The Sculptures of Burns Park
By Denise Sanderson

D.C. Burns Park in the southwestern corner of Hilltop is 13 acres of open space surrounded by Colorado Boulevard, Alameda Avenue and Leetsdale Drive.Land for the park was donated to the city in 1939 by the D.C. Burns Realty and Trust company and the Burns family as a tribute to the company’s founder, Daniel C. Burns. Burns was a prominent real estate developer, lawyer, University of Denver graduate, arts enthusiast and philanthropist. The realty company had recently sold adjacent land to Harry Huffman for the development of Shangri-La, the large white home facing the park, and other homes on Shangri-La Drive. Huffman and Burns agreed that creating a park on this land would not only preserve the mountain views of these properties, but would add open space to the growing city.

The city did little to develop this land into a park until the early 1960s. Burns Park remains one of Denver’s less visited parks, but provides a welcome respite for the thousands of motorists who pass it each day. The most prominent and well known feature of the park is the collection of sculptures it holds. While older areas of the city had statuary and fountains, the post war developing neighborhoods did not receive similar pieces of art.

For Burns Park, this began to change late on Thanksgiving Day 1967, when local artists Roger Kotoske and Wilbert Verhelst rang the doorbell at Beverly and Bernie Rosen’s Denver home. Beverly Rosen had completed a BFA and an MFA at the University of Denver, studying under renowned Denver artist Vance Kirkland, then chairman of the DU art department. Rosen became an instructor at DU, and continued her growth as a contemporary artist while leading Denver’s emerging advocacy of contemporary art. She is widely credited with helping found Friends of Contemporary Art and with encouraging the Denver Art Museum to include contemporary art in its collection. As this group of friends talked the night away, the conversation turned to Denver’s lack of space to show sculpture. They hit upon the idea of a park dedicated to showing sculpture, which was an unknown concept at the time, and selected Burns Park as an ideal location. The Rosens, Kotoske and Verhelst founded a nonprofit, “Art for the Cities”, to bring their novel idea to life. The original symposium suggested that all the sculptures be created in the “architectronic” style, defined as “having an organized and unified structure that suggests an architectural design.”

Rosen solicited Central City artist Angelo di Benedetto, who reached out to artist friends across the country to participate in the Denver Sculpture Symposium in the summer of 1968. The Symposium showcased nine artists both local and national, but all with a national reputation:Angelo di Benedetto, Dean Fleming, Peter Forakis, Roger Kotoske, Anthony Magar, Robert Mangold, Robert Morris, Richard Van Buren, and Wilbert Verhelst. The artists came together in the park, and along with assistance from volunteers, created nine original sculptures from plywood and other donated materials. These sculptures were meant to be temporary, but the public’s positive embrace of the art led to some of the sculptures remaining in the park. Today, four of the original nine are represented in the park, two in their original format and two which have been recreated.

Mangold Sculpture

The other five sculptures met a variety of fates: some were removed immediately after the Symposium as was intended by the founders (those by Forakis, Morris and Van Buren). In 1975, a layer of fiberglass was applied to the sculptures as a preservation tactic. At least one was destroyed by vandals and others removed due to their degradation from exposure to the elements (Fleming’s piece, “Magic Cube”, a skeletal cube, was demolished in the 1995). Mangold’s 36 foot tall blue-painted spire was in terrible condition by the mid 1970s, and Mangold requested that the city repair and repaint it. Unfortunately, the city chose to tear it down rather than do the needed repairs. There is a group of people currently working to recreate Mangold’s piece and have it installed in Burns Park.

Concrete replica of Angelo di Benedetto’s sculpture

In 2004, di Benedetto’s work was recreated in concrete since the original plywood structure had deteriorated beyond repair. Standing today, this large geometrical piece has one half of a circle standing upright, connected by two horizontal lines to a half circle resting on the ground. The two halves of this sculpture are mirror images of each other. A 2009 restoration effort funded by the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs repaired and repainted the remaining sculptures.

Kotoske sculpture

 

The sculpture by Roger Allen Kotoske was irreparably damaged in the windstorm that hit Hilltop on June 6, 2020 and has been removed from the park. Denver Arts and Venues plans to have the sculpture recreated and reinstalled in the park. This will be the second time it has been rebuilt.It was an abstract piece composed of three red diamond shapes, set upright on their pointed tips, arranged in a triangle and touched on the inside points. A large-scale sculpture, visitors were able to experience the art by walking under the sculpture. Kotoske, like Beverly Rosen, was both an alumna and instructor of the DU art department during Kirkland’s chairmanship and is known as a pivotal force in the avant-garde Denver art scene in the l950s and l960s.

 

 

Magar sculpture – later dedicated to MLK, Jr.

The British born New Mexican artist, Anthony “Tony” Magar has two pieces in Burns Park today and another nearby in the median of University Boulevard between First and Second Avenues. Located along Leetsdale Drive, is an original from the 1968 symposium. While it is untitled, during the symposium Magar dedicated it to Martin Luther King who had been assassinated earlier that year. This piece has been described as “a simple bar that has been bent into a curve” and was originally painted a bright red and a shiny black. Today, it is all black and marred with graffiti. Magar’s participation in the 1968 symposium led to at least two private commissions, both now part of Denver’s public art collection.

 

Magar sculpture donated by Joshel Estate

Suzanne Joshel asked Magar to create a work specifically for her International style home at 220 South Dahlia Street, where it remained until 2010.

This painted steel sculpture was donated to the city by Joshel’s estate.It was relocated to Burns Park, reassembled and painted in its original deep yellow and grey colors. The scale, color and style of this sculpture are consistent with the work displayed in the 1968 symposium. The other Magar commission, for long time art patron Carol Steinberg Swartz, was displayed outside her Hilltop home on South Birch Street and was later donated to Denver.

 

Verhelst sculpture

Another of the original symposium pieces, the one by Wilbert Verhelst, stands at the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and Alamada Avenue. While it is painted in the original red and black, one panel of the original featured a striated pattern, and this has not been retained. After the symposium,Joshel also commissioned Verhelst to create a fountain sculpture for her Hilltop residence.

Jazz by Barbara Baer

 

In 1999, the Friends of Burns Park added another sculpture to the park: “Jazz” by Denver artist Barbara Baer. Made of steel, this red and gold sweeping structure is 30 feet long and 11 feet tall.

Some critics do not believe the Baer piece shares the minimalist ethos of the “architectronic” movement of the other Burns Park sculptures and should not have been placed there.

This early concept of outdoor sculpture paved the way for Denver’s establishment of the Public Art Program in the administration of Mayor Federico Peña  in 1991. The intent of this program mirrors that of the 1968 symposium:“to expand the opportunities for Denver residents to experience art in public places, thereby creating more visually pleasing and human environments. ”This program is funded through a requirement that all city projects with a construction budget in excess of $1 million must set aside 1% of the total project cost for additions to the Denver public art collection. Not limited to traditional permanent art forms, the collection includes sound art, projection and light-based works, interactive new media pieces, temporary fiber-based works and performance based works. Some of the most well known public art pieces in Denver are the “big blue bear” looking into the downtown convention center and the controversial “blue horse” at DIA.

In 2014, “Experience 1968” was held in Burns Park to celebrate the bold, colorful modernist works from the 1968 symposium. Six contemporary artists created temporary structures and performances in response to the original works in the park, much in the spirit of the earlier symposium.


A Bit of History About the Park From the City’s Master Plan for this petite park on the southwest corner of the Hilltop neighborhood:

“Burns Park is a uniquely-situated parcel of land donated to the City of Denver and named to honor Daniel C. Burns in 1940. Burns was a prominent real estate developer, lawyer, University of Denver graduate, art enthusiast, and philanthropist. Burns’ family donated the 12.4 parcel of land upon his passing as tribute to the impact he had on Denver. Formal and informal improvements to the park occurred between 1940 and 1964. These improvements included trails, grading, plantings, perimeter road development, utility access – all resulting in a park concept plan, developed In 1964.

Until 1968, the park primarily served as necessary open greenspace in a growing neighborhood. During Thanksgiving of 1967, a group of local artists and philanthropists envisioned building an international sculpture symposium and identified Burns Park as the host site. The 1968 Denver Sculpture Symposium occurred during the seminal summer of 1968 and showcased nine artists who created “architectonic” sculptures on site with help from the Denver community. Artists were both local and national, all of national reputation: Angelo diBenedetto, Dean Fleming, Peter Forakis, Roger Kotoske, Anthony Magar, Robert Mangold, Robert Morris, Richard Van Buren, and Wilbert Verhelst.

These large-scale sculptures were originally intended to be temporary; however the community embraced the work resulting in Mayor Currigan formally adopting the sculptures into Denver’s public art collection. Still relevant today, the park has hosted many events and temporary sculpture exhibits that respond to the original collection. Two sculptures were added since the original symposium, Jazz by Barbara Baer in 1999, and Untitled by Anthony Magar, privately commissioned in 1968 but acquired for the park in 2010. Most recently, “Experience 1968” was held as a day-long event in which contemporary artists responded to the original symposium with site-specific works including temporary sculptures and performance pieces. With four of the original nine sculptures still present, and the addition of two permanent pieces, the park remains a neighborhood and regional destination for active play, leisure activity, and art contemplation.”


Burns Park Master Plan

In 2015, Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR) and Denver Arts & Venues developed a framework and strategy for park improvements and for the protection, rehabilitation and advancement of Denver public art within the park.  Several Hilltop residents have been involved in the stakeholders meetings developing a plan for the Park.  Read the Burn Park Master Plan and this Westword article about the sculptures in this park.