$25 million gift will help Denver Art Museum become a leader in textiles, design

In one sense, you could look at the $25 million handed to the Denver Art Museum this month as an extremely generous gift card. After all, DAM will use it to fund the sort of exclusive shopping trips most people could only dream of.

A few pieces from Yves Saint Laurent, perhaps? Or a dress from Dior? Maybe a Coco Chanel classic or something more outrageous by Alexander McQueen or Jean Paul Gaultier? So many Armanis and Balenciagas and Miyakes to sort through, not to mention the Rhiannas and the Sean Combs that need to be considered.

It’s fun to think about the things that DAM might buy, even if the purchases are sure to be serious  — and strategic — as the museum spends some cash fine-tuning the holdings in its textile and fashion collection.

But the money, from a donor who is choosing to remain anonymous, is surely transformational for the museum, enabling DAM to turn itself into a serious repository for dresses, suits, shoes, scarves, handbags and other accessories, as well as a national center for research into the world of fashion design.

More than half of the donation, about $15 million, goes into an endowment that will fund operations, exhibitions and a new Institute of Textile Art and Fashion that will support the scholarly study of how design has reflected and influenced the broader culture over time.

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The institute, which will support symposia, publications, lectures and more, will be headed up by DAM’s in-house fashion expert, Florence Müller.

The remaining $10 million goes into an endowment supporting acquisitions that could total as much as $500,000 a year, not a bad sum for purchasing vintage haute couture or the sketches, fabrics, machinery and other artifacts that produced it.

The new emphasis on fashion mirrors a trend going on worldwide in the art museum industry. Over the past decade, encyclopedic institutions that once considered fashion secondary to painting and sculpture have put design shows front-and-center, staging high-profile exhibitions by such diverse names as Thierry Mugler and Oscar de La Renta or by centering group shows around specific objects like shoes, or focusing on influential design movements.

The general public, which has become obsessed with red-carpet glamour and fashion-forward reality television programs, has responded by turning out in big numbers. In the art world, fashion is suddenly fashionable.

DAM had its personal epiphany in fashion back in 2012 when it took a chance on “Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective,” a wide-ranging, multimedia extravaganza that featured 200 gowns, suits and other objects created by the iconic French designer. The show, assembled by then-independent curator Müller, was expensive to produce and difficult to sell to a public trained to expect survey after survey of Impressionism.

Turns out, it was what customers were craving; you couldn’t get a ticket. DAM had to extend its opening hours to accommodate the crowds.

“I really did not know whether that would work,” museum director Christoph Heinrich said this week, recounting DAM’s recent moves toward fashion. “But it really did work beautifully. And then we were able to hire Florence.”

When Müller came on full-time in 2015, things moved quickly. The department she took over — formerly known as “Textiles” but quickly amended to “Textiles and Fashion” — staged a series of high-profile exhibitions that were both commercially and artistically sound. Among them: 2019’s “Dior: From Paris to the World” and 2017’s “Shockwave: Japanese Fashion Design 1980s-90s.”

This year’s “Paris to Hollywood: The Fashion and Influence of Véronique and Gregory Peck,” closed in July. But the show, powered by 100 outfits linked to names like André Courrèges and Givenchy, was DAM’s tightest offering of the year so far.

Along with the shows has come a half-decade of buying. DAM has invested in its once-fledgling fashion holdings, with Müller as its tastemaker.

“We really didn’t have anything significant there, maybe one or two objects,” Heinrich said. “Over the years, she made literally hundreds of acquisitions, all very strategic and often in connection with exhibitions.”

The goal in collecting, Heinrich said, is to pick up objects that were influential or ahead of their time or that encapsulate the “amazing piling up of ideas” that haute couture designers mix together.

“They’re able to push the envelope on what a dress is, or what fashion is, into areas that are much more artistic, and have much more to do with sculpture than the dress that you are going to wear tonight,” he said.

Beyond their visual appeal, the best fashion items are able to capture evolutions in social thought. Designers use clothing to explore femininity, but also feminism, power dynamics and historical shifts in a number of areas. That deliberate side of fashion will be taken seriously by the new institute, which will join DAM’s two other resident research operations: The Petrie Institute of Western American Art and The Frederick & Jan Mayer Center, which focuses on Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art.

“We have the objects and want to make sure that we really explore them and tell the stories of the objects,” says Heinrich.

And, he stresses, that applies to the more traditional textile objects in the collection as well. DAM is quick to tout the entirety of its holdings, which include “more than 5,000 objects from Asia, Europe, and North and South America, ranging from archaeological textiles to contemporary works of art in fiber.”

It doesn’t plan to put them second — even though it may be difficult for a quilt or coverlet or sarape to compete for attention with something as flashy as a pair of Manolo Blahnik heels.

The test on how that balance holds up comes when the museum’s main building, which has been closed for renovations for more than a year, opens again in October with the collection reinstalled.

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