From the Old West to Alien Landscapes: Where to See the Best Art in Denver

Between the Old West imagery of the American Museum of Western Art and the extraterrestrial surrealism of Convergence Station, Denver’s artistic universe has something for every art lover.

A colorful mural in Denver
Denver has more than its fair share of cool murals. Pieter van de Sande

“I’m a little bit country and I’m a little bit rock and roll,” sang Osmond, and few places typify this lyric like Denver. Located about as centrally as an American city can be, it and wider Colorado, stand at a national crossroads geographically, culturally and even politically. It’s a city of cowboys and decriminalized psychedelics, pickup trucks and jam bands. Accordingly, there is a kind of tension to the city aesthetic—a tug-of-war between counterculture and Coors commercials. In this atmosphere, art endeavors tend to almost aggressively assert themselves in an attempt to prevail over counterbalancing forces.

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The most immediate example of this comes upon leaving the airport, where alongside the highway looms the Blue Mustang, also known as Blucifer. Thirty-two feet tall, this enormous horse rears in a bizarrely threatening stance, its glowing red eyes appearing particularly fiendish at night. It is a strange visual welcoming visitors to the city, made stranger still when you know that its sculptor was crushed to death by the sculpture during its creation. The enormous cerulean murder horse may be a nod to the Old West, but it is a decidedly weird interruption in the otherwise stoic high Rocky landscape. It makes for a great photo, but keep in mind that there is no parking to reach it and you can’t stop along the road nearby, so if you want a shot of it, you’ll have to get it from a moving vehicle.

A giant blue horse statue with glowing red eyes
Blue Mustang by the late Luis Jimenez. Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Similarly disruptive of the city’s more traditional aspects is the Denver Art Museum, its jagged brutalist architecture erupting from the neat lines of the downtown region. Its collection is impressively expansive and diverse, with a particularly noteworthy selection of Indigenous art along with works by renowned artists like Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Elaine De Kooning, Joan Mitchell and so on. Currently on is an exhibition of works by Sandra Vásquez de la Horra.

Denver Art Museum
Denver Art Museum. Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Just down the street and staring into the convention center is a 40-foot-tall blue bear entitled I See What You Mean. Apparently, Denver has a thing for big blue mammals. The last time I visited the city was for the 12,000-person Psychedelic Sciences conference which was held in the center, and there was something hallucinatory appropriate about having a huge bear peering through the window the whole time.

A giant blue bear statue peaking into a glass office tower
Lawrence Argent’s I See What You Mean. Go to Miranda Joondeph's profile Miranda Joondeph

But the big bear is only somewhat unusual when compared to the utterly alien otherworldliness of Convergence Station, one of the handful of large art experiences that have been scattered across the U.S. by the production collective Meow Wolf. Convergence is one of those things that can’t be described, only seen. A series of interconnected extra-dimensional scenes of mind-boggling complexity and oddity, it’s easy to spend hours exploring its audio/visual delights. Keep in mind that during the day it is a popular attraction for families, but later in the evening, it attracts a more adult, altered crowd.

Convergence Station in Denver. Nick Hilden

The art museum and alien art installation are both large undertakings in terms of time and energy, so for smaller scale, more meandering experiences check out (and perhaps stay in—more on that in a moment) the River North Art District, also known as RiNo. Here you’ll find a broad range of galleries, funky coffee shops, brewpubs, music venues and the like, with colorful murals decorating most of the large building faces and garage doors. The neighborhood is also occasionally home to the Denver Bazaar, where you can shop for all manner of art, handicrafts and food. And for an art experience that leans hard into the city’s cowboy heritage, take a look at the American Museum of Western Art. Housing the private collection of the Anschutz family, this museum displays some 600 works from artists spanning the 19th and 20th Centuries who sought to capture romantic and realistic visions of the West.

For an art-forward visit, I suggest one of two hotels in Denver. The Ramble is located at the heart of the RiNo District, and it’s got a fun almost steampunk vintage décor alojng with a lively restaurant and bar. The location is also great for reaching downtown, as you can easily use an app bike or scooter to zip ten minutes along Larimer Street to the city center. But if you prefer to stay more centrally, book the aptly named Art Hotel, which is a five-minute walk from the art museum. The hotel has an abstract modernist vibe, and the staff is incredibly friendly. It’s also just down the street from several good dance clubs. I’m a fan of Temple Nightclub, which has a real techno-punk, Matrix thing going on.

Finally, I suggest taking a look at the calendar for the Mission Ballroom, which is one of the city’s larger venues where you can catch the big-name acts coming through town. I saw the Flaming Lips there, and the theater proved itself to be among the increasingly rare venues that are able or willing to accommodate such an oversized stage presence.

From the Old West to Alien Landscapes: Where to See the Best Art in Denver