2019 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Broadmoor Art Academy, from which descended the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The FAC, now a part of Colorado College, opened its doors in 1936.
In 1919, Colorado Springs had a population of about 30,000. By 1936, it had increased to 35,000. For its size, it may have been the wealthiest, most sophisticated and most arts-oriented city in the Mountain West. By comparison, Taos and Santa Fe were the Marfas of the day — remote, romantic and obscure. Colorado Springs was home to ardent collectors and distinguished artists, as well as being a conservative, business-oriented community full of ambitious go-getters.
The Broadmoor Art Academy came into being thanks to the generosity of Spencer and Julie Penrose, who donated their mansion on West Dale Street to the nascent arts organization. It was conceived as an “Akadameia,” a place that united the various branches of the arts and offered instruction and lodging for students. The mansion’s greenhouses were converted into artists’ studios, while the second and third floors of the main buildings combined residences and studios. Exhibitions, concerts, meetings and other “delightful affairs” took place on the ground floor, which had been converted into a single large assembly room (today we’d call it a white box space).
The Penroses and other wealthy Springs residents helped with operating costs, and the academy quickly gained a national reputation. Hired as the center’s first director, National Academician John F. Carlson was happy about his summer gig.
“There is every reason why Colorado Springs should be the place for one of the leading art academies in the country,” Carlson told a Gazette reporter in June 1921, “and one of the chief reasons is that it is so fine a city… the appearance of the city, the streets, the people, all is pleasing, and I can think of no better place where young artists could go to study painting.”
The academy thrived throughout the 1920s, but income and philanthropic support withered as the Depression deepened in the early 1930s. That didn’t deter Julie Penrose and her friend Betty Hare, who persuaded Alice Bemis Taylor to drop her plan to fund a museum and theater at Colorado College and join them in building a magnificent arts center on the Dale Street site. Once Taylor was aboard, the three women made it happen. The academy changed its name to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in 1934, and the John Gaw Meem-designed building opened in April of 1936.
The art and performances during opening week set a very high bar, featuring a performance by Martha Graham, showings of three iconic silent films (including the 1902 “A Trip to the Moon”) and an exhibition of works by Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Leger and Van Gogh.
Has the FAC lived up to the aspirations of its founders? I think so, claiming a certain expertise through accident of birth. My grandfather, Francis Drexel Smith, was one of five founding trustees of the academy, and subsequently served as a trustee of the CSFAC. What he wanted was what we got — a permanent and enduring center for the arts in Colorado Springs.
There have been exciting creative times, particularly from 1919 to about 1955, so-so years and a few thoroughly forgettable ones. One director during the 1980s deaccessioned (museum-speak for semi-clandestinely sold) the FAC’s small but significant collection of Northwest Coast Native American art and artifacts. On occasion, the FAC has missed the boat on acquisitions, somehow failing to snag Thomas Moran’s “Mount of the Holy Cross” which was on long-term loan from local banker Jasper Ackerman. And even though the great abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell taught at the FAC School in 1953, the center never acquired any of his paintings. No problem, guys — I’m sure you could pick up a major piece for $100 million or so!
Yet imagine a business that has dominated its market for 100 years, and continues to excite, change and illuminate the city of its birth. Imagine a place conceived and created by brilliant women in 1919 finally being staffed and directed by brilliant women four generations later. My grandfather, a gentle, unassuming man who was very comfortable with powerful women, would be surprised and delighted.
As am I.