AURORA | Despite countless cries to the contrary from many cheerleaders of the Aurora Cultural Arts District, the city is not exactly a magnet for world-class art.
Top-notch local theater? Sure thing. Well-executed showcases of local visual artists? You bet. A home to works produced by some of the world’s most cherished painters and sculptors? Not so much.
That changed this week with the opening of the latest and assuredly most impressive art exhibition at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz medical campus.
Inside the roughly 1,000-square-foot gallery, paintings by Claude Monet and Edgar Degas hang beside drawings produced by Pablo Picasso, and lithographs crafted by Henri Matisse hang beside bronze statues sculpted by Auguste Rodin. Those are just a few of the eye-popping names in the recently opened exhibit, appropriately entitled “Masterworks.”
The tale of how about two dozen works created by some of history’s most cherished impressionists wound up in an art gallery in Aurora is nothing if not serendipitous.
The exhibit owes its genesis to the nearby Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, where the owners of the artwork, a pair of Denver-based healthcare professionals and philanthropists, have longstanding ties.
Dr. Morton Mower and his wife, Toby, are old friends with a former dean of the Skaggs school, and their daughter, Dr. Robin Mower, graduated from the institution. The couple remains close with their ex-son-in-law, Dr. David Thompson, who is currently an associate dean at the school.
The decision to open an exhibit made up entirely of works owned by the Mowers was spawned last year, when Thompson was visiting the gallery and happened to chat with Tess Jones, director of the campus’ Arts and Humanities in Healthcare program, who works in the building in which the gallery is located.
“That was purely the auspicious coincidence of three or four people who happened to be in the same room at the same time,” said Simon Zalkind, curator of exhibitions at Fulginiti.
Several months of legal wrangling and insurance quagmires ensued before the school could secure the works from the Mowers.
“Even if there was the remote possibility that we might secure these, it would require a lengthy courtship, it would require, you know, a kind of dance with the collectors,” Zalkind said. “But this happened in the way everyone prays for, which is just serendipity. Someone introduced me to someone who also introduced Tess to someone else and all the dots connected.”
The Mowers also worked with Dr. Ralph Altiere, dean of the Skaggs School, to bring the works to Aurora.
Longtime casual art collectors, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the Mowers, originally from Baltimore, started amassing works from some of the world’s most coveted artists.
“I started collecting inexpensive art because a friend of mine had a gallery in Baltimore,” Toby said. “Her husband found out who my husband was and he says, ‘Why are you buying this cheap stuff? Do you know that the Japanese banks are failing and they have all this art down in the basement that’s being used for collateral?’”
And so began a quiet rush to snag some of history’s most prized pieces.
“You had to promise you wouldn’t turn around and sell it within a year,” added Morton, who currently lectures at CU Anschutz, Johns Hopkins University and Howard University in Washington D.C. Earlier in his career, he helped commercialize an implanted cardioverter defibrillator to perform cardiac resynchronization therapy.
Now, some two decades into collecting, the Mowers have about 350 pieces of world-class art.
The Mowers, who met in the early 1960s while working in medical facilities across the street from one another in Baltimore, have lent various portions of their collection to a slew of universities and galleries, including Johns Hopkins, the University of Hawaii and the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.
After hanging in Aurora, several of the Mowers’ works will be displayed at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum later this summer.
“One of the wonderful things is that the Denver Art Museum will be borrowing from this collection after we show it here in Aurora,” Jones said, stressing the word after. “I was very impressed.”
A portion of the Mowers’ collection will return to Anschutz this fall with a special exhibition dedicated to etchings by Rembrandt, an artist who has become a favorite of the couple in recent decades.
“I found Rembrandt very interesting,” Morton said. “We tend to think of people who lived 100 or 200 years ago as savages, but they’re real people and I tried to get in the mind of what he was thinking, how he fit into society — it was just a fascinating exercise.”
Morton estimated he and his wife have about 170 Rembrandt etchings, potentially making the couple owners of the largest private collection of Rembrandt works in the world.
“I don’t know if it’s funny, but there is a kind of double take,” Zalkind said of the Mowers’ collection. “It’s like, wait, am I in a room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Or am I in Aurora, Colorado?”
From the Tobia and Morton Mower Collection
Through May 24 at the Fulginiti Pavilion, CU Anschutz medical campus
Free; donations can be made at the door.