DENVER — Sarah Anschutz Hunt remembers the time when all of the paintings disappeared from her house. She was still “really small,” as she recalls it, but had become accustomed to living with her family’s growing collection of Western art, with works by Frederic Remington, George Catlin, Albert Bierstadt, Charles Marion Russell and others.
The collection had become too important, reckoned her father, billionaire Colorado businessman Philip Anschutz, to be kept from public view.
“I didn’t understand at the time, but my dad decided he would send everything out on tour,” she said. “And we ceased having great paintings on the walls of our home.”
The Anschutz Collection would spend the next 20 years roaming the globe, with shows in London, Paris, Beijing and Moscow, before Hunt would be reunited with it as a complete set, only this time at her workplace, the American Museum of Western Art in Denver, where she serves as executive director.
The museum is now the permanent home of the collection, and visitors are welcome to commune in a quiet, controlled setting with more than 300 canvases — by Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ernest Blumenschein and more — that are stacked two or three high, and set just inches apart, on three levels of the historic Navarre Building.
At 25,000 square feet, the museum is small, by design, and maintains a sharply focused mission to show American paintings, most prominently from the second half of the 19th century, but continuing into the 20th century and including works from the famous Taos Society of Artists. Opened to the public in 2012, it receives visitors from around the world, though not too many; the museum’s limited hours — just Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — keep attendance at about 8,000 a year.
“When we set out to create this museum, having hundreds of people in those galleries at a time was just not anything we envisioned,” Hunt said. “We actually have policies, that if we ever got to that place, we would limit the number of people on a given day.”
The museum exhibits art, but also aims to tell the story of westward expansion as it was reported by artists of the era. Their work records, in colorful and expansive detail, the bravery and fortitude of early American pioneers and also — because we look at the objects in hindsight — the social and environmental casualties their migration precipitated.
All of the characters of Wild West lore make appearances. There are cowboys, of course, but of many kinds, including the Mexican “California Vaqueros” captured in oil by James Walker in 1875. And, there are Native Americans — Apache, Blackfeet, Chippewa and Sioux — sometimes depicted in domestic scenes, other times in battle, as in Charles Schreyvogel’s “The Silenced War Whoop” from 1908.
There are miners, traders, scouts, stagecoach drivers, calvary soldiers and railroad builders, dramatically rendered in such paintings as Henry Farny’s “The Coming of the Fire Horse” (1910). Even Daniel Boone makes a cameo in William Tylee Ranney’s 1849 “Boone’s First View of Kentucky” (“You were always west of something at one point in American history,” Hunt said of the shifting geography in the paintings.)
Most prominent is the landscape itself. Mountains, rivers and forests are depicted in exaggerated majesty by artists including Bierstadt, George Inness and James Francis Cropsey and Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins, who tagged along on an early expedition. Their work often has an artificial luminosity to it, a heavenly glow, but it revels in natural splendor and captivates with traditional notions of beauty. At the time it was painted, before landscape photography was common, this body of work introduced a young country to its still-new Louisiana Purchase acquisitions and inspired the first efforts to preserve open spaces.
Some of the objects are important from a purely historical perspective. Catlin’s 1832 trio of paintings depicting Mandan o-kee-pa ceremonies are a rare pictorial record of a coming-of-age ritual that disappeared as the tribe was decimated in the years that followed.
Paintings like that underscore the value of the Anschutz Collection, which strives to be lean, though meaningful. “They don’t collect 10 Remingtons, they collect one or two, but they’re among the very best,” said Thomas Brent Smith, director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art, which oversees the sweeping Western collection at the nearby Denver Art Museum.
The museum’s brilliant canvases are made even more vivid by their surroundings in the Navarre Building, itself a relic of the West’s rise. The ornate structure opened in 1880 as a boarding school for girls, and it had incarnations as a casino, a bordello, a nightclub run by jazz clarinetist Peanuts Hucko and an Italian restaurant before the Anschutz family acquired it, restoring its elaborately painted ceiling and adding period furnishings.
In some ways, it is impossible to separate the museum from the family that offers it to the community. It’s an unusual museum in that its annual budget is covered almost fully by the Anschutz Foundation. There’s relatively little fundraising or marketing, and the only expansion the museum plans in the near future, according to Hunt, is in the number of school groups that it welcomes at no charge on off days.
In that way, the museum is more like a bit of philanthropy than an actual nonprofit business. Now 79, Anschutz — who made his money in oil, railroads, sports arenas and lately as owner of the Coachella Music Festival — is well known for his charitable contributions in Colorado. Numerous medical centers and education buildings bear the name of Anschutz, the 40th richest person in America, according to Forbes.
“We definitely are kind of quirky in our operation,” Hunt said. “We’re museum professionals, we’re just a little quieter, because we can be.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.