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Putting culture into play

The Denver Art Museum's eccentrically designed new wing encourages kids to have a blast while they and their imaginations go exploring.

July 15, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Denver — OUR son was bowing to an ancient samurai sword, and he was radiant.

A docent at the Denver Art Museum had just wrapped a black cloth belt around his waist. Another was teaching him how to handle the weapon with reverence. With a solemn nod, Avery took the heavy sword.

My husband and I could barely restrain ourselves from blurting, "Told you so!"

Two hours earlier, Avery, 6, had been throwing a tantrum about our plans to spend a sunny Saturday at the art museum.

"It's boring!" he'd howled.

"Not this one," we'd promised. And, for once, we were right.

The new wing of the museum opened in the fall to mixed reviews. Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, it's a startling explosion of sharp angles and corners, wrapped in silver titanium. Inside, the building is so tumultuous, it has given some visitors vertigo: Walls tilt severely, galleries narrow abruptly; the central staircase lurches through a rakishly zigzagging atrium.

In recent months, designers have begun adding splashes of deep color to the white-and-gray walls. The elevator banks, for instance, are now painted a lush sunflower yellow. As some reviewers have pointed out, these eccentricities don't make for a very contemplative environment.

Museum boosters had predicted that the new wing would draw 1 million visitors its first year. They're on pace for a more modest 750,000 and have had to lay off staff and cut the operating budget nearly 10%. Still, even at the current pace, the museum is setting attendance records.

We began in the atrium of the Libeskind wing -- officially called the Frederic C. Hamilton Building -- trying to spell our names. The lobby sparkles with 80 metallic circles that flash ever-changing LED displays of numbers and letters. The installation art, by Tatsuo Miyajima, looked like a secret code to Avery and his sister Hannah, 8, who watched the circles intently, calling out the letters in their names as they flashed by.

No sooner had we dragged them to the second floor than they became interested in another installation, tucked away in an alcove. Images of shiny cartoon bubbles were projected, in shifting patterns, on the tile floor. If you stomped on a bubble, it burst -- in a satisfying animated splash.

Our youngest, 2-year-old Katie, was scared of the bubbles, but Avery and Hannah began stomping like maniacs, shrieking with joy. No one told them to hush. On the contrary, their laughter drew a small crowd; other kids joined the bubble-popping party as a circle of adults stood by, smiling. It seemed like a bit of impromptu performance art.

The only way to pry our crew from the bubbles was to promise cowboys; we headed next for the Western American art. On their way into the gallery, kids pick up a Roadside Bingo card. It lists two dozen images to find in the paintings: a sunset, a feather, buffalo, rope.

Avery got bored quickly and headed for a hands-on station where he could make his own Wild West postcards. Hannah loved the bingo, though, and set off racing through the halls.

When we could get her to slow down, the game offered a fun way to challenge her artistic vision; for instance, after studying a shadowy gray-and-white painting, she realized the dark forms were buffalo, huddled under a blanket of snow.

Just about every gallery in the museum has some form of this game. In the Asian hall, there's an Eye Spy activity that has kids scouring woodcuts and watercolors for animals. In the pre-Columbian gallery, children become foot detectives, trying to match the toes and claws on their game board with ancient figurines.

Don't be fooled by all the games; this is also a grown-up's museum, with serious, challenging art at every turn. But by integrating activities for kids in each exhibit, the curators have banished any trace of stuffiness -- and their enthusiasm appears to be contagious.

Security guards, docents and other visitors seemed thrilled to see kids enjoying the art -- even when Avery made shadow puppets dance on an abstract video piece by Jennifer Steinkamp.

In the Oceanic hall, kids can admire a graceful Yipwon Spirit Figure and then build their own abstract sculptures using magnetic puzzle pieces. In the African gallery, they can create a (quiet) symphony from traditional instruments or duck into a secret cave and watch a cartoon about an African mask. When the short film ends, a glass case nearby illuminates -- and there's the very mask they've just learned about.

Such activities are geared for younger children, but teens have plenty to do as well. In the Western gallery, a George Catlin painting of a Native American coming-of-age ceremony is displayed next to a grid of cubbyholes. Inside each cubby, a plastic cube poses a provocative question: "Is this a good painting?" "Did Catlin sensationalize?" "Was Catlin a racist?" Before answering, visitors are urged to read the cubes; each side lays out a different perspective.

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