“Backstory” fills in crucial context for Western art and history with high-profile museum collaboration
The romantic allure of the West that continues to seduce people to Colorado is, in many ways, unchanged from the mid-19th century.
Opportunity, as symbolized by gorgeous landscapes and open skies, draws new residents while injecting challenges for longtime residents, who grouse (often justifiably) about resource management and overcrowding, as well as the aesthetics these transplants bring.
Valuable knowledge is swapped. Compromises are found. The culture is changed. Sound familiar? “People have been in Colorado a very long time and have had traditions long before EuroAmerican settlement and people coming in
from the East — not only American Indians, but Hispanics and the Spanish influence,” said Alisa DiGiacomo, senior curator of artifacts and curator of art & design at History Colorado, as she stood over a display of pottery from Mesa Verde’s Ancestral Puebloans.
That’s one of the first things visitors learn in the new exhibit “Backstory: Western American Art in Context,” which opens at History Colorado Center on March 18 and runs through February 2018.
Presented by the Sturm Family Foundation, the 8,500-squarefoot exhibit is a cozy collaboration between History Colorado and the Denver Art Museum’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art, which oversees the latter’s most iconic Western pieces. Think Frederic Remington’s bronze sculptures, and paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Charles Deas (including “The Rocky Mountain Man”).
However, the works on Level 7 of the Denver Art Museum’s North Building (where many of Petrie’s works are displayed) are becoming inaccessible while the museum stares down a yearslong, $150 million renovation.
“Backstory” offers a chance to keep showing them in public, as well as promoting a smart, Colo- rado-centric exhibit that builds upon History Colorado’s swing toward more substantive fare after three rocky years of employee turnover and financial wrangling.
“When we started the planning, the spine of it was the masterworks from the Petrie Institute’s collection,” said Jennifer R. Henneman, assistant curator of the Petrie Institute. “They tell the story of largely white, male artists (who were) internationally trained, moving from the East into the West and back to the East again — and creating works that become profoundly meaningful for American identity.”
Among the 50 loaned pieces from the Denver Art Museum is a sculpture by Henry Kirke Brown called “The Choosing of an Arrow,” which depicts a Native American in the style of Michelangelo’s David. It neatly portrays the intersection of academic training and (then) trendy ideas of artistic beauty, since sculptures like it were popular in well-to-do East Coast homes circa 1849.
The exhibit’s focus — roughly mid-19th through mid-20th century — includes layers of text and imagery that examine the implicit ideology of Manifest Destiny, which was used to justify the brutality and exploitation of native peoples. It’s present in the gorgeous, important works of
“Commercializing the West,” featuring Stetson hats, Rockmount shirts and Solitaire and Mount Cross coffee cans, is part of History Colorado Center’s new exhibit, “Backstory: Western American Art in Context.” Photos by Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Alisa DiGiacomo of History Colorado, left, and Jennifer Henneman of the Denver Art Museum collaborated to curate “Backstory: Western American Art in Context.”
History Colorado Center assistant collections manager Bethany Williams puts the final touches on “Outfitting a Cowboy,” part of the museum’s “Backstory: Western American Art in Context.” The collaborative exhibit pairs over 50 masterpieces from the Denver Art Museum and History Colorado’s artifacts, all from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, taking a look at the rapidly changing West. Photos by Andy Cross, The Denver Post
Native American artifacts on display include an Arapaho cradleboard from 1880-1900, right, and a Sioux dress from 1860-65.