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How I Collect

Denver Collector Ellen Bruss on Sharing Meals With Artists, and Living in a Museum's Backyard


Denver Collector Ellen Bruss on Sharing Meals With Artists, and Living in a Museum's Backyard
Mark Falcone and Ellen Bruss

It's difficult to imagine a more neighborly couple than Colorado collectors Ellen Bruss and Mark Falcone. Ten years ago, the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver approached Falcone, a real-estate developer, to ask for help relocating downtown. Not only did he donate a plot of land, he and his wife decided to move in next door. They hired David Adjaye to design both properties: a boxy, 6,000-square-foot steel townhouse for them and a tinted-glass cube for the museum—the Ghana-born architect's first public commission in the United States. Thanks to their cozy proximity, the couple has found themselves serving on the MCA's board over the years, holding events for the institution, and even hosting sleepovers for visiting artists. 

Ellen Bruss spoke with Artspace about how the pair came to surround themselves with art—in their home and in the museum in their backyard.

What is it like living adjacent to the MCA, an institution on whose board you sat for almost a decade? 

Choosing to live next door to a contemporary art museum is not for the faint of heart. We have had goats outside our door, a pigeon cote for six months, a nuclear reactor, lots of experimental music playing, plenty of late-night parties spilling onto our sidewalk, and an extraordinary parade of artists over the years. Both Mark and I served on the board for nine years. I retired last year and he is retiring this summer. Even though we are both termed off of the board, we remain, and will continue to be, close supporters and consumers of its offerings. We host artists who are installing at our home while they are in town. We throw parties, host dinners, and fund-raise as needed. I doubt that a day goes by when either of us has not mentioned "the Museum of Contemporary Art." The two of us are chairing the annual gala in the fall, and I am chairing the first annual "Broad's Banquet," a women-only dinner party late this summer.

How has the MCA evolved in the years since you came on board in 2003, and what role do you think it has come to play in the greater Denver art scene? 

In 2003, the institution was only six or seven years old. It had evolved beyond an almost purely volunteer-run enterprise to a staff of four or five, but its long-term sustainability was still in question. By 2003, MCA was putting on some pretty exciting exhibitions and was building a great following among local artists and contemporary art fans, but it was not on the radar of community leaders and philanthropists. Today, MCA Denver has a staff of more than 30, produces exhibitions that regularly travel to other parts of the county, and is seen as a keystone element of the Greater Denver's cultural offerings. Pretty good for ten years!

Do you remember the first work of art you purchased? How did that evolve into a habit of collecting?

I bought Mark a paper sculpture piece by Jae Ko when we were first dating. An Isaac Julien might be the first piece we bought together. When we met, Mark had never bought an original work of art; I had collected local artists for a long time. We mostly focus on artists who we have gotten to know through the MCA/D. Because MCA/D is a non-collecting institution we feel a strong desire to help preserve the record of these extraordinary artists who have made such an impression on our community.  

Do you and your husband have a collecting philosophy? Have any particular themes or aesthetic tendencies emerged over the years?

Honestly, no. I think we are both pretty open to and provoked by lots of different things. We really don't think of ourselves as collectors, so, frankly, that takes a lot of pressure off what we choose to buy. We don't have an art consultant, and we are not trying to create an encyclopedic collection of international artists. We simply buy objects that we like by artists who we think are smart and who we somehow have established a strong interest and connection to. We value works from a great Denver-based artist as much as one of the big international names who have shown at MCA/D. 

Which contemporary artists are you particularly excited about right now? And where do you go to discover new artists?

We tend to enjoy the biennials more than the art fairs. We have been to most of the Venice Biennales over the last 10 years, and we usually get to the Whitney, Site Santa Fe, and we went to Istanbul a few years ago—that was great. We really meet most of the new artists we collect through the MCA/D though. We just got a piece from Frohawk Two Feathers, who is amazing. Over the last several years, the museum has established a great connection with several contemporary Mexican artists. We are especially fond of the work by our friends in Guadalajara, Gonzalo LeBrija and Eduardo Sarabia. We love what Federico Solmi is doing, and he has a great new video out. And there's a number of Denver artists that we keep an eye on: Stephen Batura, David Zimmer, Adam Milner, Bill Stockman, Mary Erhin

When possible, do you like to meet or visit the studios of artists you collect?

We love to go to artist's studios, but mostly we like sharing meals with them. You really get a good sense for someone's real views and the thoughts behind their work over a bottle of wine.

Where do you go to see art in Colorado? 

Galleries include Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery for photography, Gildar Gallery for emerging artists, and Robischon Gallery for more established artists. As for institutions, of course we love what MCA is doing. Adam Lerner is a world-class director and David Adjaye's building has been amazing to live with. The Clyfford Still Museum is incredible—both the space and the art. Denver is very lucky to have this collection. Christoph Heinrich and William Morrow are making the Denver Art Museum a real force in the contemporary collecting-museum world. And if you really want a treat, go to the Kirkland Museum. It is the awesome eclectic collection of decorative objects and fine art from the mid-20th century.

What are some of the works currently on view in your home? 

We have a beautiful Larry Bell cube, a roof deck installation for Isaac Julien videos, a Liam Gillick word sculpture, a Kara Walker study, and we have a 16th-century painting by Antonio Balestra next to a record album piece by Dario Robleto.

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