Off-Center’s Charlie Miller says Director has been an artistic model and thought leader for the entire Colorado arts community
Adam Lerner has decided not to renew his contract as Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, meaning he will leave his position in June 2019 after 10 innovative years that brought youthful energy, financial stability and doubled attendance to the popular museum.
Lerner assumed a job that came with a $10 million debt and leaves a museum that is not only stable but has a $17 million endowment. His groundbreaking programming included Mixed Taste, an exercise in delightful artistic anachronism that for the past two summers the MCA has presented in partnership with the DCPA’s Off-Center in the Seawell Ballroom.
“When I took the helm just after we opened our new building in 2007, I set my sights on creating a museum that would vibe with the emerging vitality of the city,” Lerner said in his announcement. “I wanted MCA Denver to grow with the city, but, even more, I wanted the museum to influence what Denver was becoming. … I’m proud that I’ve been able to foster the growth of an institution that now pulses with energy and imagination.”
Charlie Miller, curator of Off-Center, said Lerner has been a visionary whose influence in the Colorado cultural community far exceeds the MCA Denver itself.
“Adam has always imagined a museum that is bigger than its four walls,” said Miller. “He has curated art and programmed activities that constantly challenge the traditional definition of what a museum should be.” He cited inventive programming series such as Teen Failure Lab, Black Sheep Fridays and a local live music rooftop series.
The board has begun a search for a replacement. “I am confident they will find someone great, as the museum is positioned to attract the best talent in the field,” Lerner said. “I personally am looking forward to watching the museum’s vision evolve under new leadership as it enters the next chapter of its development.”
Lerner, 52, joined MCA Denver in 2009 after founding the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar in 2004. He has a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. According to The Denver Post, the MCA will have attracted 100,000 visitors by the end of 2018 — more than double what it was when Lerner arrived in 2009. The Post’s John Wenzel reported the MCA has an annual budget of $5.2 million and 23 full-time staff members. Exhibitions developed by Lerner have included renowned artists such as Marilyn Minter, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Senga Nengudi.
“Adam has been instrumental not only in making MCA the heart of Denver’s cultural community,” Mike Fries, chairman of MCA Denver’s board, said in a press release, “but also in rethinking the role of a traditional art institution by launching groundbreaking programs that are now mimicked around the country.”
Lerner originated Mixed Taste in 2004 in an empty storefront in the Belmar shopping center in Lakewood. Mixed Taste pairs two speakers addressing completely unrelated subjects, followed by questions from the audience. (For example: Walt Whitman and Whole Hog Cooking.) The quirky program has since been imitated from Boston to Mexico City. It has been discussed in various museum studies books and is regarded by many as the forefront of innovative cultural education programming.
“I have had an artistic crush on Adam Lerner since I first visited the Lab at Belmar and I have looked to him as a thought leader and creative partner ever since,” said Miller, who added that Off-Center is looking forward to continuing Mixed Taste after Lerner’s departure in 2019 “because it has enlivened our summers by bringing in exciting new people and ideas. The mashup of topics inspires us and always keeps us on our toes.”
One of last summer’s featured tag-team lecturers was Neyla Pekarek, then the cellist for the Denver band The Lumineers. She told stories and sang songs about a famous Colorado resident who famously warded off a rattlesnake migration, and her developing live theatrical musical Rattlesnake Kate has since been added as a special concert offering at the DCPA Theatre Company’s upcoming Colorado New Play Summit.
“Mixed Tape is an inherently theatrical format that is always engaging, surprising and fun – everything we strive for in an Off-Center experience,” Miller said. In first announcing the partnership with the Denver Center’s adventurous Off-Center wing 2017, Lerner said he had found a perfect match. “Off-Center produces the kind of smart and quirky programming in the theater world that we strive to create in the art world,” he told the NewsCenter.
“I have personally been inspired by Adam’s leadership at MCA Denver. His incredible vision has helped shape the work we do at Off-Center, too,” said Miller, who added that attendance has grown to about 400 per event since Mixed Taste moved into the Seawell Ballroom in 2017.
Here are more excerpts from Lerner’s farewell message:
“My vision for the museum was always bigger than attracting crowds. Together with my staff, I strove to do things in Denver at the forefront of culture anywhere. I’ve worked to make sure that Denver’s prosperity includes the city’s many talented artists and creatives who enrich our community. We’ve always sought to do everything we do in our own way, re-imagining the role of a contemporary art museum and cultivating a personality for it that is equal parts elevated, playful, and soulful.
“I feel this is the appropriate time for me to pursue new creative ventures from beyond the platform of a museum. My success so far has always come from departing from established paths, and I’d like to continue off-roading. I will remain in Denver and continue to work with creatives and artists, broadly defined, to further enrich our city and impact people’s lives.
“MCA Denver will, of course, continue to thrive with its highly talented staff and dedicated board.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.