MOP Denver: Looking Back, Moving Forward – Highlights from CPAC’s Permanent Collection
To celebrate Month of Photography, the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (CPAC) is exhibiting 45 prints from its permanent collection of more than 800, amassed since the organization’s founding in 1963. The timing couldn’t be better, with 2023 marking CPAC’s 2nd time hosting MOP, its 60th Anniversary, and its move to a new, larger space in downtown Denver this spring.
I sat down with Samantha Johnston, CPAC’s Executive Director and Curator to talk about the exhibit and the exciting future ahead for CPAC and Colorado’s photography community.
Megan Ross: First, let’s start with CPAC’s MOP show, Looking Back, Moving Forward. Can you give us an overview of the collection? What’s in it, and why did you select these 45 prints to exhibit?
Samantha Johnston: With 800 prints acquired over 60 years, the collection is incredibly diverse. There are images of political events, wars, protests, celebrities, and former U.S. presidents. And then there are moments from everyday life in America, as well as more recent conceptual and abstract work, Western landscapes, and so much more.
It was tough to select only 45 prints – there are so many gems! I spent weeks going through every item by hand, reading historical documentation, and making lists. My goal was to combine pivotal works from the 20th century with national and regional works that demonstrate the breadth of the medium. I also wanted to highlight talented local artists people may not know. So you’ll see works by well-known masters like Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Judy Dater, and also Colorado artists such as Ewing Stiffler and Hal Gould, and contemporary local and national photographers such as Greer Muldowney, Zora Murff, Susan Goldstein, Mark Sink, John Bonath, Barbara Ciurej, and Lindsay Lochman.
MR: When was the last time CPAC exhibited its collection?
SJ: It’s interesting – I was looking back through old files, and the most recent exhibition of the collection was at the Denver Public Library in 2010. When I came on board in 2015, the collection was well maintained but stored away, largely inaccessible to anyone except staff and the occasional researcher by appointment. A project was underway to digitize it, and we finished that process in 2021 with the help of volunteers and interns who painstakingly photographed every print and created a database. The database was a game-changer — it gave us new ways to group images, search for artists, and better appreciate what we have. During the pandemic, we put the entire collection online for everyone to enjoy, for free. That got the attention of The Denver Post, and the Post’s art critic, Ray Rinaldi, wrote a huge article about it that generated fresh interest. I have been waiting for an opportunity to do a collection show, and 2023 feels like the right time — with our 60th Anniversary, MOP, and CPAC’s move to a new, larger space that will bring new benefits to the photography community in Colorado and beyond.
MR: How and when did the collection start?
SJ: CPAC’s founders started the collection in 1963 with a goal of creating a resource that would elevate photography as an art form and the region’s profile. Early donations came from artists such as Ansel Adams, H. Landshoff, and Ken Heyman, followed by pieces by nationally-renowned artists including Bernice Abbott, Richard Misrach, CPAC members, and works shown through the American Society of Photographers and other influential groups in the field of photographic art. As a small nonprofit we have never had the budget to buy works, so all of the prints have been donated by artists. The collection exists because of their generosity, and together they have helped build this invaluable cultural treasure for artists, students, educators, and the public. I think our founders would be proud of how much CPAC’s collection has grown and continues to evolve.
MR: What’s your vision for the future of the collection?
SJ: The collection is heavy on photographs from the 20th century. Since I came on board, I’ve been focused on adding more recent work, especially by local artists and artists from underrepresented communities who participate in CPAC’s exhibitions.
Second, we believe it’s important for the public to have access to the collection as a source of education, inspiration, and photographic history. One of the most exciting features of CPAC’s new space will be a room dedicated exclusively to the collection, where it can be properly stored, displayed, and more accessible to the public.
And of course, we’ll continue to update the online database. Right now, you can go to CPAC’s website and see all 800 prints. We’ll continue to keep this on our site as a free resource.
MR: Tell me more about CPAC’s new space. Why is CPAC moving?
SJ: It’s very exciting! Over the last five years, we’ve grown significantly, tripling our membership and welcoming more visitors than ever before in our 60-year history. We’ve been searching for a more permanent home for a long time, but Denver’s expensive real estate market makes it hard. When this opportunity arose, we jumped on it. The new space is a few blocks from our current one in Denver’s Golden Triangle Creative District, close to the Denver Art Museum. We will be located on the ground floor of a 10-story building that is being completely renovated. Because it’s a new build-out, we are working with architects to design our space to meet our community’s needs, in ways that will allow us to expand our programs, create more exhibition opportunities, a better learning environment for our students, and a better art-viewing experience for everyone.
MR: You mentioned a dedicated room for the collection. What are some other highlights of the new space?
SJ: We’ll have a larger gallery that can be divided, which will create new exhibition opportunities for artists and new ways to display photography – like having two shows at once, which is something we can’t do easily in our current space.
I’m VERY excited about the classroom. We have 16 instructors that teach about 50 classes a year, and right now, classes are taught in the gallery. It’s not ideal, and pretty distracting for students and visitors alike. A dedicated classroom will create a far better learning and teaching experience, with seats for 14 students, two computer workstations, and wall space to hang student work.
We’ll also have a larger onsite darkroom that can accommodate up to 3 artists at once, a photobook library, a new reception area and more office space.
Most importantly, our new lease is a 10-year term with an option to renew — introducing a new chapter of stability for CPAC and the ability to expand our mission and impact in Colorado and beyond.
Looking Back, Moving Forward: Permanent Collection Highlights is on view at CPAC’s current location at 1070 Bannock Street, Denver, through April 15, 2023. Click here to learn more about CPAC’s new space.
About the Colorado Photographic Arts Center:
CPAC is dedicated to fostering the understanding and appreciation of excellent photography through exhibitions, education, and community outreach. The Colorado Photographic Arts Center is the only nonprofit organization in Denver dedicated exclusively to the art of photography. Founded in 1963, CPAC serves as a resource center where photographers can learn new skills, pursue their artistic vision, build community, and seek inspiration and creative growth.
Located in Denver’s Golden Triangle Creative District, CPAC hosts 7-10 high-quality exhibitions each year that showcase the finest examples of contemporary photography from local and national artists. All of their exhibitions are free and open to the public. CPAC offers classes and workshops year-round at affordable rates, taught by a faculty of established artists and industry professionals. They offer resources for artists, including a darkroom, digital lab, photobook library, and a Permanent Collection of more than 800 fine art prints. Finally, they organize more than 50 events each year to engage the broader Denver community, such as artist talks, receptions, and Final Fridays.
Follow CPAC on Instagram: @cpacphoto
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
Ann Hamilton: SenseApril 1st, 2023
Photographers on Photographers: Marisa Lucchese in coversation with Isadora KosofskyMarch 21st, 2023
Kali Spitzer: Explorations of Resilience and Resistance / Our Backs Hold Our StoriesMarch 18th, 2023
MOP Denver: Looking Back, Moving Forward – Highlights from CPAC’s Permanent CollectionMarch 14th, 2023
Month of Photography Denver: Interview with Founder Mark SinkMarch 13th, 2023