Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art reopening ends Aug. 27

Despite cutting the ribbon on a custom-designed, $22 million building in 2018, Denver’s Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art has only been able to let the public see its treasures for a total of 12 months since then.

And not even consecutive months, museum officials told The Denver Post. That’s because of the pandemic, but also a Feb. 15 plumbing catastrophe that is every curator’s worst nightmare.

“The staff was here immediately and moved about 1,000 objects to safety right away,” said associate museum director Renée Albiston, who said employees first noticed the museum’s burst water valve through a live security-camera feed.

Fortunately, they were able to save the majority of Kirkland’s priceless, on-display collection from the extensive water damage that the building suffered. Only a handful of works on paper saw permanent damage, officials said, and most of the artwork that got wet is back and being redisplayed.

Post-flood, Kirkland Museum is preparing for a Friday, Aug. 27 reopening with the temporary exhibit “Truth, Beauty and Power: Christopher Dresser and The Aesthetic Movement.”

“We had planned to open in the spring, but we’ve been able to make some concrete choices about when we can print the wallboards and get the show up and running,” said Maya Wright, director of interpretation.

Working in her world often requires a combination of creativity and logistical know-how. In addition to debuting “Truth, Beauty and Power,” which runs through Jan. 2, 2022, the museum also will resume regular hours when it returns later this month, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. on Sundays (closed Mondays). Pre-purchased, timed tickets are no longer required.

It’s a remarkable, encouraging turnabout for an institution that was facing economic ruin and an existential crisis only a few short months ago. In addition to losing revenue and furloughing employees during 2020, the museum had just reopened for the first time since the start of the pandemic when, in February, leaders revealed they needed to close down again.

The building had sustained water damage from a burst valve during the polar vortex that froze pipes across the city, they said. They asked for patience during the painful triage process. To the public, the potential losses seemed staggering.

But curators worked around the clock to determine the repairs needed for the 38,000-square- foot collection of unique items from late Denver artist Vance Kirkland, as well as dozens of other mid-century and contemporary names. About 4,000 items in total were “rescued,” officials said.

“We were heartbroken by the (water damage), but I can’t tell you how much of a relief it was that the original studio avoided any damage at all,” Albiston said.

She’s referring to the 150-ton brick structure that was moved — whole, and at great cost — in late 2016. The spectacle found Vance Kirkland’s fragile, immaculately preserved studio traveling slowly by truck from its original perch at Pearl Street and 13th Avenue on Capitol Hill to its current home in the Golden Triangle neighborhood, at 1201 Bannock St. — shutting down busy city streets in the process.

Only a sliver of the museum’s 30,000 items are on display at any one time, but the recent flood was enough to have warranted months of restoration and construction, painting and painstaking cataloging, to get a clear picture of what really happened.

“Truly, I feel like Vance was watching over us because it’s amazing more artwork did not get damaged,” Albiston said.

Leaders have not said which pieces may have been total losses, but last month told The Denver Post that all three floors of the museum sustained water damage. Since the spring, stop-start construction has been underway to replace wood floors in the galleries, carpeting throughout the offices, drywall and an elevator panel.

Museum leaders also has been mum about whether the building’s original contractors are liable for the damage, or the total dollar amount of damage, deferring repeatedly to their insurance company’s ongoing investigation. They hope to have a total dollar figure soon, Albiston said.

Meanwhile, a lengthy “conservation assessment” by the museum’s 11 full-time staffers and Colorado Art Restoration Services helped truly save the collection, Albiston said. The company First OnSite, a disaster-restoration company, also joined the effort.

So why, exactly, is the museum reopening now?

“We were really at the mercy of construction,” Albiston said. “It was hingeing on the restoration of the interior, and until all those pieces were in place we couldn’t start reinstalling the galleries.”

Those processes had to line up perfectly, and staffers were at the mercy of deliveries, supplies and labor delays. Once construction was close to finishing, marketing plans, new safety and conservation measures, and operational plans soon followed.

Albiston and Wright praised the museum’s “resilient staff,” including founding director and curator Hugh Grant, for the turnaround.

Kirkland Museum was formerly located on Denver’s Capitol Hill, where its internationally renowned, namesake painter and visionary surrealist Vance Kirkland worked and taught until his death in 1981.

Museum leaders opened Kirkland’s architecturally distinct new building in the gallery-heavy Golden Triangle neighborhood in March 2018. With its terracotta bars and shimmering, yellow glass panels, the building has for the past three years stood out from its peers, and complemented other major institutions a block or two away, such as the Denver Art Museum and Clyfford Still Museum.

Due to the up-close, salon-style displays and fragile items, visitors under 13 are not allowed. Masks are required for unvaccinated visitors, and the museum said its state-of-the-art HVAC system that mixes inside and outside air for extra safety is fully functional.

Mostly, they just can’t wait to throw open their doors again. And maybe, for the first time in their new home, they’ll be able to stay open for 12 months straight.

“It could have been so much worse,” Wright said. “Much, much worse.”

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