Looking back on Adam Lerner’s Tenure with the MCA

There’s one thing that just stuck in my mind for some reason,” Adam Lerner adds near the end of our chat. He’s either timid about sharing this last part or simply measuring every word.

“Around 2015, I started to do a series of interviews with my dog, Kristofferson, called Talking with Kristofferson About Clothing.”

As Director and Chief Animator of the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art for the last decade, Lerner’s been the driving force behind some of the most innovative, unusual and challenging exhibitions across the globe.

He is an uncommonly relatable for a person so deeply entrenched in his own world. He claims to be bad at finding things saved to his computer and he has a Marvin Gaye record sitting on a table in his office.

Throughout his career, he has consistently validated both the absurdness and importance of art while hoping to bring works to life for others. 

“When you’re really risking nonsense, that’s when you know that you’re putting yourself on the line to do something really different.”

Lerner will leave the MCA at the end of 2019 without knowing what he will do next. But playing it safe has never really been his style—why start now? 

Mark Mothersbaugh Exhibition and Myopia

The crowning achievement of Lerner’s career, thus far, required some risk-taking: Artist and musician Mark Mothersbaugh was not viewed as a serious contemporary artist. Right or wrong, to proclaim him to be such would surely stick to Lerner’s name. 

But Lerner proclaimed him to be a serious contemporary artist, both in a book and an exhibition, which featured thousands of works from Mothersbaugh that had previously been stored away in boxes in warehouses.

In 2015, Mothersbaugh wrote a song dedicated Lerner, appropriately titled “The Intellectual Risks His Credibility to Save His Soul.” Today, the Mothersbaugh exhibition has been featured in six museums nationally.

From Russia With Doubt 

Part of Lerner’s legacy is defined by challenging the very nature of credibility and legacies.

In 2010, Lerner exhibited 181 paintings seemingly in the Russian Suprematism and Constructivism style from the 20th century without knowing the authenticity or origin of the work. He even wrote a book about the collection and why it was worth an exhibition.

“The very integrity of a museum is based upon judging what is authentic and what is not, and I’m saying there’s something more interesting that happens when you show works that you don’t know are authentic. Because then you question the very idea of what is it that I like when I like art?’ It’s fundamentally asking, ‘what is authenticity?’”

Barnaby Furnas

Bringing art to life can occasionally mean giving audiences a peek behind the curtain. With Barnaby Furnas’ work, Lerner took that to literal lengths. 

There’s a different kind of energy that an artist gives to a work of art when they’re making it and then a different thing happens to it when it gets to a gallery. That’s a contrast that I was very aware of, and I wanted both.

“I wanted the energy of art that is from its presence—maybe that’s the excellence—but I also wanted the feeling in the museum of the palpable feeling of risk-taking—that’s the awesomeness.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition

Once again, Lerner had to “put some skin in the game,” as he is fond of saying.

There were real potential legal repercussions for exhibiting work from the brief career of Basquiat; naturally, Lerner showed the work anyway. 

“When the Basquiat Estate denied us image rights for this publication, we knew that we could have a potential lawsuit on our hands. I said that to the board, ‘This is important material. This is an artist that’s in all the textbooks of 20th century art, and he only has eight years of work that has been exhibited.'”

“’We’re giving the world an extra year about this important artist and we’re going to potentially be sued because we don’t have the rights; are you guys up for doing it anyway?’ They said, ‘Yeah, we should do it anyway.’”

This is the legacy Lerner will leave behind: Uncompromisingly creative, genuine, progressive, a risk-taker and keenly interested in teasing out the humanity embedded in all great works of art.