Why Denver Is the Hottest Art City in the West Right Now

As Denver Art Museum debuts the largest Monet exhibit in the country, the city's art scene is also exploding with edgy galleries, art-centric hotels, and world-class museums

Stephanie Granada

Denver has come along way from its beginnings as a mining supply town. Today, as the Mile High City experiences meteoric growth, it’s also rising to become one of the best art destinations in the West. Case in point: This week, the Denver Art Museum welcomed the “Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature” exhibit (now through February 2, 2020)—the largest and most comprehensive Monet exhibit shown in two decades, and Denver is the only U.S. city playing host. On top of this major art-world news, add a bumper crop of galleries, stylish hotels filled with local and world-class art, and stellar museums, and it’s easy to see why this city showcases Western creativity at its finest.

1 /5 Claude Monet, View from Rouelles, 1858. Oil paint on canvas; 18-1/2 x 25-5/8 in. Marunuma Art Park, Asaka. Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum

World-Class Exhibits

Let’s start with the crazy-awesome exhibits that roll through town. If you just look at DAM, you’d be impressed to learn that the past year has brought through Degas, Rembrandt, and Dior (which hosted its first U.S. retrospective at the museum in 2018). Upcoming shows include masters like Norman Rockwell and Remington. But the current Monet exhibit is an especially big deal. A collaborative project two years in the making, “Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature” combines 124 famous pieces from DAM and the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany (the only other museum where the exhibit will be shown), as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, and others. The show speaks to the rep DAM has built over the years for mounting top-notch exhibits, and the museum is not alone in this effort in the city. Denver Museum of Nature & Science has made major headlines for its blockbusters, including a showing of actual Dead Sea scrolls and Da Vinci drawings; Denver Botanic Gardens was the first place in the Rockies to host an outdoor exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s work in 2014, and now has a permanent Chihuly on display; and this year, Kirkland Museum is hosting an impressive showing of Bauhaus items from its collection (featuring works by Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) to mark the anniversary of the short-lived but hugely influential school of design. Not to mention the fact that Santa Fe’s lauded Meow Wolf is already working on a new interactive museum to debut in downtown Denver in 2021. This city is no wallflower on the international art scene.
2 /5 Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Courtesy Olson Kundig

Bucket-List Museums

Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art (known for its slate of engaging events and edgy exhibits), and the History Colorado Center are certainly not to be missed on a trip to the Mile High City. However, just as impressive is the city’s lineup of small yet mighty, niche, and single-artist museums. The Clyfford Still Museum is one such place. Although the artist barely spent any time in Denver, he vowed to donate his collection to a city that would build a museum specially for his works. Denver obliged with a cantilevered, two-story, concrete, light-filled building designed by Allied Works Architecture; it now houses 95 percent of the Abstract Expressionist’s work. The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art (pictured), down the road, is another gem where you can just as easily stumble across an Andy Warhol as you could a Salvador Dalí, along with a comprehensive collection of Colorado painter’s Vance Kirkland’s work—all in a Olson Kundig-designed space. For avid fans of the West, the American Museum of Western Art keeps a laser focus on showcasing only regional paintings from the 1800s through the present (including Georgia O’Keeffe, James Walker, Albert Bierstadt), spanning three floors.
3 /5 Courtesy Visions West Contemporary

A Growing Crop of Indie Galleries

More than 70 galleries stretch across the city, running the gamut from young and experimental to established and traditional. The Santa Fe Art District has the highest concentration of galleries, with 40 spaces that focus largely on contemporary and some Latino art. Heavy-hitters in this area include The Chicano Humanities and Art Council, Rule Gallery (it leans risky), and Boxcar (which tends to stock affordable, quality art from rising artists). The Capitol Hill area, where most of the bigger museums are located, has some gems like Leon Gallery, which has a knack for catching artists on the up-and-up. The RiNo neighborhood maintains some of the most colorful contemporary galleries like RedLine, Millers & Rossi, and Visions West Contemporary, the latter of which focuses on regional artists that celebrate the modern West. New art spaces and events are constantly popping up, too (check out the newer 808 Projects, known for its stellar, Colorado-centric shows). Get plugged into the right groups, and you’ll constantly hear about pop-up and roving art events, like those put on by Black Cube, a nomadic gallery that deals in contemporary art.
4 /5 Courtesy Visit Denver

Loads of Street Art

Many of the hundreds of murals that fill Denver have been curated like a museum collection by Mary Valdez, the Denver Public Art Program coordinator. In this role, she launched the Urban Arts Fund to help commission more than 300 murals throughout the city. RiNo (pictured) is the best-known street art hood—many locally and internationally recognized artists’ works can be found in this former warehouse district—but the Art District on Santa Fe, East Colfax, and South Broadway also has a large concentration. Die-hard graffiti fans should plan a trip around the 10-year-old CRUSH WALLS Street Art Festival in September or the Chalk Art Festival in June. Any other time of the year, a visit to the Station 16 urban art-centric gallery in RiNo’s Source Hotel is a must.
5 /5 Courtesy The Maven Hotel at Dairy Block

Art-Centric Hotels

An overnight stay in Denver can double as a full-fledged art experience as design-savvy hotels keep popping up on the scene, each one upping the ante on creativity. At the Kimpton Hotel Born, it wasn't enough for the more than 700 contemporary works filling the 200 rooms, hallways, and public spaces to be custom; everything inside was curated with the help of the Museum of Contemporary Art and commissioned by local artists. The Curtis Hotel keeps it mostly local, too, animating the guest rooms and common areas with irreverent works like Barbie murals, hipster parodies on classic Rembrandt and Michelangelo paintings, and rock-and-roll photography; they also bring in nationally recognized talent like George Scheer, who did a Lite-Brite installation for the lobby. The ART, a hotel, is not only close to all the institutions in the city’s Golden Triangle Creative District (where most of the museums are), but also it houses pieces chosen by the Denver Museum of Art’s curator—Leo Villareal, Ed Ruscha, and Kiki Smith all make appearances in this aptly named luxury crash pad. Other hotels that pay tribute to the arts include The Maven (pictured; it has a gallery in the lobby), The Ramble (located in the artsy RiNo district), and The Oxford Hotel (with its broad collection of Western art).