An Interview with Marina Graves: on the MCA Denver and the Invisible Museum

In December of 1996, Michael Paglia, fine art critic for Westword, in the column Museum Qualities reported that Marina Graves was part of one of two groups working “on establishing a museum of contemporary art as an alternative to the Denver Art Museum. For a long time the two groups were unknown to each other.”

“The first group–for convenience, let’s call them the artists–held a successful wine-tasting in August to launch their effort, which they dubbed CoMoCA, the Colorado Museum of Contemporary Art. This group includes several well-known area artists such as Dale Chisman, Mark Sink and Lawrence Argent, along with arts advocate Marina Graves. Scott Chamberlin, who played an important role in the group’s founding, dropped out even before the fundraiser.”

“The other group–we’ll call them the collectors–was forced by the artists’ wine-tasting to reveal themselves or risk playing perpetual second fiddle. And these wealthy enthusiasts aren’t going to stand for that, even if they haven’t chosen a name for their not-yet-planned institution. The group includes heiress Sue Cannon; the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District’s Tier III chairman, John Woodward; and Artyard gallery director Peggy Mangold. Also involved are a number of Cannon’s well-to-do friends.”

“The artist group and the collectors’ group have joined forces in the last few months. Word on the street is that big money has been lined up (we’re talking millions here), that an existing building has been tagged for the site of the museum, and that there will soon be a museum board.”

So we know how this has played out. The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is permanently located at 15th and Delgany and making waves in the museum and contemporary art world.

In 1997 around the same time these groups were fomenting ideas about what eventually became the MCA Denver, Marina Graves was also working on the organizational conceptions of the Invisible Museum and the publication Eye-Level. Originally thought of as two separate entities back in 1997 the Invisible Museum “is a conceptual center for the exchange of ideas in the contemporary creative cultural community whose mission is to facilitate projects in the visual arts that would not otherwise be imagined proposed or completed. The invisibility refers to its ability to make what was formerly invisible, or at least unseen, visible. In addition, the invisible museum encourages exhibitions, symposiums and critical discussions in a variety of spaces and places.”

I met with Marina Graves in June of 2012 to speak about her role organizing and founding the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the Invisible Museum and Eye-Level. The Invisible Museum and Eye-Level were launched because she and other like minds thought Denver needed MORE (and more focused writing on contemporary art).  Los Angeles had Art Issues and Chicago the New Art Examiner. Both of which were too far for Denver to be covered under their publications.

Anderson: Was it because the critics here weren’t submitting?

Graves: No, that’s no excuse. Kenworth Moffett, from New York and the earliest director of the MCA Denver said that Denver was lucky to have three fine art critics writing weekly. And you have to back up a bit. In 1952 the number 1 art center here was Colorado Springs and we’ve had lots of growth since. In 1967 Denver got Mr. Ponti who built the North Building. At the time in New York, Denver was described as “Hartford with mountains”.

So we founded the Invisible Museum as a non-profit with the intention of publishing magazines but without advertisers. It turned out that non-profits have financial angels that make it possible. I’m not against advertisers but not as a sole income. For profits can be sold out from under you.

Anderson: Who were the instrumental founders of the Invisible Museum and Eye Level?

Graves: Me, Myron Melnick, Suzanne Todd, and a few more whose names I’ve forgotten…

Anderson: How were you associated with this group of people?

Graves: During the run for governor I was well known in art circles as one of the founders of the MCA Denver, the third non-profit. I’d written the articles of incorporation for three non-profits at that time. Mark Sink, Linde Schlumbohm, Lawrence Argent, Scott Chamberlain and I had started the CoMoCA, the Colorado Museum of Contemporary Art.

Neither Mark Sink nor I knew Sue Cannon. Clark Richert was on the board of CoMoCA too. Where it became dysfunctional was when Lawrence Argent recommended a public event. That is what artists tend to do.

The first fundraiser for CoMoCA was at the corner of Wazee and 16th at what was the home of the CVA. I was seated doing busy work when Sue Cannon introduced herself. Sue wanted to found a museum and to be the head as THE major donor. When the group found out Sue Cannon wanted to hire me CoMoCA fired me. I ended up writing the articles of incorporation for the Galleries of Contemporary Art that became the MCA. Sue ran the Galleries of Contemporary Art.

Anderson: What was the transition to the MCA Denver?

Graves: Eventually 6-8 years later there was a name change and according to bylaws Cannon could no longer be president. Officially Cydney Payton took over. (According to Michael Paglia “In 2000, she quit BMoCA and took over MoCA/D on January 1, 2001. At the time, the funky and disorganized exhibition venue was on the verge of closing down. Yet just over a half a dozen years later, the museum is in its own built-from-the-ground-up facility.”)

I was the first employee of the Gallery of Contemporary Art as the executive secretary. The Invisible Museum started exactly one year after incorporation of the Galleries of Contemporary Art, 1996 and 1997.

Anderson: In essence Denver is a relatively young art community?

Graves: Denver had originally put money into the Natural Sciences Museum. Mid 1970′s people started moving here. Compared to New York and LA artists could live well here. Art education has quadrupled in 30 years.

Anderson: What was the first project for the Invisible Museum?

Graves: Let me tell you about the early days. We found our home at Raven’s Nest at 13th and Osage. Suzanne Todd owned it and that’s where we had our meetings. We spent about three months trying to figure out the name for the art magazine. Eye-Level seems so easy but it came from about a hundred down to one.

We curated a 1999 print exhibit with famous names such as Shark’s Ink, Red Grooms, and John Buck (husband of Deborah Butterfield) and the ceramicist from UC Boulder, Betty Woodman (Mark Sink knew Francesca Woodman). The print exhibition traveled around at Raven’s Nest, Lamar Community College, Fort Lewis Community College, Adams State College Gallery- and we made money!

We charged places for the traveling exhibition. The money went toward efforts to start the publication Eye Level that first came out in the beginning of 2000. Five issues received national distribution. We could have received angel money but the board became dysfunctional.

Anderson: Which artists that you worked with held sway in these projects?

Graves: Those that was passionate about ideals. Board members need to think about money not art in order to keep the venture viable. One artist on the board of CoMoCA, a pretty well known artist, during this long discussion about the mission statement says, “You know Marina all we need is to get this mission statement right and we’ll get some businessman to build us a museum.”

An equally naive person who could have been an angel for Eye-Level, I met this artist fellow. He wanted to give us $10,000. There was a god after all. Because I was a naive fundraiser I didn’t ask for more and then he went down to $5,000. He was a great Zion. I found out later I should have researched him. We didn’t make it a priority of hiring a business manager.  We had a well-known gallery for an advertiser and then the gallery didn’t want to pay. That’s a difficulty for an artist. For a business manager it wouldn’t have been.

Another thing that was discouraging was Art Issues and Art Examiner both folded. Print publication has gone under massive changes due to the rise of the internet. Currently we’re trying to become a viable internet art publication with real time exhibitions. This year it’s 528.0, a regional juried exhibition at Redline Denver.

I did this interview with Randy Rosenthal as curator or through the curator’s intentions. He said, “Denver is emerging as an important American city in arts.” Perception of Denver in the late 50′s was summed up – I had this friend who grew up here and spent a summer in France in her late 20′s. She took a boat back and forth and docked in harbor at 7:30 a.m. Trains leave New York at 5 or 6 and had a few hours in New York to kill before catching the train back to Denver. She went to a Lexington Avenue coffee shop. Being young and pretty some guys struck up conversation and asked her “Where are you from?” When she answered Denver they said, “My you speak good English.”

Anderson: What would be a comparable city to Denver?

Graves: Places like Minneapolis- they’re already emerged. Houston has a great museum. Denver has a great deal of working artists. San Francisco has a superiority complex. Denver has an inferiority complex. Both are wrong. A DC artist in residence at Platteforum said that Denver has much more going on than San Francisco. In 1996-98 Wazee Street galleries had big First Friday’s. Gallerists rebelled. They didn’t see the long-term view.

Anderson: What do you see as the importance of art criticism for the arts community?

Graves: If it’s good, criticism can alter perception of the scope of art.

*****Special thanks to Mark Sink for sharing his photography of Marina Graves.

Marina Graves at 528.0 print exhibition, Redline Denver
Marina Graves at 528.0 print exhibition, Redline Denver



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