Byline: Hassell Bradley Wright

DENVER — An art museum in a discount center?
Food courts, movies, play areas, maybe. But when the news leaked out that a freestanding, 60,000-square-foot art museum costing $6 million will be included in a proposed $275 million discount retail-entertainment center here, the local art community was stunned. And so were lots of developers and retailers, who will be watching how the museum plays with Colorado bargain hunters.
Combining discount shopping and art appreciation is virtually unheard of in retailing, but Colorado Mills, another huge off-price center from the rapidly expanding Mills Corp., is taking it very seriously. The new Museum of the American West will feature the huge Harmsen Collection, which, one Denver gallery owner pointed out, few have seen in its entirety except Harmsen family members and curator Amy Van de Water.
It is likely that the collection, compiled over a period of 40 years by Colorado residents Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, has been viewed by more people during national art tours than by citizens of this city and state. The problem has been that the enormous collection, estimated at around 4,000 works of art, has never had a home of its own and therefore has remained unavailable to the general public until recently. The heart of the collection can be viewed at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce offices.
The paintings, sculptures and textiles have been widely viewed around the country on national tours. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington has some items from the Collection on loan and has sponsored national tours of Harmsen pieces. Plans are under way to send parts of the collection on tour in Belgium and perhaps Japan next year.
And eventually its permanent home will be Colorado Mills, a 20-anchor, 1.2 million-square-foot brand-name-discount mall featuring both retail and entertainment. It’s a joint venture of The Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va., and Taubman Inc. of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Construction is scheduled to begin this fall, with the completion in spring of 2002.
Located on family property of local developer Greg Stevinson, the site is in Lakewood, a western Denver suburb close to West 6th Ave. and I-70. The site is near Denver West Village, a 325,000-square-foot retail development also owned by the Stevinson family.
There’s some uncertainty about whether the collection will be a strong draw for bringing shoppers to the mall.
“The insiders here think there’s a lot of good and lots not so good in the Harmsen Collections. Someone needs to separate the wheat from the chaff,” said Elizabeth Schlosser, a long-time Denver gallery owner operating her business near the prestigious Cherry Creek Shopping center. She specializes in regional and Colorado art, circa 1860-1960.
But Jon Frizzell, a Denver art broker who evaluates, buys and sells American and Western paintings and prints, said, “I think it must be a fabulous collection. There has been controversy because it’s not heavy with Remington-Russell pieces. But I believe, from what I’ve heard, that the collection fills a spot that has not been touched by other collectors or museums.”
Harmsen Collection Curator Amy Van de Water says the Harmsen pieces give viewers a chance to see works that don’t fall into the stereotypical view of art of the American West. “It shows the mountains, the people and the environment, not just the cowboys. Instead it shows the West we live in.”
“The family has always worked to keep the focus broad,” explained Bill Harmsen Jr., executive director of the Harmsen Museum Foundation.
Of the thousands of pieces in the Harmsen Collection, there are more than 650 paintings, in addition to Navajo rugs, Native American baskets, jewelry and ceramics, as well as both bronze and silver sculpture.
Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, who are founders of the Jolly Rancher Candy Company, purchased and amassed the collection over nearly 40 years.
The collection includes pieces by almost every founding member of the Taos Society of Artists and many of its current members, as well as members of the Santa Fe-Taso Society. There are works by noted illustrators N.C. Wyeth and Harvey Dunn; paintings by John Mix Stanley, Thomas Moran, Robert Henri, George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Georgia O’Keefe and Glenna Goodcare, who, in addition to many other works, designed the Women’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. and the face of the new U.S. $1 gold coin.
Enhancing discount shopping with fine-art appreciation might be a stretch for some developers, but not to Mills Corp. and Taubman Inc. Taubman chairman A. Alfred Taubman himself is an art collector and the major shareholder in Sotheby’s.
Two years ago, Taubman and Mills signed an agreement to build 16 discount shopping-entertainment centers around the U.S. To date, the partnership operates 10 similar malls with six more under construction. Apparently, both developers view art appreciation as a form of entertainment. The retail team has coined a new word for its concept: “shopper-tainment.” And Harmsen says that in the museum world, the operative word right now is “edu-tainment.”
To broaden the entertainment aspects of Colorado Mills, there reportedly are plans to add an ice-skating arena, virtual golf and a shooting range. In addition, visitors can fish from a pond inside a store. Sources also say movie theaters and restaurants will be included.
Denver architect Alan Colussy will design the art museum, and he will work with Colorado Mills architects, and Communication Arts in Boulder, Colo. “Since this concept has not been tried before, the two architects need to work together,” Harmsen said.
Sharon Freeman, spokeswoman for Stevison, said, “One of Greg’s dreams for years has been to provide a home for the Harmsen Collection. He believes that the right kind of shopping mixed with a powerful dose of entertainment meets the needs of today, and nobody does this better than Mills.”
Taubman and Mills reportedly want to make their new shopping and entertainment malls more upscale.
One retail consultant here who requested anonymity, said, “They’re trying to be more than just an outlet mall. The Colorado Mills project will have some of the same characteristics as a regional mall, but a broader-based combination to compete against nearby malls.”
In Stevinson’s own nearby Denver West Village, he has tenants like Old Navy, Alfalfa’s and United Artist Theatre.
Colorado Mills expects outlet tenants from such brands as Ann Taylor, Nordstrom’s Rack, Brooks Brothers, Burlington Coat Factory, Eddie Bauer, Gap, Polo Ralph Lauren and others for a total of 200 stores, according to retail analysts.
Retail spaces will probably range from 20,000 to 120,000 square feet.
One source estimated the project will draw 15 to 20 million visitors a year, based upon Mills’ performance in other markets, and will generate more than $300 million in revenue in 2002 from restaurants, entertainment and retailing. Lakewood City Manager Mike Rock said he expects Colorado Mills will become the city’s main tax generator.
“The west side of Denver metropolitan area can easily support a Mills project,” Rock said. “Out here people are still retail-starved, despite Greg Stevinson’s Denver West Village.”