Analysis: Women leave mark on local arts

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Women have been prime movers in the city’s arts scene for decades.

It’s now thriving, egalitarian, accessible and becoming more so. Women have senior leadership positions in almost every major arts-focused nonprofit in the city, including the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, the Ent Center for the Arts at UCCS and the Pioneers Museum. They own galleries and other arts-related businesses and create significant artwork. There doesn’t seem to be a glass ceiling locally, an invisible and impenetrable good-ol’-boys network, but that wasn’t always the case.

The Men’s Club

When Gen. William Palmer founded Colorado Springs in 1871, it was a real estate promotion conceived, funded, designed and managed by men. Women were second-class citizens, shut off from participating in commerce and government.

As historian Alice Echols noted in Shortfall, her recently published account of a local financial scandal in the early 20th century, “The idea that the home was women’s and children’s sphere — inviolate and separate from the ruthlessly competitive and morally compromising world of commerce in which men moved — still had traction, particularly in Colorado Springs.”

Educated, intelligent women had few options, and many turned to the arts. They were creators, like author Helen Hunt Jackson and artist Eliza Greatorex, benefactors like Julie Penrose, Alice Bemis Taylor and Betty Hare or subjects, like Palmer’s daughter Elsie. Ann Gregory Van Briggle, who founded and managed the Van Briggle Memorial Pottery Building after her husband’s death from tuberculosis, may have been our city’s first woman arts entrepreneur.

But Van Briggle was an outlier. A 1916 exhibition catalogue of the Colorado Springs Art Society clearly shows guys ran things, while the women served as worker bees on a  six-member, all-women “Committee on Arrangements.”

The pattern continued for decades. Penrose, Hare and Taylor built the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center which, despite its origins, employed only one female museum director until 2016.

In that same year, the FAC merged with Colorado College, led by Jill Tiefenthaler. Today, veteran nonprofit manager Erin Hannan and Colorado College Professor Rebecca Tucker lead the revitalized institution, renamed the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.

The FAC’s leadership change doesn’t signal a new era for women, but confirms today’s workplace reality. Women are full participants in the arts in Colorado and are responsible for much of the simmering vitality that characterizes its arts community.

The entrepreneur

Longtime Colorado Springs resident Laura Reilly has been a professional artist since 1998.

She nowworks out of her eponymous gallery at 2522a W. Colorado Ave. in the heart of Old Colorado City.  She sells only her own work — landscapes ranging from “small daily paintings” to large, expansive Colorado scenes.

And while Reilly’s work can be found in corporate and private collections throughout the Pikes Peak region, she relies on pedestrian walk-ins to her 122-square-foot space for most of her sales.

“I’ve had people tell me that it would be an apartment in New York,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine living in a space that small. But I’ve always been a painter — I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have a brush or a pencil in my hand. To see and translate into paint the great beauty all around us is truly a privilege.”

And has her location and passion brought commercial success? On a recent sunny September weekend, Reilly sold 28 paintings.

“A lot of them were small,” she noted, “but four or five were big pieces.  It was a pretty good weekend — I guess that’d be a good weekend for a much bigger gallery.”

The leadership team

Not so long ago, the FAC would have been quiet and vacant at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in early October, but things have changed. Earlier this week, the parking lot was almost full and the building was bustling.

“Well, it’s Arts Month,” said Museum Director Tucker. “There’s a lot going on.”

Buck Walsky’s installation “Beach Front” shimmered in the afternoon sun in the FAC’s courtyard as five staff members sat for a group portrait. FAC Director Erin Hannan, Media Relations Manager Amanda Weston, Modern and Contemporary Curator Joy Armstrong and Bemis School of Art Director Tara Sevanne Thomas joined Tucker. Where were the guys?

“You mean (Director of Performing Arts) Scott Levy,” said Weston with a laugh.

Levy isn’t the only male manager at the FAC, but he and his male colleagues are definitely outnumbered. The management team is young, experienced, predominantly female and strongly engaged with Colorado Springs. For the first time in many years, the FAC is fiscally unconstrained, thanks to the merger with Colorado College. The center  ramped up its community outreach, extended its opening hours and broadened its scope. It’s an exciting time, and the women who will help shape the new era are delighted by the challenges before them.

For Hannan, who has spent much of her career working in marketing and communications in Colorado Springs, it’s a dream job. But will she ever be tempted to leave the Pikes Peak region for a bigger job elsewhere? Probably not, although there may be no bigger nonprofit arts-related position in Colorado Springs.

“I’m really deeply rooted in Colorado Springs,” she said. “I hope to have a long story in this community.”

And while the glass ceiling may have vanished in Colorado Springs, that’s not the case everywhere.

“Museum directors tend to be male,” said Tucker, citing a recent article in the New York Times. If so, the FAC and Colorado Springs are leading the way. And 146 years after the city’s founding, it’s about time.