Open to the public since May 2012, the museum houses more than 300 iconic paintings of the American West, most executed between 1820 and 1940.
You can’t just walk up to the museum, pay admission and browse. The collection is only open to the public during four curated tours weekly, Each tour is limited to 25 people “in order to offer each visitor an individual and intimate experience with one of the finest collections of American Western art in the world.”
That’s an understatement. The Anschutz collection is arguably the ultimate such collection, given the breadth and depth of its holdings.
It’s far from a typical art museum. It’s the kind of establishment you might own yourself, if you had spent the past 50 years buying several hundred examples of Western art while making $10 billion in your spare time.
Many vanity museums are simply manifestations of their owners’ ego. Mr. Big makes lots of money, wants to be seen as a cultured person, hires a curator, buys a bunch of art and names a museum after himself.
Not so Anschutz, whose first art adviser was his mother, Marian Anschutz. A child of the West, he gravitated naturally to the long-ignored “Western art” of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Sixty years ago, artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington and William Jacob Hays weren’t even on the radar screen of the art establishment. They were seen as mere illustrators, technically proficient hacks whose work had little artistic value.
A few passionate collectors disagreed. Western art, they claimed, was uniquely American and historically important. Artists working in the genre weren’t hacks, but sensitive witnesses to ways of life that would soon vanish. Moreover, they helped shape American perceptions of the West, and of the American experience. Weren’t they just as important as the shape-shifting abstractionists so beloved of the New York critics?
They made few converts until the early 1960s, when new collectors such as Anschutz emerged. Prices began to rise. Building a significant collection would require luck, moxie, financial resources and a good eye.
Anschutz possesses all four. In a 1999 memoir, his daughter Sarah Anschutz Hunt (now the director of the museum) described one of her father’s most important acquisitions.
My father had heard that the Santa Fe Railroad had an extensive art collection and that the basement of the company’s Chicago headquarters was literally full of paintings that had never been properly cataloged, including a number of large canvases the company would never be able to accommodate in its offices. Intrigued by the idea of sifting through the railroad’s collection, he traveled to Chicago and managed to arrange a meeting with the company chairman. In exchange for the right to purchase some of the pieces, my father offered to go through the railroad’s holdings and catalog the paintings. After some negotiation and many hours of examining and cataloging works stored in the building’s basement, he eventually acquired from the Santa Fe Railroad 82 paintings and two large murals, the majority of which were excellent examples of the Taos and Santa Fe school.
Westword art critic Michael Paglia said of the purchase: “They were priced at pennies compared to today’s dollars.”
The museum is housed in the 1880 Navarre building, across the street from the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver. William Foxley renovated the historic Navarre structure at a cost of $6 million in 1985 to house his own collection of Western art, but subsequent financial difficulties forced him to liquidate. In 1997, Anschutz bought the building for $2 million.
The collection is displayed in three airy galleries, each less than 8,000 square feet. Paintings are hung “salon style” – floor to ceiling, with only a few inches between each. The experience is both intimate and overwhelming.
Paintings such as Albert Bierstadt’s “Mountain Landscape,” Ernest Blumenschein’s “Sangre de Cristo Mountains” and Thomas Moran’s “Children of the Mountain” would dominate most small museum collections. Here, they’re fighting for eye time with dozens of equally powerful works.
In the jostling, irreverent world of art dealers and collectors, large, important paintings are simply called “big honkers.” Anschutz’s museum is full of them, but there are quiet, unassuming pieces as well, such as Worthington Whittredge’s small (12 inches by 16 inches), utterly beautiful “Encampment on the Platte River.” Unlike other 19th-century artists, Whittredge was drawn not to the mountains, but to the vast silence and limitless vistas of the plains. The site, near the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte, has vanished by now, swallowed by our state’s capital city.
Beautiful and comprehensive as the collection is, it has apparent flaws. It depicts the collision of cultures that created the American West from a single vantage point: overwhelmingly white, male and European. That’s like writing a history of the Civil War and leaving out the Confederacy. Native American artists of the 19th century created great paintings and drawings, on animal hides and paper. Works such as Howling Wolf’s “At the Sand Creek Massacre,” an 1875 ledger drawing by a Cheyenne warrior and witness to the massacre, would add balance and depth.
Reflecting its owner’s taste, the collection also includes few significant Western artists of the past 70 years. Too bad – it’d be nice to see works by modern masters such as Chuck Forsman, Rick Dula, Dale Chisman, Emilio Lobato or Virginia Maitland.
Works by those artists are eminently affordable to a new generation of collectors. Should you decide to buy one, here’s some advice from the man himself:
“I think if you do it for those [financial] reasons,” Anschutz said in 1999, “you probably do it for the wrong reasons. If you truly love what you’re doing and have a plan or a vision for your collection, then it becomes something you enjoy doing. It becomes a passion and a hobby. The fact that you are doing something that may or may not be financially rewarding becomes secondary.”