The Art of the Install: Denver Botanic Gardens


This summer, you can see Deborah Butterfield’s largest exhibit yet right here in Colorado at the Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG). On display are 15 life-size bronze horses, carefully placed among the living gallery. But there is more to the art than the sculptures themselves. There is the art of the installation—a job that requires a large team of volunteers and staff from horticultural to curatorial teams.

It turns out it takes a village to place a 2,000-pound horse in the middle of a garden that doesn’t close during installation. To find out more, we caught up with Lisa Eldred, DBG Director of Exhibitions, Art, and Interpretation. 

WORDS: Amy Phare

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MID: Tell us about the installation process for an exhibit of this scope at the Denver Botanic Gardens?
It’s an interesting set of perspectives that come together for the outdoors shows. We, as an exhibit staff, have essentially a curatorial vision and plan, then working with the artist, and then of course we have to work with closely with horticulture, because we are literally stepping into our living collections as a museum, so we are very cognizant of certain plants and no-go zones while trying to create juxtapositions that are interesting for folks. It not only introduces plant enthusiasts to art, it forces a different understanding of art since it’s outside a gallery. The whole siting effort is really something that the general public is not necessarily cognizant of, and it’s important piece of it. Then you layer upon that the sheer logistics element. We could find a perfect location for something that looks fabulous and makes for a great site, and if we can’t get the object there, because of landscape limitations and the equipment that’s required to move a 2,000-pound sculpture over hardscape and into gardens, well, it’s often slow going. You can only get multi-ton sculptures so far.

MID: Give us a peek behind the scenes.
With her work, the biggest thing is really that intersection of equal priority, so living museum (that is the gardens and this collection) that ironically makes us very attractive to place sculpture within, and then the artist’s vision, and then the exhibition/curatorial perspective. We often refer to our different spaces as garden galleries or rooms, because they’re so different. Each of our different gardens, highlighting different ecosystems, native plants—it’s such a diverse sensibility that is presented that our goal is to make people experience artwork in new ways and also the garden in new ways. I often think it’s a bit like on your commute into work. Suddenly see a building come out of ground where you didn’t have any inkling that a building could fit there and then you experience everything else in context in a different way. I think that insertion of art does that for the gardens. Seeing it in this setting is so completely different than seeing it in a white box gallery. It’s truly a fun experiment. Each placement is so different that the sensibilities—going back to the nature of her work and the excitement of seeing it in person—there is such a subtlety in the colors and what’s she’s able to achieve through patina and paint, it’s amazing.  

MID: Deborah has been working for more than 40 years and has been featured in hundreds of exhibits. What has it been like working with such a renowned artist? 
DBG: She’s fabulous. She brings to it such a knowledge of not only her subject matter, which allows her to create this work, but the physicality of the work itself. She knows how the weight is distributed and how it’s going to react when you start to pick it up, because certain elements are hollow, some are solid. But then she really does have such a sensibility of siting them of course, especially because they’re abstracted animals, but they’re recognizable as animals. None of us were interested in creating vignettes that necessarily provided the story of a horse in the landscape, but with intention, we have located hardscape sites, so that the organic form is contrasted with the angular cement surroundings, and so it’s a blend of natural habitat and really the architecture of the garden that are both playing against it. But she is an amazing problem solver and gets right in to make it happen.

MID: What are the challenges of installing pieces of this size?
We’ve done a number of large scale exhibitions, and the set of challenges is different every single time. It really is walking in with the best game plan that you can put together and then essentially, you problem solve as you go and try to maximize efficiencies; we use art handlers and volunteer, and unlike a traditional museum or gallery, we don’t close the doors and install in the dark or “make the gallery dark.” It’s definitely a challenge but a blessing to have the public be a party in that set of variables. They love watching it happen, but we do need to bolster security and just make sure people are safe. We get a lot to people who come back to see what the next one is that we’ve installed. They’re kind of exhibits groupies. 

MID: How are they pieces placed and secured?
It depends on the location of the sculpture and whether it’s laying down or standing. But the standing sculptures that are in soft scape, we do dig into the garden, put piers in and gravel, and tamp it down. They are steel fabricated piers built by the foundry, so the feet screw into these piers that are essentially 3-foot anchors into the ground so that they’re stable over the course of five months. 

MID: Why should people attend “The Nature of Horses” exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens?
It’s one thing to look at artwork—especially a digital representation of an art object that is meant to be experienced in person. Even as we’re working to put an exhibition together, you have a sense of what this sculptural form will look like in its place. We do Photoshop mockups, lots of measurements, and things change even then. But especially with her work, they are so dynamic, literally in 360 degrees. To see just one representation of them, it’s like you’re only getting a sliver of what that artwork is about, because as you approach it, it looks like one form. And you move around it to experience that 360 as much as you possibly can. Suddenly, sometimes it becomes a horse, from a tree or a pile of really cool wood. I was so struck upon receiving all of them, that it’s just a celebration of the art form in and of itself, that 3D object. Her ability to essentially draw in three dimensions is amazing. She doesn’t use preparatory sketches. She takes the wood and draws it in three dimensions. So to appreciate that vision is pretty amazing. As a result, she’s always looking around her landscape, so it’s fun to watch any artist, but especially her, see her work in a new environment that plays off the colors and textures that the gardens offer. For instance, the rose garden has strong lines, modern lines, and the architecture is an assertive space, her pieces balance it. It plays off of backbone of the garden structure; her work can withstand the organic environment as well as the built, and not every artist can say that.

MID: What else should Modern In Denver readers know?
Not everyone realizes that we have annual outdoor exhibition complimented by indoor exhibitions. We will also have a short video playing inside, shows her process and she provides verbal commentary, so it’s really a glimpse into her way of thinking put together specifically to document when the three Denver Art Museum pieces were created. We have a suite of programs to complement the exhibit. 

For more, read our interview with Deborah Butterfield from the summer issue of Modern In Denver. 

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