The small, working-class town of Walsenburg, Colorado, seems an unlikely location for a top-notch contemporary art museum crammed with works by over 600 important and influential artists. But the charming Museum of Friends is just such a place, a hidden gem on Walsenburg’s main drag that’s a must-visit for anyone with an interest in the arts.
Many of the best museums in the world–the British Museum, the Borghese Gallery, the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, just to name a few–started out as personal collections, and the Museum of Friends is no different. Co-founders Brendt Berger and Maria Cocchiarelli-Berger call their museum the Museum of Friends because it consists of pieces given to them or the museum by fellow artists. Berger and Cocchiarelli have lived all over the country, from Maine to Hawaii, and their collection reflects the diversity of their friends, acquaintances, and experiences, accumulated over the course of 50-odd years working in the arts.
Many of the artists represented at the Museum of Friends were active in the numerous “hippie” communes that popped up all over Southern Colorado in the 1960s and ’70s. That’s no coincidence: Berger visited Drop City, the first rural commune in the US, in the 1960s and participated briefly in its offshoot, Libre, near Gardner. Sketches, photos, and paintings of the communes’ signature geodesic domes are scattered throughout the second-floor gallery. The fact that so many pieces in the Museum document the artistic styles and movements coming out of these communes makes the Museum of Friends the first and only museum of the countercultural movement in the U.S.
But you don’t have to be into counterculture to enjoy a visit to the Museum of Friends! There’s truly something for everyone, from luminous watercolors to vintage posters, color field paintings to collages, lithographic prints and drawings, artifacts from the South Pacific and Asia, found art sculptures, and even an art library. The collection includes Guggenheim Fellows, National Medal of Arts recipients, reality TV stars (Peregrine Honig from Bravo’s Work of Art: Search for the Next Great Artist), naturalists, abstractionists, expressionists, surrealists, and artists who don’t fall into any –ism at all. You might recognize pieces by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Christo, Denver native Dennis Oppenheim, Linda Fleming, and NYT cartoonist Richard Mock. But there’s an even greater chance you’ll fall in love with an artist whose work you’ve never seen before.
That’s because the Museum of Friends’ focus isn’t on big names or price points, but interconnection. Every piece in the collection has a story attached to it, and Berger and Cocchiarelli are more than happy to share those memories with visitors on guided tours. It’s those links and personal relationships that make the Museum of Friends special, underscoring the true power of art: its ability to form connections between people and create a sense of community.
“Art is so heavily focused on monetary value today,” Berger told us. “That’s why you see the same artists over and over in exhibitions, no matter where you go in the world. We wanted to bypass that and take money out of the equation. Everything here is given or traded by people who put their lives on the line to create art. It’s about what art really is, a passion and a labor of love.”
The Museum’s philosophy of openness and fostering community extends to its entrance fee–donation only–and its outreach programs, like the colorful painted planters you can see along Walsenburg’s Main and 6th Streets. The Museum also exhibits local artists. Currently on view are Pueblo painter Bobby Valentine and aerial photographer John Wark, as well as Cocchiarelli herself, who’s showing a collection of “mini” paintings along with mini collages by Matt Gonzalez and mini abstract watercolors by Harry Tsuchidana.
While Walsenburg may seem an improbable place for a contemporary art museum, after almost a decade the Museum of Friends is going strong. Berger and Cocchiarelli will celebrate the Museum’s tenth anniversary on October 19th, and have secured grants to renovate the 100-year-old historic building for structural integrity and easier access to the second floor.
Art can mean many things to many people, but it’s the personal stories and connections that bring a photo or drawing or canvas to life. That’s exactly what makes the Museum of Friends such a positive experience: the sense of learning, community, and friendship that infuses the whole museum and makes it a must-see for art lovers of every stripe.