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Denver a big art city? Who knew? Maybe it's the higher altitude (it's the "mile-high city") and thinner air, but I was surprised to find myself liking the place, a lot. Even the airport (fifth busiest in North America and tenth in the world) is an art object, though you won't find that out when you're inside it, only when you're driving back to the tent-like white structures on your way home. And as for the drive into town, I suggest closing your eyes for the 30 minutes it takes as you zoom across the flat plains and rattle into town through its most ugly commercial plots. Those flat plains are where Denver is located, 12 miles east of the Rockies, in fact.

Surprises abound, several due to an artist named Jim Green. He has created sidewalks that sing (and moo and quack), laughing escalators and washroom faucets that warble "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" when turned on. And public art is everywhere downtown, on street corners, in building lobbies and the parks.

This is a town that could teach many other cities how to protect and project the arts, with an enlightened citizenry that has voted many times to approve taxes that create and support theaters, parks and auditoriums. The Scientific & Cultural Facilities District initiative doesn't cost the taxpayers much, either, being a sales tax of one-tenth of one percent (only a penny on $10), but that amounts to around $30,000,000 a year, to be divided by nearly 300 organizations. In addition, builders erecting new projects have to pay a one percent levy on total costs incurred, and that goes to the arts, as well.

They call their renewed interest a renaissance, but that's an overworked term which I have heard in other cities, so just say they've opened their new Opera House in late 2005, the new Art Museum structure in 2006, the Contemporary Art Museum in 2007 and the Clyfford Still Museum in 2009 (the latter, with luck). And, though perhaps it won't be artistic, the Democratic National Convention will be held here in 2008.

Events

The first ever Denver Arts Week took place in early October this year, and will likely be repeated in October 2008. More inside dope at www.denverartsweek.com.

Highlights

Look for the Golden Triangle Museum District, where many of Denver's finest institutions are located. Foremost is the Denver Art Museum, said to have the most comprehensive collection of international art between Kansas City and the West Coast. The most important collection is of American Indian art, including a splendid Northwest Coast section. Officials told me they were the first museum to collect Native American art as art, not artifacts, back in the 1920s. I liked that the Native American items were spaced out in a graceful symmetry, not jammed together with too much to look at, as so often happens in museums. Their pre-Columbian and Spanish collections are also among the best in the world, they say. There are also good collections of Asian art, especially a façade of a wooden palace from the Valley of Swat, 12 x 30 feet in dimension.

Most of the good stuff is in the older (1971, North) building, but modern and Western American items (Remington, Russell) are in the new and attractive (2006) structure by Daniel Libeskind. There's an important display of works by Clyfford Still here (only one work ever seen before outside his studio) and there will be an entire museum devoted to him next door, opening in 2009 if all goes well. Admission is $13; less for Colorado residents because they pay those art taxes, and for seniors and youth. Denver Art Museum, 13th Ave. at Broadway, tel. 720/865-5000, www.denverartmuseum.org.

The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, which opened in October 2007, has no permanent collection, but operates on the European kunsthalle tradition of commissioning new works by artists, showing them about two to six months, then replacing them with more new works. They are trying to become a Gold Certified LEED building, meaning absolutely ecologically correct, and the first contemporary art museum in the nation to be so. (LEED means "Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design," by the way.) As for "contemporary," its deputy director explained, they mean "within ten years" so the items on display will be very fresh. Their first guests, before the VIPs, were groups of school kids, a nice touch. MOCA/Denver, 1840 15th Street, tel. 303/298-7554, www.mcadenver.org.

At the Colorado History Museum, you can see the usual combination of past triumphs and turmoil, but what I liked best were the many carefully made dioramas from the WPA era in the 1930s that are scattered around the place. Their current featured exhibit is on the Italians of Denver, through July 6, 2008. Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway, tel. 303/866-3682, www.coloradohistory.org.

Taking the DOCA Public Art Tour should convince you that Denver has a good sense of humor. In addition to the laughing escalator (in the Convention Center), the Soundwalk (on Curtis Street) and the Singing Sinks (in the Denver Art Museum North Bldg. ground floor washrooms) by Jim Green, there's the gigantic blue polar bear (by Lawrence Argent) peering into the Convention Center. DOCA means Department Office of Cultural Affairs of the city and county of Denver (which are coterminous), in case you were wondering. Public Art Tour, 201 W. Colfax Ave. (1007), Denver, www.denvergov.org/publicart.

Visit the Denver Public Library to see their Western History Art Gallery and other exhibits on levels 5 and 7, or check out the Legacy Table, around which President Clinton convoked a 1997 Economic Summit for the world's seven (or eight, depending on whether Russian should be included or not) major economic powers. Denver Public Library, 10 West 14th Avenue Parkway, tel. 720/865-1111, www.denverlibrary.org.

If you must go see the Molly Brown Museum, go ahead. They have to protect the Victorian furniture, knickknacks and rugs, so you can only see it on a 45-minute guided tour (no photos, no drinks, no touching, etc.). Instead of just remembering her as a survivor of the Titanic, though, think of her as a three-times candidate for the Senate (before women could vote) and an early preservationist, helping keep intact the home of poet Edgar Guest. Big gift shop. Admission $6.50. Molly Brown House, 1340 Pennsylvania Street, tel. 303/832-4092, www.mollybrown.org.

Activities

Take in a performance. The Denver Performing Arts Complex says it is "the largest of its kind in the world," as it contains ten performance spaces connected by an 80-foot-high glass roof and sprawls across 12 acres. In the four-block area, you have the following: a big Opera House, completely new in an old shell of the original building, the third in the nation (and ninth in the world) to have full seatback titles, they say. Colorado Ballet performances take place here, too. The Concert Hall, perhaps the nation's only symphony in the round auditorium, perhaps soon to be renovated completely if the voters approve the project. Theatrical productions take place in several venues. There are individual tours daily (exc. Sundays) at 10 AM, $6 admission for the 90 minutes. Denver Center for Performing Arts, 1101 13th Street, tel. 303/893-4000, www.denvercenter.org.

Dining Out

For old Western ambience, try the Wynkoop Brewing Company, until recently owned by Vespa-riding Mayor John Hickenlooper, Denver's colorful chief executive. Named for the town's first sheriff, who then suggested the city be named for its territorial governor who picked him (nice back scratching there), the restaurant has a decent menu and at least six of its own brews on hand (I liked the RailYard Ale). I ate half my 3 Cheese Baked Pasta ($10.25), my dining companion saying the crab cakes ($11.25) were better. Many billiard tables upstairs, free brewery tours on Saturday afternoons. Wynkoop, 1634 18th Street, tel. 303/297-2700, www.wynkoop.com.

At The Corner Office in the humor-centered Curtis Hotel, you can dine very well, and if you have a food allergy, very safely, too. I had one of the best macaroni cheese dishes ever (well, it was studded with bits of lobster) at $11, and friends report the salads are favorites. In keeping with the hotel's kooky lobby (kids' games, etc.), the menu highlights are titled "Things my spouse won't let me eat" (Denver omelet) or "inappropriate behavior" (Sex on the beach waffles), though there is a "spouse approved" section (granola). As to food allergies, they have a Food Guide handy, listing all the ingredients and what allergies they might provoke, something I've seen before only at the gigantic Walt Disney World's restaurants. Opened June, 2007, with ideas of expanding its "global comfort food" theme elsewhere. I think it's a grand thought, that. Corner Office, 1401 Curtis Street, tel. 303/825-6500, www.thecornerofficedenver.com.

Lodging

If you want historic in Denver, you can't do better than the Brown Palace, which is also a luxury hotel that's part of the Preferred Hotels reservation system. Everybody has stayed here, from Buffalo Bill Cody to Oprah Winfrey, including most US presidents since 1905. With a splendid lobby, atrium style to a stained glass ceiling, there are 241 rooms, many of which have recently been completely refurbished (the rest is in progress, but you shouldn't notice). In business since 1892, and no, there's no relation to Molly Brown, the hotel founder Henry being a carpenter who thought big. Because of its long association with the National Western Stock Show, the hotel traditionally displays a grand champion steer in the lobby during Afternoon Tea each January (hope you like contrasts). A cowboy once rode his horse up the grand staircase to a meeting of the Rodeo Cowboys Association, as well. It's a charter member of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America, of course. This is the only place I have ever been asked if I want a black napkin at breakfast, "as some gentlemen don't want the lint from white napkins getting on their trousers," said the helpful server. Prices for a double start at $200. Brown Palace, 321 17th Street, tel. 888/321-2599 or 303/297-3111, www.brownpalace.com.

A great location is the prime feature of the Capitol Hill Mansion B&B, but if you like comfort and good breakfasts, they have that, too. Eight airy rooms (Denver is said to have 300 sunny days a year), each with phone and bath and two with balconies, three with whirlpool tubs, range from $114 to $194. Complimentary wine in evening, on porch with neighbors in summer. They are said to have "some of the best scones in the world," but I had a jalapeno cheese soufflé and pumpkin crème brulee French toast, both fine, but a scone might have been better for simple me. Capitol Hill Mansion, 1207 Pennsylvania Street, tel. 800/839-9329 or 303/839-5221, www.capitolhillmansion.com.

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