Intro 2: MCA Denver

Photo of MCA Denver from

I’ll be visiting five arts organisations (four museums and one tour company) in September 2016 as part of my Churchill Fellowship. I’d like to give a bit more information about each one and why I think their learning programmes, staff and organisational culture are particularly interesting.

Next up – Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver

MCA Denver is the youngest and smallest of the museums I’ll be visiting. It’s dedicated solely to contemporary art practice and the only one without a permanent collection. Established in 1996 as the first home for contemporary art in Denver, their new building by British architect David Adjaye opened in 2007. I stumbled across their website a few years ago and really liked the targeted use of different galleries to meet the needs of different audiences – there is the Fox Family Ideas Box for families and children and, more recently, the Open Shelf Library, a hands-on collection of books, articles and objects for adults to explore. For a recent Pretty Glam Party, which launched Marilyn Minter’s Pretty/Dirty exhibition, the elevator to the roof terrace was transformed into a Techno Elevator, “50% vertical transportation mechanism, 50% black-light dance party”, which makes this exactly the kind of museum I want to visit.

In 2009, Adam Lerner was appointed Director (his full title is Director & Chief Animator, Department of Fabrications). Prior to his appointment, he had built a successful reputation for programming Mixed Taste: Tag Team Lectures on Unrelated Topics, a format that continues live and well in the museum’s regular programme, produced by Sarah Kate Baie, Director of Programmes & Chief of Fictions. I often mention these talks as an example of museum learning at its best – funny, surprising and engaging. The structure is beautifully simple: two speakers give a short presentation on their specialist subject, often wildly disparate (Gospel Music and Zebra Sharks is one of my favourite combinations) and at the end, with the input of the audience, the group looks for commonalities and links.

I love the power of oblique tangents; a bit like the Spanish Inquisition, no-one expects the juxtaposition of wormholes and sinkholes to be the shared bill on a talk at a contemporary art museum. But just imagine how fantastically primed your mind would be to then engage with art after spending an hour forging all those new neural pathways and firing up all those synapses. Humour also goes a long way and I’m a sucker for a good pun – MCA Denver has an evening programme called Black Sheep Fridays, which has included ‘Sommelier Pirates’ (dress like a pirate and learn how to talk about wine) and ‘Presidential Waffling’ (eat waffles and watch clips from old presidential debates). Immediately, these titles convey such energy and a knowing wink. This impression is counter to the dry’n’dusty stereotype of museum programming and the expectation that museum staff are all po-faced and terribly worthy.

I am also looking forward to finding out more about their young people’s internship programme, Failure Lab; the name reflects the museum’s belief that “…risking failure is an integral element of creativity. We wanted to create a space that would provide teens with a unique opportunity to try out wild ideas”. MCA Denver has a strong commitment to supporting ‘teen’ engagement, including free admission for under 18s and weekly drop-in events, called Teen Friday Nights. In March 2016, professional artists collaborated with Failure Lab teens to create a mural for their Teen Lounge – a short timelapse video here.

I really enjoy just reading about the MCA Denver programme; going to see it in action will meet a long-held ambition of mine. And one final tip – I recommend checking out their annual December Holiday Videos, all available on YouTube.


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