When the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center opened the innovative John Gaw Meem building in 1936, it was the culmination of one extraordinary woman’s vision. Alice Bemis Taylor, aided by friends Julie Penrose and Elizabeth Sage Hare, conceived and largely funded the FAC. It was an extraordinary gift to a sleepy little tourist town of 35,000 residents, eclipsing anything in Denver, Santa Fe, Albuquerque or Phoenix.
Yet, absent public funding or a substantial endowment, the FAC’s finances have always been somewhat precarious. By early 2016, it had become clear to board members that the FAC wasn’t sustainable as a stand-alone organization.
In August 2016, Colorado College and the FAC announced that the FAC would be acquired by the college in a merger that would bring financial stability to the FAC and broad artistic, educational and intellectual resources to both institutions.
Colorado College and the Fine Arts Center recently released “Excellence, Access, and Collaboration: A Strategic Plan for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.”
At 23 pages, it’s relatively brief and mostly aspirational. Given that the merger will not formally conclude until 2020, that’s not surprising.
A joint press release noted that the merger agreement “… calls for a four-year transition period to allow for careful planning and integration of the three programming areas of the Fine Arts Center — the museum, the Bemis School of Art and the performing arts program. The focus on the museum starts in July 2017, Bemis in July 2018, and the performing arts in July 2019.”
Despite the slow-paced process, the facts on the ground are quickly changing. Scores of collaborative projects have been launched between the two partners during the past 10 months, harbingers of a new dynamism that may revitalize both.
During a recent discussion with FAC Director Erin Hannan, Museum Director Rebecca Tucker, curator Joy Armstrong and media relations/outreach manager Amanda Weston, it was clear the FAC is moving briskly forward.
First, the obvious: The FAC and Colorado College are both led by women. That’s not unusual per se, but the FAC has never had a woman director since founding, let alone an entirely female leadership team.
Freed from the fiscal constraints of the past, the FAC aspires to again be a place of creative ferment, of new ideas and community relevance.
“We’re positioned to do what we set out to do [in the merger],” said Tucker. “It’s been a wonderful experience. It’s kind of a hive of ideas.”
It’s not, Tucker pointed out, as if CC had suddenly become the FAC’s undemanding sugar daddy. The college has agreed to set aside $20 million of its $683 million endowment to support the FAC, but it expects a substantial non-monetary return on its investment.
“They’ve invested, and the community has invested,” said Tucker, who also serves as a CC professor of fine arts. “The merger offers tremendous teaching potential. We’ve had 45 classes meet here, and not just arts-related subjects. I think the merger can be the nexus for a new way of thinking about knowledge.”
With 200 faculty members teaching 2,000 students at Colorado College, opportunities for collaboration abound. Political science professor John Gould used a Soviet-era work by Oleg Lomakin in a block he was co-teaching recently. Titled “Spring on the Collective Farm,” the grandly scaled painting depicts an idealized rural countryside peopled by happy, hard-working laborers. On loan from local collector Gary Loo, the painting aptly symbolizes the depth and breadth of the artistic resources that the FAC brings to the merger.
Other CC faculty members and students are swarming around the “hive of ideas,’’ bringing energy, ideas and collaboration.
For example, in February, CC Assistant Professor of Music Ryan Bañagale composed music for the FAC production of “Enchanted April,” performed Feb. 9-26. The music was scored for a string quartet of CC students, and recorded by CC students assisted by FAC sound designer Ben Heston. In March, FAC staff and CC faculty selected two CC students, Jennifer Welden and Jake Paron, to create site-specific installations as part of their senior art exhibition. The installations were on view April 28-May 23 in the FAC courtyard.
Here’s one of the more specific and intriguing recommendations of the strategic plan:
“Taking advantage of the proximity of our major arts facilities — including the FAC, Cornerstone Arts Center, Packard Hall, and CC’s arts education spaces — we will develop an arts corridor for our entire community. As it evolves, we will encourage local galleries, studios, and other arts and creative entities to locate nearby and become integral members of the community the arts corridor promotes. The corridor should be not a collection of individual locations, but a dynamic, collaborative space — a lively hub for the arts, education, and culture that eases movement across venues and benefits all.”