Adam Lerner is mixing tastes at MCA Denver

Fact: MCA Denver Director Adam Lerner grew up in Queens, New York, in a family of Jewish immigrants who square danced competitively.
As the youngest dancer at the AL’e’MO Squares square dance club, he dreamt of a life of sophistication, the type portrayed in Ralph Lauren advertisements. Models bedecked in tweed and houndstooth clutching leatherbound books epitomized a highbrow culture he felt eluded him.
He jokes that those images may have inspired him to become a scholar with 16 years of education, a master’s degree from Cambridge University, a Ph.D from John Hopkins and several published books.
 “On some level, my escape fantasy was culture,” Lerner says.  “It took me a long time to learn that, in fact, being cultured was not the thing that was going to express any sort of greatness that I had.”
It wasn’t until Lerner embraced his eccentric roots and broadened his concept of culture that his true genius was unleashed.

As the Founder and Executive Director of The Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar in Lakewood, which merged with the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in March 2009, Lerner conceived of Mixed Taste, a tag team lecture series on unrelated topics, that continues every summer at MCA Denver.

Letting go of conventions

Lerner credits the program’s popularity with its lack of affectation. Like all exhibitions and programming at MCA Denver, it aims to help audiences make new connections and associations in an accessible way. Experts in each field enable a high-level of dialogue that takes place in a casual environment, deflating any pretensions around the discussion of art and ideas.
“Ever since then, I’ve tried to do those things that feel more authentic and therefore are interesting,” Lerner says. “Letting go of conventions is what gives you something authentic and meaningful.”
The programs and exhibitions at MCA Denver are designed to push the boundaries of what a museum can be and create experiences that visitors would never have imagined themselves.

Programs like Art Meets Beast, a three-day event with food, music, performances and speakers, fuse the lines between traditional definitions of art and aspects of culture, such as dining.

Or Black Sheep Fridays, with the tagline, “Things Just Got Weird.” Past events have included Who Killed Arnold Palmer?, featuring alcoholic lemonade and ice tea drinks and screenings of Twin Peaks and Debating for Guffman, with comedians arguing Waiting for Guffman vs. Waiting for Godot. Next on tap is Cosby Con 2013, with Jell-O Pudding Pops and bold-patterned sweaters.

Art as continuity

“We think of art as a continuity between every part of your life, not just the part that comes to a museum and sees pictures on the walls,” says Director of Programming Sarah Kate Baie. “But, the part of you that is in the world every day experiencing what is around you. We are always looking to break experiences down and ask, ‘Why is this the way? Is there a story? How can we tell it?'”
Two of the museum’s missions are to help patrons view the world from a fresh perspective and broaden the definition of art. These objectives, Lerner says, take more than mere lip service.
“Most cultural institutions have the goal of helping people think more artistically,” he explains. “But many are neutral containers for art. What they are implicitly saying is the artists have taken the chances and risks, so you don’t have to.”
MCA shows visitors how to learn from art and be more artistic by putting some skin in the game and taking risks.
One such risk was when, in 2010, Lerner and the MCA decided to mount a large exhibition of unauthenticated paintings, despite lacking the required provenance. The remarkable tale told by Lerner in his most recent book, From Russia With Doubt: Quest to Authenticate 181 Would-Be Masterpieces of the Russian Avant-Garde, focuses on a question many creative institutions are afraid to ask: What is art?
“The spirit of art has always been about rule breaking and identifying social conventions, then going outside of them and playing with our norms,” Lerner says.
That essence is often lost once art is in a museum. The relationship between the work and viewer becomes more detached and even stifling, a tendency Lerner hopes MCA’s innovative approach to programming and curation will diminish.
He says people get more enjoyment from culture when they can relax around it, and that’s something he tries to facilitate at MCA Denver — to eliminate any pretension and support a sophisticated cultural exchange without the trappings of elitism.
But as much as Lerner hopes to make art and culture more approachable, he believes academic scholarship is the backbone that allows for the measure of quirkiness and verve that has become an integral part of the MCA brand.
“When you watch an artist create something, you feel the energy of creation,” Lerner says.” But art is also about mastery. This field exists because the training, the traditions and cumulative knowledge over the course of centuries produce material that is of a quality not easily replicated.”
MCA Denver embodies, and perhaps blurs the lines, between seeming opposites — energy and gravity, intellect and whimsy, art and everyday life.
Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.This story originally appeared in Confluence Denver here.