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african art patron

African art a passion for patron

  By Kyle MacMillan found at Denver Post african art passion for patron  

Maxey Megrue, left, and Bonnie Warne look at works in the African gallery in the Denver Art Museum s new Hamilton Building. Daniel Yohannes and his wife, Saron, funded the gallery. (Post / Glenn Asakawa)

Talk about a loaded résumé.

Daniel Yohannes, a former vice chairman of U.S. Bancorp, certainly knows how to keep busy. In September, he co-founded New Resource Bank, a San Francisco startup specializing in funding "green" businesses - including alternative energy and organic foods.

Then Bill Ritter tapped him to be part of a trio heading the governor-elect's transition team, overseeing the committees sifting through hundreds of applications for political appointments.

If all that wasn't enough, he has been a member of the Denver Art Museum's board of trustees since 1997. And in 2006, he stepped up his involvement considerably.

Yohannes and his wife, Saron, funded the museum's first African gallery, one of the most dramatic spaces in the new Hamilton Building.

Specially designed cases and pedestals show off the selections amid a startling collision of angled walls and ceiling planes in the 2,630-square-foot space on the fourth floor.

"You get a lot of comments, particularly from parents who have children, about the interaction they have been able to have through the African exhibit," Yohannes said. "The comments I've had have been extremely positive, but at the same time we understand that we need to do more."

To that end, he agreed to assemble and lead a group of people who the museum hopes will help boost its still-fledgling collection of African art.

"He is very excited," said Nancy Blomberg, curator of native arts. "He actually came to us. Once he named the gallery, he said, 'OK, how can I help beyond this? What do you need in terms of collections?"'

In the short term, the museum has decided to focus on the acquisition of examples by 10 major contemporary African artists, whose works can reach six-figure prices. These include Ethiopian-born New York artist Julie Mehretu and Ghanaian- born sculptor El Anatsui, who has lived much of his life in Nigeria.

Daniel  Yohannes Denver Art MuseumDaniel Yohannes brings business and political connections to his seat on the Denver Art Museum's board of trustees. (Post / Glenn Asakawa)

About 20 people attended the first meeting of the acquisitions group in November, and Blomberg said it will begin its activities in earnest this month.

"Daniel has been involved with us for well over a decade," she said, "and we're just thrilled to have him help us work with the contemporary material and bring some of the biggest names in contemporary art to Denver."

At the same time, the museum is trying to broaden its representation of historical work, which is mostly focused at this point on western Africa.

"It is a goal of ours to have the continent much more well represented," she said. "There is one strategy that says you play to your strengths, and we have done that to some degree - our Yoruba collections are terrific.

"But now, it's time to broaden it, because we are really the only museum between Kansas City and San Francisco that significantly collects African art, so we need to have a broader representation to show all these different art forms and cultures to the people in Denver."

Besides seeking financial donations, the group hopes to identify major collectors of African art locally and nationally who might be willing to contribute their holdings to the Denver Art Museum.

Athough Yohannes has purchased some African works, he does not consider himself a collector. But he does make it a point to seek out art museums wherever he goes in his frequent travels in the United States and abroad.

"I'm a little biased because I was born in Ethiopia and I love African art, but as someone who really admires art, I like all arts," said Yohannes, 54, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Africa at 17 with $150 in his pocket.

After college, he entered the banking business, coming to Colorado 14 years ago to oversee Colorado National Bank, which was eventually folded into U.S. Bank. While the new bank he launched is a far smaller operation, experts expect it to fill a key niche for green technology and alternative energy.

Yohannes' first major involvement with the Denver Art Museum dates to 1994. He persuaded Colorado National Bank to sponsor the institution's presentation of a touring exhibition of the 14th- to 19th-century art of Benin from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1997, Yohannes, who had joined the Smithsonian National Board a year earlier (he remained a member of the advisory group until 2003), was appointed to the Denver Art Museum's board of trustees.

"They found me, but I was interested, so I didn't say no," he said. "I signed on real fast. As someone who has been to different places not only here but overseas, I believe that we really have a very good museum here. So it has just been an absolute delight to serve on this board."

Among the biggest assets Yohannes brings to the board, said director Lewis Sharp, is his extensive involvement not only in the business world but in politics. Yohannes is a longtime supporter of the Democratic Party and many of its candidates.

"Daniel really has a lot of connections throughout the broad community, and that is very valuable," Sharp said. "Because on our board we will often have very successful individuals, but they will often be more entrepreneurs, and they don't have that kind of community reach Daniel has."

In addition, Sharp said, as a member of the museum's African American Outreach Advisory Committee, Yohannes has played an important role in helping the institution develop a "more positive and engaging" relationship with Denver's black community.

"When I think back 10 years ago," Sharp said, "we had a relatively limited relationship with minority communities and the African-American community (specifically), and Daniel has been a great help in that regard."

Yohannes' name can already be found on a gallery wall at the museum, but expect to hear it more as the institution makes an even bigger effort to boost its involvement with African art.

Aldo Svaldi contributed to this report.

Fine arts critic Kyle MacMillan can be reached at 303-954-1675 or


Denver Art Museum © Studio Daniel Libeskind/Studio Daniel LibeskindDenver art museum


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