of the artists’ products can be found at DAM, or the nearby Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Arts, or at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

That has everything to do with the way the library’s collection was assembled. Nearly every piece was donated. The library only actively collected for a few years in the 1930s, filling in as an early repository for local efforts before DAM got serious about Western art.

Other than that, it’s happenstance. Someone offered to donate a piece and the library accepted.

That’s not to take anything away from just how entertaining the current exhibit is, or how interesting. Deborah and Warren Wadsworth, long-time library volunteers — and noted collectors — who organized the show had a lot of treasures to choose from.

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Western art fans, in particular, will have plenty of the breathtaking experiences they crave, and in a range of offerings, from Jame Disney’s hyper-real, 1970 “Early Start, Rocky Mountain National Park,” which resembles a photograph, to Burnis Day’s fully abstracted, 1984 “Colorado River,” which reduces craggy rocks to something akin to the lines found on a topographical map.

Between that, there are more typical Western landscape examples, paintings that demonstrate the art of capturing high peaks and flowing streams in their most romantic light, such as William Henry Jackson’s “Lower Falls of the Yellowstone,” Pawel Kontny’s “Walpi Village, Hope Village, Arizona,” or Sauvage’s 1959 “Rainmaker,” a rural scene with a particularly interesting perspective that puts a gnarly oak tree front and center of the landscape.

The exhibit’s other strength is that it presents a visual history of the state’s development, with unusual offerings like the 1874 watercolor, “Denver from the Highlands,” co-credited to Paul Frenzy and Jules Travenier, which captures the city before it was encircled by suburban development, or Potter’s “Altman, Colorado,” which pictures the mining town at its most prosperous, or William Henry Read’s casual portrait of “Mayor Robert Speer,” dressed in a white cap and a narrow yellow tie.

And there are several process pieces that dive into how artists thought about their work. Mechau’s “Night Hero,” a 1934 pastel drawing of six horses frolicking on the plains, for example, served as a study for a larger painting. The piece is only 11-inches by 26-inches, but a viewer can see how he worked through shapes and colors and the relationship between individual subjects.

There’s also a fascinating, 1938 pastel by Kirkland, titled “Battle of the Washita-Black Kettle Massacre,” that shows the artist — before he became a noted modernist — digging into local lore while figuring out how to connect the dots of his narrative piece. It’s just a rough sketch depicting frontier soldiers brutally taking down indigenous fighters, but it carries a rich and dark tale.

If some of these works are less-known than they ought to be, it’s probably because the library doesn’t showcase its artistic holdings the way a museum does. In general, it’s more interested in providing high-level research tools to its users than serving as a gallery.

Rather than accessing works on a wall, patrons find them in the library catalog system, organized by subject matter or artist name. Look up a particular topic and you get the whole picture about it: “There’s a piece of art, there’s a book, there’s a documentary film,” said Vagts.

“It’s about how do things fit into the collection,” she said.

Though library users do access the works regularly. “Sometimes it’s scholars who travel a long way, sometimes it’s people with local interest,” said Vagts.  Recently, “it was a class of middle school students.”

“If you want to see a piece, you come to the Mullen Room and we bring it out for you to look at,” said Vagts, referring to the Central Library’s Mullen Manuscript Room, a familiar spot for local researchers.

The library collection continues to grow, though at a measured pace. It accepts art gifts, but is a little more discriminating these days. Donation offers pass through a committee that decides if the object truly fits with the mission of a research institution. There are a number of places where folks can donate their treasures now — museums, universities, private collections — and the library wants to make sure pieces go to their best caretaker.

“If we offer to take something, we’re going to take very good care of it and make it available so our customers and the public can see it,” she said. “If we can’t do that for some reason, then this is not the right place for it.”

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