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Mile-High Art

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Lewis Sharp B.A. ‘65 leads the Denver Art Museum to national prominence.

by Judy McNally

Walking down a picturesque side street in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997, Lewis Sharp suddenly caught sight of the curved, shimmering towers of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. Seeing the revolutionary building by architect Frank Gehry, he says, “was as powerful as the first time I walked into a great gothic cathedral.”

That experience fired Sharp’s own ambition to make a bold move back home. “I knew we needed to build a building this dynamic and engaging–one that could do for Denver and the Rocky Mountain region what the Guggenheim is doing for Bilbao and the entire country of Spain.”

Some nine years later, Sharp and his wife, Susan Peoples Sharp (both class of 1965; see story on page 13), stood at the entrance of another dramatic museum building with architect Daniel Libeskind and his wife, Nina. Together they greeted visitors who streamed into the Denver Art Museum’s new building, the first design by Libeskind to be built in the United States. On the October 2006 opening weekend, the museum stayed open for 35 hours straight, allowing 35,000 visitors to celebrate this signal event in Denver’s cultural life.

The Frederic C. Hamilton Building has captured the attention of art lovers and architectural critics around the world. Its exterior is a series of tumbled forms echoing the Rockies. One soaring triangular element points to the museum’s 1971 North Building, a fortress-like vertical tower designed by Gio Ponti. The area surrounding the museum is being redeveloped as a cultural district with a new plaza, shops, and a condominium-hotel complex also designed by Libeskind. 

According to Sharp, it’s impossible to understand the Hamilton Building from photographs, or even a model: “You have to move through it. Around every corner there’s a different spatial experience.” 

Furthermore, he sees the building as having “unlimited possibilities. The museum’s collection has never looked better. The building continues to be very exciting as we explore different ways to use it.” 

Sharp believes that the world is experiencing a renaissance in the history of architecture, and he feels privileged to have worked with Libeskind, whom he considers one of the most important architects practicing today.

How did Sharp and his board of trustees pull off this coup? “It was easy,” he says. “From the beginning we set the goal of engaging an architect who would design a signature building. Because we were working with a publicly financed bond fund, we needed to bring the community along on the voyage, so we had architects make presentations at public forums, which were well attended and were televised locally. The community saw the concept of the building evolve, and shares in the sense of accomplishment.”

But Sharp is characteristically modest about his own role in this accomplishment. According to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Sharp’s influence extends far beyond the art museum or even the wider cultural life of Denver: he has created a model of how to achieve community-wide support for an institution. In fact, Hickenlooper says, “His board of trustees is easily the most powerful group of trustees in the city.”

Hickenlooper, himself a member of that board, credits Sharp with “a knack for getting the right people together, people who are very divergent socially and politically, and getting them to work together. He kept us focused on creating the vision and then on implementing and building the vision.

“I think his hiring [in 1989] was one of the most important events in the recent history of the city. You can’t overestimate the impact the new building has had–not just on the city but on the state and the whole Rocky Mountain region. It has been a sensation.”

Sharp’s love of art dates to his childhood growing up in suburban New York, but he didn’t realize until he was in graduate school that he could pursue a career in the field. His mother, who loved museums, would take him and his siblings to visit their physician father, whose office was across the street from the Metropolitan Museum. “We visited museums on a regular basis,” he recalls. “We talked about art at the dinner table; it was always just part of our life.”

In 1961 Sharp made the continental leap to attend Lewis & Clark. There he savored the wide range of courses available and enjoyed majoring in history. He and his wife still value the deep friendships they made on campus.

An important signpost along his career path appeared on an overseas study trip that he and Susan took during their junior year. In Austria, the trip leader, George Ennis, professor of education and psychology, caught Sharp’s attention: “He was ‘reading’ objects of sculpture, much the same way a historian would read documents, making historical connections,” Sharp says. “It fascinated me, the idea that you could have the same intellectual experience through the history of art that you could through political history or any other study of history.”

As a senior in Professor Bernard Hinshaw’s art history course, Sharp says, “I knew from the first lecture, ‘Mmmm, this is fun!’” Finally, the following year, things clicked into place when a graduate school history professor suggested he specialize in art history. “Aha,” he thought, “that’s exactly what I want to do!”

The same advisor steered him toward the University of Delaware’s selective Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, where Sharp earned his master’s and doctoral degrees.

Then it was back to New York for Lewis and Susan Sharp. His academic credentials helped land him a curator post at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the American paintings and sculpture department, but he had some surprises in store for the rest of the Met staff, according to John Walsh, now director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Walsh, who was then a curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan, remembers Sharp as “not the typical Met curator, he seemed so much a man of the West Coast, tall, blond, shaggy, looking more like a young lumberjack than someone from Manhattan.

“Soon I became aware that Lewis was working on a subject that made my eyes pop–the sculptures in Central Park,” Walsh says. “He was taking seriously things that most of us art historians considered beneath serious interest. His first exhibition, in the early 1970s, showed us what to look at in public sculpture and why to take it seriously. Hundreds of thousands of people were guided from the museum into the park through his writing about these works.” 

While giving credit to Sharp’s reputation as a “tremendously accomplished museum director,” Walsh also honors his colleague and friend as a “pioneer in New York in resuscitating the reputation of sculpture.” He values Sharp’s “deep interest in the public aspect of art, and in the public itself. Lewis looks at objects of all kinds with a really discerning eye, but he’s concerned about the way art carries messages and to whom it carries them.”

These interests informed Sharp’s work through 18 years at the Met and another 18 at the Denver Art Museum. Today, his quiet enthusiasm for his field remains strong. For an exciting, fulfilling career, Sharp says, he absolutely recommends studying art history and becoming a museum professional. “Every day you’re surrounded by great objects and by the most interesting people in the community,” he says. “When you travel there’s always something positive to see or visit. It’s a very rich life.”

Visitors to the Denver Art Museum in the next few years might still run across the man who brought the museum to this level. But in five years or so, Sharp will be ready for a change. He expects to have managed the adjustments to the new building and handed over the reins to a new director. 

And his next grand ambition? Look for him, he says, pursuing the fine art of being a grandfather.

Judy McNally edits and writes at McNally Editorial in Portland.

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