MCA Denver director Adam Lerner is stepping down in June 2019 after his contract expires. (Photo by From the Hip Photo, provided by MCA Denver )
Adam Lerner, the acclaimed director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, will step down in June after a decade-long tenure in which he built an international reputation as a risk-taking, influential and financially savvy leader in a fast-growing creative hub.
“My current contract expires in June and the museum is in a really healthy position,” Lerner said Monday. “I’ve managed to take it from $10 million in debt to very stable financially with a significant endowment. Our building is humming with energy, we’ve doubled our visitations and we have incredible momentum.”
The museum’s board has not selected a replacement, but Lerner said he would make himself available to help through the search process.
Lerner, 52, joined MCA Denver in 2009 as the Mark G. Falcone Director and Chief Animator — the latter title a hint of the playful yet professional tone he has cultivated there. He won the job after gaining attention as founder of the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar (aka The Lab) from 2004 to 2009 and, before that, as the master teacher for modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum and the curator of the Contemporary Museum, Baltimore, according to MCA Denver.
With a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and a Smithsonian fellowship under his belt, Lerner has spent the last decade mixing high- and lowbrow art, recruiting and showcasing groundbreaking local and international artists, and harnessing the youthful energy around him to increase the status and revenues at MCA Denver.
As of this month, MCA Denver is on track to see 100,000 visitors in 2018 — more than double its annual attendance a decade ago. With a relatively modest budget of $5.2 million and 23 full-time staff members, the museum under Lerner has developed exhibitions featuring renowned artists such as Marilyn Minter, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Senga Nengudi. Those exhibitions have been exported to 26 museums around the world, the MCA Denver said.
Lerner also worked with MCA Denver’s board to restructure $10 million in pre-existing debt to reinvest in exhibitions and other programs. By the time Lerner steps down in June, MCA Denver will have raised all the funds for its current $17.5 million campaign, which began in 2016, he said. Architectural firm David Adjaye and Associates, which designed the museum’s sleek building at 1485 Delgany St., is working on an upcoming remodel that will tap those funds.
“The reason I stayed in this job so long is that I have an incredibly supportive board of trustees,” Lerner said. “They push me but they also support me, and that’s really rare for a museum to give such freedom to develop a position while being rigorous and giving me feedback about it.”
Mike Fries, chairman of MCA Denver’s board, praised Lerner’s “unparalleled vision and willingness to take risks.”
“Adam has been instrumental not only in making MCA the heart of Denver’s cultural community,” Fries said in a news release, “but also in rethinking the role of a traditional art institution by launching groundbreaking programs that are now mimicked around the country.”
Lerner’s popular “Mixed Taste” lecture series — which pairs wildly and often hilariously incompatible subjects (“Crop Circles and Prenups”) — has been adapted nationally, and there’s an entire chapter in the college-taught 2016 book “Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum” that studies MCA’s experiments and successes.
The museum in 2017 also won a $400,000 grant — its largest-ever — from the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to train arts professionals from across the country on MCA Denver’s innovative practices.
“When I see museums using language that’s a little bit more casual, that sometimes even has a little bit of irony in it, I’d like to think that MCA Denver opened up the space for that,” Lerner said of the material the museum puts out — including a dozen well-received exhibition books. “You show your confidence more in what you produce by showing that you don’t actually have to take yourself so seriously. Even when you’re sincere.”
“MCA Denver has an identity and a character that places it in the upper tier of contemporary art spaces in the country,” said Vince Kadlubek, co-founder of the Santa Fe-based art collective and exhibition company Meow Wolf, which is planning a multimillion-dollar Denver location. “He has such a commitment to youth and fringe art, and that’s refreshing in the art world. He’s a trailblazer.”
Kadlubek said he was “incredibly inspired” by MCA Denver’s 2014 exhibition “Myopia,” the first-ever gallery show from Devo leader, visual artist and film composer Mark Mothersbaugh, with whom Lerner worked closely.
“That was the first time I’d gone to MCA, and it was incredible that they were showcasing work by an artist who was truly contemporary,” Kadlubek said. “It built a ton of excitement and momentum for us to see this weird, freak, fringe art on the verge of being mainstream.”
Lerner is too enmeshed in day-to-day operations to think much about what he’ll do next, he said. But he’s sure it will have a creative element, however broadly defined, and he’s confident his successor will inherit a museum that continues to balance the avant garde with the accessible.
“I will remain in Denver and I want to try my hand doing more for the city (and) more to enrich people’s lives,” Lerner said. “The challenge, now that the city and (MCA Denver) is so successful, is making sure we’re including people who might not be at the forefront of prosperity. But I feel like the next chapter in my career will be best served not from the office of a museum director.”