MCA Denver is going to be difficult to write about because none of the existing terminology fits. Under the leadership of Director, Adam Lerner, MCA Denver is deliberately pushing boundaries and challenging pretty much any museum orthodoxy you could name. This is demonstrated most vividly in how the team thinks and talks about its public programmes. Sarah Kate Baie, Director of Programs, has a team of two and leads on adult events, such as talks, festivals and tours, and the teen programme for 13-18 year olds. However, this brief summary doesn’t reflect what is so different about their way of working – the magic is in the detail.
Sarah views her programme as a lens through which contemporary culture can be explored and discussed; the exhibitions are occasionally a springboard for programming, but the scope is so much broader than that. For example, Sarah recently programmed a series of events titled Art Meets Beast. This included bringing a recently deceased bison (yes, bison) into the museum and, in front of an audience, a butcher gave commentary as the beast was segmented into cuts of meat. Six chefs were in the audience and had their choice of cuts to take away in order to prepare a six-course meal of bison, that was served to the audience the following evening. The programme also included a bus tour that explored food production and included visits to a farm, a cannery, and a brewery. For Sarah, the subject itself, food, may appear narrow, but it taps into a much bigger thing – why we are the way we are. These are not programmes about teaching art historical detail and equipping people with the skills required to visit museums; these are programmes about culture, society, art, life, ideas and experiences.
The ambition and imagination of Sarah and her team outstrips the time and resource available so, more recently, public programming has been opened out to other members of the team to meet the demand. Clayton Kenney joined as Director of Marketing and Communications a year ago and leads on adult programming with a more overtly social dimension (although this line is a blurry one) such as DJ evenings, parties, and, while I was visiting, a Zine Festival, where young creatives were selling their handcrafted magazines, prints and drawings. The cafe staff also contribute to programming and manage weekly live music events in the summer, called B-Side Thursdays – perfect for enjoying a few drinks on the museum’s roof terrace.
Clayton previously worked at Red Bull, creating marketing events along the west coast. He brings a strong understanding of brand positioning to his role and sees MCA Denver’s future as more akin to a lifestyle brand than a museum. The place has a reputation for being approachable and not taking itself too seriously, but for also providing high quality exhibitions that don’t shy away from serious and complicated subject matter – it’s a really interesting mix. Social evening events and parties are a growing area of interest at MCA Denver, making the most of the museum’s popularity with young people, millennials and local makers and artists.
I was struck by the team’s approach to ideas development. Both Sarah and Clayton spoke about the importance of discarding ideas that aren’t working, or of taking an idea that has progressed so far and then pushing to make it better. Ideas are daily currency at MCA Denver and, with a small team and a lack of bureaucracy, staff are empowered to dream something up on a Monday and be in a position to try it out by the weekend. Ideas are not treated as rare precious gems, but as the bread and butter of the organisation and there is fantastic confidence in how the team generates new programmes.
I get the impression that the MCA Denver team is a tight unit, all pulling in the same direction. I’m sure plenty of creative disagreements occur too, but the overall aim of the museum – to try things that haven’t been tried before – is communicated consistently and appears to be a shared goal. This is not a coincidence; the Director is clearly the driving force of the museum and he has created a positive, creative environment and a team that relishes diving into the unknown and breaking out from the constraints of standard museum-world conversations. This made my interview with Adam challenging as I felt I was talking about the invention of the wheel while he was talking about nuclear physics. For example, there is no line for Adam between the curatorial thinking that goes into planning exhibitions and the learning approach that shapes public programmes. There just isn’t that distinction and to even talk about it feels horribly old-fashioned because the two are so intertwined. Whenever I have heard these arguments previously, that curatorial and learning shouldn’t be thought of as separate things, it’s been to rationalise cutting learning departments and privilege the curatorial perspective. But this wasn’t Adam’s tone – as with all conversations I had at MCA Denver, there is clearly a huge amount of respect shown between colleagues and a fluidity and flexibility in their thinking and working that doesn’t prioritise one area over another. It’s an amazing model and one that could have a significant impact on shaping future museum practice.
Header image: seating outside the roof terrace cafe, MCA Denver