Small Town, Big Art: Denver's Ascendance Proceeds According to Plan

Its population stands at just under 650,000. But these things are relative. When compared to New York City (8.4 million) and Los Angeles (3.8 million), it's pretty small. Heck, compared to China's Tianjin (11 million) it's infinitesimal.

And besides, why let numbers ruin a good headline, especially when "Small Town, Big Fish" was already taken?

So let's throw semantics aside and focus on the matter at hand—Colorado developer John Madden's donation of 120 pieces, valued at roughly $10 million, to the University of Denver. The gift is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it represents a doubling of the value of the university's existing art holdings, which now includes an impressive roster of American masters including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Hart Benton. 

Secondly—and most importantly, we argue—the gift underscores Denver's slow and steady emergence as a preeminent American arts city. It's intriguing to watch progress unfold in real time. And it's another example of how focused arts philanthropy can really change a city's cultural profile, a fact demonstrated again and again, starting with the 19th century Gilded Age millionaires who created the Met and other cultural institutions in New York to the more recent example of Eli Broad putting Los Angeles on the cultural map. 

The dye was cast last August when the Denver-based Bonfils-Stanton Foundation narrowed its mission to focus almost exclusively on the arts, a seemingly counter-intuitive decision. After all, we're living in an increasingly metrics-driven philanthropic landscape where "effective altruism"—that is, the "amount of lives saved per dollar"—often dictates funding decisions. The arts, the logic follows, provide less bang for the philanthropic buck. Why double down on a sector whose value is uniquely difficult to articulate? 

Bonfils-Stanton's decision boiled down to market forces. As we noted at the time

Denver's art scene—and the city itself—is thriving. In this case, it's easier to hop on the train after it's left the station than to try and cultivate a vibrant arts scene from scratch. Denver has the wind at its back when it comes to arts, like a quite a few smaller cities these days that are attracting artists priced out of places like New York and the Bay Area.

Therefore, we need to view Madden's gift within the context of Denver-based donors increasingly using the arts to contribute to the city's cultural enrichment. "This is really about having a greater impact on Denver," said university Chancellor Rebecca Chopp. "Art really can build up communities."

To that end, the gift will help the museum provide students with enhanced access to world-class work and boost audience engagement since the sheer quantity of the gift will allow curators to develop more extensive exhibits. In addition, "We want more school kids to come here," Chopp said.

As for Madden, his relationship with the Colorado arts community dates back 40 years. A pivotal moment occured in 1985, when he gathered a cadre of Colorado business leaders to form the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts (CBCA) with the goal of creating business and arts partnerships. Madden also founded the Museum of Outdoor Art in 1981, established the amphitheater Fiddler's Green in 1988, and opened the Madden Museum of Art in 2008.

Not too shabby.

And so the CBCA established the John Madden, Jr. Leadership Award in 2010 to recognize a business sector individual who has made significant contributions to advancing arts and culture in Colorado. (Needless to say, Madden was the inaugural recipient.)

Add it all up and the adage rings true: Rome—or in the case, Denver's impressive arts scene—wasn't built in a day.

Meanwhile, in related "small town" museum news, check out our take on the Indianapolis (population 852,000) Museum of Art's innovative programming model which netted them a $1 million grant from the Efroymson Family Fund.