Mary Voelz Chandler, Denver journalist and art critic, has died

Mary Voelz Chandler, whose passionate, authoritative writing on Denver’s art and architecture changed the way Coloradans looked at their largest city, died in her Denver home on Tuesday, Jan. 10, at the age of 74, according to Joe Rassenfoss, her former editor at the Rocky Mountain News.

Chandler died after battling esophageal cancer, Rassenfoss said. She had previously survived a bout with breast cancer in the 2000s.

“If anyone deserves the word ‘comprehensive’ around her work, it’s Mary,” said Rassenfoss, a longtime friend who hired Chandler at the Rocky Mountain News in 1987. While the Rocky shut down in 2009, Chandler continued consulting and researching for architecture firms and finishing massive projects as a journalist, critic and author, according to architect Alan G. Gass.

“She was an outspoken voice, but everybody respected her,” said Gass, who contributed to Chandler’s 311-page book “Guide to Denver Architecture,” which enjoyed two editions and featured a forward by then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. “She had her own sense of values, which didn’t always coincide with mine, but we had some (incredible) conversations.”

“She was voracious in her pursuit of the best art Denver had to offer, and she took it all in,” said Bobbi Walker, owner of Walker Fine Art. “Her powerful voice was indeed instrumental in shaping the robust art scene we enjoy today.”

Chandler was born in St. Louis on June 14, 1948, and went on to write for newspapers in Michigan, New York, Virginia and Florida before moving to Colorado with husband David Leon Chandler. She joined the Rocky Mountain News as a reporter in 1987 and three years later convinced her editors to let her write what would become a long-running, must-read arts column.

“She was a great influence on me as a curator and she recognized integrity,” said Timothy J. Standring, curator emeritus of the Denver Art Museum. “She was brass-tacked and hard nosed and didn’t please everybody, but that made her a more admirable critic in my mind, and someone who served the public well.”

Chandler’s award-winning reporting and uncompromising opinions could make artistic careers and infuriate curators, but it was always confident and well-argued, said friends and former colleagues. She closely covered Denver’s Scientific & Cultural Facilities tax district, which supports hundreds of nonprofit cultural organizations, and chronicled the late ’90s and early 2000s museum-building boom in Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood from the inside.

“She came to each story with an open mind and genuine curiosity,” said Christoph Heinrich, director of Denver Art Museum. “Her dry sense of humor and passion for Denver’s cultural evolution are deeply missed.”

Renowned architect Daniel Libeskind’s sleek, silvery addition to the Denver Art Museum, known as the Hamilton Building, helped usher in a new age for Denver’s museum scene. Chandler covered that as seriously as then-tiny museums such as the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. She opposed and endorsed major civic projects — such as a proposed move of the History Colorado Center to Civic Center — and influenced mayors, architects and artists, and readers.

“I think I did about 30 temporary exhibitions at the original Kirkland Museum location, and Mary reviewed every single one of them,” said Hugh Grant, founding director and curator of the Kirkland Museum.

“It was extraordinary how she did it week in and week out, year after year. And, in addition to all that coverage of museums and individual artist’s shows, Mary reported on historic buildings being threatened and kept up with new architecture across the city,” Grant said. “She deserves to be considered one of the most important art critics in the history of Colorado. We will miss her a great deal.”

Architect David Tryba, who founded the nationally known Tryba Architects, met Chandler around the time he was just getting started in the business, in the late 1980s. Despite their occasional and pitched battles, they always remained friends.

“We often found ourselves on different sides of issues, and she never pulled any punches,” Tryba said. “But what she did was critical as Denver was becoming a contemporary city. We went through a very bleak period when historic buildings were being (demolished) all over Denver, and she and I worked together on preservation. Her column was so important in helping everyone understand why we needed to save what we had left. She dominated the public opinion.”

The Denver Press Club will host a gathering for friends and family of Chandler at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, at 1330 Glenarm Place. She was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2015. Details on another memorial event will be posted at denverpressclub.org.

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