Gundega Stevens, G44

Gundega Stevens has a passion for contemporary abstracts, and a gallery on South Eighth Street, and a knack for helping people feel at home with art.

“People get nervous about artwork if they don’t know anything about art,” she says, “and I tell them — it’s like the wine world too, you know — it’s like, ‘Do you like it or not? It doesn’t have to be complicated.’

“Art can be so intimidating for people. I mean, if they put their head in the door, I tell them to come in — it’s not a library! Yeah, it’s great to know the history of a piece and where it came from, or what it’s evoking or referencing. That’s fine. But at the end of the day, do you like it? Does it bring some sort of emotion to you? Does it remind you of past good experiences — good or bad? Come look. If you don’t like it, that’s fine.

“I never want it to be intimidating to people. I want it to be very welcoming.”

Stevens was born in Boston, but her family moved to the Springs just three months later. She attended Skyway Elementary, Cheyenne Mountain Junior High and Cheyenne Mountain High School, then earned her bachelor’s in art history at CU Boulder before leaving Colorado to pursue her master’s in art history at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Sept. 20 marks seven years since she opened G44 Gallery in the Springs’ Southwest, where she showcases local and regional artists and artisans, with an emphasis on abstract contemporary and contemporary realism.

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Stevens spoke with the Business Journal about the Springs art scene, what it takes to be a curator, and having her dream come true.

Tell us about coming home, and opening G44 Gallery.

I was gone for about 15 years — first grad school, then I got a job at the Milwaukee Art Museum and I worked there for six years or so. I’ve been in galleries and museums most of my career. I wanted to move back here after a long stint — and I couldn’t find anything in the art world, so I picked up odds-and-ends jobs. Then my family purchased Sovereignty Wines and I told them, ‘If there ever is an opportunity for me to have my own gallery next door…’ — for whatever reason, I really wanted to be next door to my family. And it happened. That dream came true seven years ago. … I knew I wanted to make a difference here. I have a passion for art, and at the time there wasn’t much art culture here. It’s coming around.

How do you think Colorado Springs’ art scene is changing?

The art scene here is fantastic. It’s amazing. When I opened seven years ago, people laughed at me. They’re like, ‘You’re never gonna make it.’ ‘Why don’t you have aspen trees and paintings of Pikes Peak?’ ‘We only go to Santa Fe to see serious art.’ And I was like, ‘OK. It’s a challenge.’ It’s come a long way. The artists have always been here; it’s just there’s a lot more amazing galleries now. We’re all in this together and we’re rallying together, the artists and the gallerists. It’s a great scene here and it’s just getting bigger and better.

Do you think that just comes with the territory, as a city grows? 

Well, the Springs has a long history of arts — the Broadmoor [Art] Academy and Bemis [School of Art] — there’s been a lot of culture here for arts. … But I think we had a period where people thought that you could find something better elsewhere. We weren’t looking inside; we weren’t looking at what we had here. … I think everybody’s just starting to recognize it, and embracing it; supporting it and loving it and excited to see more art.

When you opened, what was your goal? 

I have a small gallery — 500 square feet — so my goal was always to have solo shows, to just show one person at a time, and to do a balance between up-and-coming artists and established artists; local and some regional artists. I don’t think it’s the case anymore, but at the time it was hard to get a solo show for an artist. I was very excited to be the first gallery where they had a solo show. It’s a big deal to put that on your resumé, as an artist, and to walk into your show and see only your work on the gallery walls. Even well known and experienced artists still walk in here and they gasp a little.

Where did your love for art come from?

Definitely my family, my parents. My parents are both from Latvia, which is a very artistic country, and it’s kind of trickled down to me. I grew up with artwork all over the house: Paintings salon-style — floor to ceiling — pottery, music. You name it, it was surrounding me all the time and I just loved it. I don’t think I realized there was a career in it until I got to college. …

Do you create, or do you find your place more on the gallery side?

I’ve dabbled in everything and I wish I was an amazing artist, but I’m better on this side of things — as an art historian and appreciator. I always tell people if you’re going to make me call myself an artist, then curating is an art form. I love curating.

Tell us about that — a lot of people probably don’t really understand what it involves. 

People don’t. It’s hard. They think, ‘Oh, you just put it up on a wall and that’s it.’ But it’s everything from very technical — making sure you hang at the right height so that people of all sizes can see it — to creating a story within a story. Because the artist has created their story with all the artwork, and they drop it off and then it’s my turn to create a story from what they have. So artists are always interested to see what I do after they drop it off. It’s more than just putting sizes together or colors together. It’s sometimes hard to explain. It’s just like a feeling. I’ll hang it. I’ll give it a day. I’ll come back in and see if it still speaks to me — because it has to flow. If it doesn’t flow, people aren’t going to look at it.

Which Springs artists do you find inspiring?

There are so many artists that are amazing here. I do lean more towards abstract contemporary artwork. … I love Suz Stovall — very abstract, very colorful, bright, vibrant, exciting. I love Karen Khoury, she does these small acrylics — they look like sculptures. I could go on. … There’s a theme, and it’s all about what I feel.

Does it matter that you’re not downtown? 

I am definitely a destination gallery. I don’t have a lot of foot traffic, which is hard; it’s challenging. But it’s seven years in an odd location — so I’ll take it. I mean, I would love to be somewhere with higher foot traffic and more visibility. I know people who live in this area who will come across me like, ‘How long have you been here? I didn’t know you’re here.’ … That’s tough. It’s challenging, but I feel like I make do. And this neighborhood has been wonderful — Ivywild, Broadmoor — they’ve all been so supportive of me. So sometimes I want to move to a heavier foot traffic area, and sometimes I don’t. I toy with it.

Do you remember the first piece of art you bought for yourself? 

I do. I was in my 20s — and considering how many galleries and museums I’ve worked with, that was pretty late. My girlfriend was getting married in Crested Butte and they had an art festival and I remember buying a piece of art. It is abstract — a thin, unframed piece. And I was so proud about it. I had moved on from posters, concert posters and that kind of thing, to find something original. I still love it after all these years.

What’s best about your work? 

I love the people I work with. I joke that the artists are like my children and I can’t pick just one favorite. … I curate the shows, and I kind of curate the artists — I invite people in that I want to know better and I want to be in my life. It’s not exclusive here, but I do like to work with amazing people and amazing artists. So I love that about what I’ve created for myself here and for the community. I would like to continue selling artwork and being known in town as a good place to go to buy art and works by other artisans. I’m very proud of what I’ve done and created and the people that I showcase. I want to continue doing that.