How Denver Art Museum is protecting its treasures during the North Building remodel

Art handlers have been bubble-wrapping, taping and binning paintings, furniture, ceramics, modern sculpture and other pieces since April.
4 min. read
The Denver Art Museum’s iconic 1971 North Building, designed by Gio Ponti and James Sudler Architects of Denver. (Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum)

By Donna Bryson, Associated Press

Anyone who has lived through a major home remodeling project can sympathize with Laura Elliff Cruz, collections manager for the Denver Art Museum who is in charge of relocating or trying to protect tens of thousands of treasures during a building upgrade expected to take a year.

Art handlers have been bubble-wrapping, taping and binning paintings, furniture, ceramics, modern sculpture and other pieces since April, with a Dec. 31 deadline for virtually emptying the seven-story, 210,000-square-foot North Building. Some pieces, like a totem pole from the Native American collection, can't be moved, so Elliff Cruz is working on a plan involving foam and plywood to protect it. Her usual team of four or five people has been increased to 40.

Most of us don't have 50,000 precious objects, many of them fragile, old, heavy or some combination of the above. But DAM's experience offers some guidance on keeping valuables safe while contractors are turning a house into a job site.


"Oh my God. An art museum? Are you kidding me?" said Portland architect Rebecca Duoos-Bourgazas, who knows a thing or two about big projects — she has helped engineers keep the lights on while overseeing power plant renovations. Duoos-Bourgazas renovated her own home a decade ago, and says the logistics of looking after belongings and living as normally as possible are often something "that's overlooked when you do a remodel. People don't understand the impact it's going to have on them."

Christoph Heinrich, who directs the DAM, said the first step was careful planning.

"A lot of people were engaged in this to figure it out over the last two years," he said.

Some storage is available under a nearby building recently erected for the museum's administrative staff. DAM leased two other spaces with a combined 25,000 square feet — think pods on a grand scale.

A homeowner might keep special heirlooms safe by moving them to a relative's place. In DAM's case, nearly 50 paintings on loan from the museum's Western art collection are sitting out the renovation as part of an exhibit at History Colorado Center, the flagship of the state archives, which is pairing them with artifacts like letters, photographs and a chuck wagon. DAM also has its 146,000-square-foot Frederic C. Hamilton Building by architect Daniel Libeskind, which will remain open during the North's renovation.

Grouping and labeling

Nan Travers is an administrator at SUNY Empire State College and also a fiber artist. Though her archives aren't as vast as DAM's, when she and her husband decided to renovate their Middle Grove, New York, home, she moved dyeing and felt-making supplies.

"Any dust that got in it would ruin the fiber," Travers said.

She boxed the art supplies as well as clothes, cooking utensils and other items. She numbered each box and kept an inventory so she would know where to look if she had to pull items out of storage.

DAM has a bar coding system for the same reason.

For storage, Travers and her husband had several outbuildings on their 15-acre lot, including a barn and an old sugar house. The couple, two cats and two dogs lived for a year in their camper parked on the lot.

Move out what you can

The Traverses' builder, Kevin Girvin, urges clients to move themselves and their belongings out if possible. It's not just the dust. Vibrations from heavy equipment and banging can have the impact of a small earthquake.

"Anything expensive hanging on the wall, remove it," Girvin said.

Zahra El-Mekkany, who runs a finance firm's risk management department, moved to an Airbnb rental when work to update the two bathrooms of her Manhattan condominium began. Instead of storing furniture, she gave away pieces, calculating that she would be redecorating with new items after the renovations.

Some belongings stayed in her apartment, boxed and sealed. She thought they would be further protected because her contractor planned to use plastic to seal off rooms where his crews were not working. To her dismay, El-Mekkany walked in on the first day to find demolition had started before the plastic went up.

"It was just sheer carelessness," she said.

Two tips from El-Mekkany: Choose your contractor carefully, and if you do move out, stay nearby so you can check regularly on what is happening in your home.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, Jill Tremlett Large saved money by staying in her home with her 4-year-old son during a two-stage renovation. Her builders set up a makeshift kitchen in the living room, even plumbing a sink there.

"I didn't have to wash dishes in the bathtub. That would have been a deal-breaker," she said. "It was an adventure."

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