THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART does things a little differently.
Within the span of a few weeks this spring, museum visitors had the opportunity to practice their downward dog in the middle of a Cleon Peterson exhibit; attend a private concert from Portugal The Man; and discuss the theme of “Art as Activism” over a meal with artist Michael Gadlin. And in April, MCA did one more thing you wouldn’t expect of a museum: It began loaning art to local residents. A few weeks ago, the first of hundreds of commissioned pieces made their way into living rooms and bedrooms all over the Front Range, as part of the Octopus Initiative.
“We don’t just ask ourselves, ‘How can we create the best possible museum?’” says museum director Adam Lerner. “We ask, ‘How can we make a better city? And what is our role in bringing more vitality to the city?’ Part of that is giving people a mirror to show them what it means to live in a creative place. We try really hard to produce exhibitions of distinction, but we also to try to capture some of the energy that’s around us and feed it back to people.”
That thinking led to yet another question: If MCA sees itself as a custodian of the city’s creative culture, how can the institution help artists who are feeling left out of the city’s prosperity, to the point of being priced out of their studios and even their homes? The simple answer: Buy their art.
But the MCA has never housed a permanent collection, and Lerner wasn’t interested in changing that. So, instead, every month MCA will randomly select a few lucky people to keep pieces in their own home for 10 months. In the program’s first week, 1,300 people registered more than 3,000 requests for 150 pieces. Barring any unforeseen disasters, Lerner hopes to commission even more pieces from local artists over the next few years. (Want in on the action? See sidebar, below.)
Although much of the program unfolds online, Lerner envisioned a small library that could hold dozens of pieces within the building itself, to help visitors envision a specific style or color palette in their own homes—a level of consideration that rarely takes place in museums. MCA set aside a small wood-paneled room near the museum’s entrance, then started looking for an architect who could find a clever way to pack dozens of pieces into 460 square feet.
Enter Hunter Leggitt.
Leggitt grew up in Denver and graduated with a degree in architecture from UC-Boulder in 2003; he quickly headed west, and spent the first 14 years of his career in California. There, he worked under Sebastian Mariscal, learned the intricacies of design-build, and dreamt up modern homes and interactive entertainment venues, including stages for the Coachella Music Festival and other live events. By 2017, Denver’s explosive growth beckoned, and Leggitt returned to split his time designing projects for the Rockies and the West Coast. An impromptu run-in with Lerner at Taxi eventually led to the Octopus commission.
“For me the challenge was to design something that respects the existing space and respects the museum, but gives it a new aesthetic and functional feel to it—one that’s more playful, engaging and interactive, to draw people in,” says Leggett. “I wanted to bring in my experience designing for live performances and interactive events—something that goes beyond the ‘look but don’t touch mentality’ that tells people to stand behind a line. And I wanted something with a material texture to it, something with weight, something that makes you want to touch it.”
The space set aside for Octopus was originally full of cabinets, open shelving, and one or two desks. Leggitt stripped it down to the floor, ceiling, and walls, then built it back up in the span of four months.
The goal was to create a storage system that married high-end furniture with functional solutions found in archives like the Clyfford Still Museum, a few blocks away. Leggitt’s team couldn’t shut down the museum for construction, so design and fabrication process took place in a warehouse in Globeville. There, Bonnie Gregory and Jordan Vaughn turned black steel, frosted glass, and walnut into 16 panels that slide in and out of four 6-foot-tall cases, all of which blend into the original space. Opposite the racks, two steel pedestals hold iPads so visitors can scroll through the catalog digitally. Cabinets with tiger-wood veneer seem to blend into the walls, offering unobtrusive storage for the dozens of cardboard boxes designed to safely transport art from museum to home and back.
The result is a cross between a jewel box and a walk-in humidor—a space meant to display but also to be practical. The tiny room isn’t easy to navigate, especially when more than a handful of people are sliding panels back and forth, in search of the perfect image. And that’s by design. The awkward dance that takes place as art lovers avoid one another in a gallery quickly evaporates as people are literally forced to rub elbows with one another, like shoppers at the world’s tiniest boutique.
“My work in event production has given me a better understanding of temporal, playful experience whereas the architectural work makes for a more of a permanent, lasting type of design,” says Leggitt. “If I can marry those two in exhibit design like Octopus, you should be able to see both aspects—that interactive quality and that sense of permanence together.”
Architects generally get paid to construct walls, not to tear them down. But in this case, tearing down metaphorical walls was always the goal.
“Museums can become very boring places with really alienating experiences, because [curators] care so much about protecting the art that they end up keeping people away from it,” says Lerner. “If we can create a situation that really trusts visitors, that’s something special. I believe a lot more can happen if you take a little bit of a risk.”
HOW IT WORKS
Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art isn’t the first institution to invite people to take art home with them—several schools including MIT and Oberlin College have allowed students to borrow from their permanent collections for years. But from what we can tell, it’s the first time members of the general public have had the chance to turn their own homes into satellite museum galleries.
Here’s the deal: Each month, MCA releases approximately 20 new works of art, commissioned and purchased from up-and-coming artists in the Denver area. Residents of Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson counties can log onto the MCA website, pick a few favorites, and win the chance to showcase a piece in their own home for 10 months, free of charge. If you’re one of the chosen few, you’ll need to visit the museum to pick up the carrying case and mounting materials, and return it all at the end of the term. Six artists have already created the initial collection of more than 150 works, which will be trickled out month by month; Lerner hopes to feature a total of seven to ten artists a year, for the next several years.
Learn more at octopus.mcadenver.org.
Designer + Builder: Hunter Leggitt
Metalwork: Bonnie Gregory
Cabinetry: Jordan Vaughn/Vonmod
Hardware: KN Crowder
Lighting: Jeffrey Boynton
Electrical: RK Electrical