Pre-Columbian Art

The Denver Art Museum's pre-Columbian collection represents nearly every major culture in Mesoamerica, Central America, and South America. 

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Jan & Frederick Mayer Galleries of Pre-Columbian & Spanish Colonial Art, Level 4, North Building

Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Study Gallery of Pre-Columbian Art, Level 4, North Building

The Jan and Frederick Mayer Galleries of Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial art were installed in 1993. Included are paintings, sculpture, furniture, silver, and decorative arts from the Spanish Colonial period, as well as pre-Columbian masterworks in ceramic, stone, gold, jade, and textiles. One component of the installation is an innovative study-storage gallery, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Study Gallery of Pre-Columbian Art. The large glass-shelved display cases allow DAM to place nearly all of its pre-Columbian collection on permanent display for audiences to share and learn about the cultures of the Americas. The presentation permits visitors to view the full spectrum of pre-Columbian forms and media, and compare multiple examples of items such as figurines, cache vessels, stone sculptures, and jade ornaments.

The Collection

The Denver Art Museum's pre-Columbian collection of more than 3,000 works represents nearly every major culture in Mesoamerica, Central America, and South America. 

The encyclopedic Costa Rican holdings, largely donated by Frederick and Jan Mayer, are the finest in the United States.  Stone sculptures include large, elaborately carved metates (grinding platforms), figural sculptures, grave markers, and mace heads, often carved in the form of fantastic animal heads.  Jade axes, imported from Guatemala in ancient times, were carved into elaborate pendants and beads.  Hammered gold breastplates and intricate cast gold pendants in the form of animals or costumed human performers advertised the wealth and power of Costa Rican chiefs.  Highly sculptural and often brightly painted ceramics are especially abundant in DAM’s Costa Rican collection.

The South American collection incorporates works from Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.  Generous donors include Mr. and Mrs. Morris Long, Mr. and Mrs. Edward L. Luben, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Mayer, Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Power, and Mr. and Mrs. Edward T. Strauss.  Peruvian cultures, including the Chavín, Moche, Nasca, Wari, Chancay, Chimu, and Inca are well represented by ceramics, metalwork, textiles, and carved bone and wood.  Ancient Colombian ceramics and gold include Calima, Popayan and Tairona. Chorrera, Bahia, Tolima, and Manteño style ceramic figures and vessels were manufactured in ancient Ecuador.  The holdings of intricately carved, boldly painted ceramics from Marajó Island in Brazil are especially strong.

Holdings of Mesoamerican art from Mexico and northern Central America include stone sculpture, jade, ceramics, and rare media like carved shell, turquoise mosaic, and obsidian.  Important donors include Mr. and Mrs. Horace E. Day, Mr. and Mrs. Lindsay A. Duff, Mr. Douglas R. Hurlburt, Mrs. Lewis K. Land, Mr. William I. Lee, Mr. and Mrs. Morris A. Long, Mr. and Mrs. Edward L. Luben, Mr. and Mrs. Cedric H. Marks, Mr. and Mrs. Raphael J. Moses, and Dr. and Mrs. M. Larry Ottis. 

The Olmec, Mesoamerica’s earliest civilization, are represented by jade figures and masks, and ceramic vessels.  An elegantly modeled, completely intact Olmec ceramic baby is one of the museum’s most important masterpieces.  West Mexican (especially Nayarit and Colima) human and animal ceramic tomb figures are well represented, while holdings from the great city of Teotihuacan are especially comprehensive—ceramic vessels and figurines, incense burners, greenstone figures and masks, and even carved stone mirror backs. 

The Maya civilization is represented by several stone relief carvings that portray rulers wearing elaborate regalia.  The Maya ceramic collection is also exceptional: rare pre-Classic vessels and figurines, Early Classic cache vessels and blackware containers, and Late Classic painted cylinders and figurines that depict both court life and mythological events.

Department of Pre-Columbian & Spanish Colonial Art

The Department of Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Art at the Denver Art Museum was established in 1968, bringing together pre-Columbian (before 1492) and Spanish Colonial objects from Latin America. Curator Robert Stroessner worked with donors in Denver and beyond to acquire objects in all media. Dr. Gordon McEwan served as curator from 1991 to 1998.  He was succeeded by Dr. Donna Pierce (Spanish Colonial) and Dr. Margaret Young-Sánchez (pre-Columbian), both of whom joined the museum in 1999.  Today the department’s combined collections cover a time span from about 1200 B.C. to the present. It is the finest collection of its type in the United States and in many areas, its holdings are the most comprehensive outside the countries of origin. At no other museum in the Americas can visitors appreciate and compare stylistic movements from all the major artistic centers of Latin America.

The Frederick & Jan Mayer Center for Pre-Columbian & Spanish Colonial Art

Visit the Spanish Colonial Art page and http://mayercenter.denverartmuseum.org to learn more about the Mayer Center.

Mayer Center symposia are held annually, alternating between Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial topics. Recent pre-Columbian symposia topics:

  • Marajó and the Ancient Amazonian World, 2011
  • The Art of Teotihuacan and its Sphere of Influence, 2009
  • Costa Rica and the pre-Columbian World: Honoring the Contributions of Frederick Mayer, 2007
  • Tiwanaku: Ancestors of the Inca, 2005
  • Pre-Columbian and Spanish Colonial Art in the Collections at the Denver Art Museum, 2002
  • Andean Textile Traditions, 2001

Publications

            Recent Mayer Center publications on pre-Columbian art are available for purchase in the Museum Shop and include:

Support Group

Alianza de las Artes Americanas is the support group for the department of pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial art at the Denver Art Museum.  Alianza organizes an annual lecture series as well as other events, and sponsors an Alianza-Mayer Scholarship. For more information, visit http://www.alianza-dam.org/. Read more about it and all DAM support groups on the Support Groups page.

Current Staff

  • Donna Pierce, Ph.D., Frederick & Jan Mayer Curator of Spanish Colonial Art
  • Margaret Young-Sánchez, Ph.D., Frederick & Jan Mayer Curator of Pre-Columbian Art
  • Michael Brown, Ph.D., Mayer Curatorial Scholar
  • Julie Wilson Frick, Mayer Center Program Coordinator
  • Patricia Tomlinson, Curatorial Assistant
  • Anne Tennant, Research Associate
  • Jana Gottshalk, Research Assistant
  • Heather Nielsen, Master Teacher

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