Prestigious colleges have often included college-affiliated art museums; think Harvard, Yale, Williams and of course, Colorado College. Such partnerships were always slightly strained, since museums tend to focus much of their attention on the past, while colleges live in the here and now. The kids have to be educated, the professors and administrators paid, the classes taught, the campus kept safe, complaints, misbehavior and angry parents dealt with — rinse and repeat until the end of time! College museums have curators, archivists, skilled staff, guards and often contain extensive and valuable art collections. Such facilities were usually stress-free refuges from the noisy realities of campus life.
In the pre-digital era, such collections were valuable adjuncts to a liberal education. That era’s simplified, consensual view of America and the world encouraged administrators and professors to expose students to original European/American art, perhaps believing that even the most money-grubbing future investment banker could become a decent person — just watch him (it was always a him) swoon before a Filippo Lippi Madonna and Child.
And today? Our quarrelsome times have created a new academia, a new vernacular and a new conception of the past. The past is not something to treasure, but a treacherous sinkhole of entrenched racism, white privilege and misunderstood history. Best stay away from it — professors and administrators well understand that it’s nothing but trouble. So what about all the art and objects moldering away in guarded, climate-controlled storage areas?
They’ll keep on moldering, at least for the foreseeable future. No sane college administrator/professor will expose today’s diverse, unruly and self-assured students (not like us — we were polite, respectful and deferential, weren’t we?) to the micro and macro aggressions of the past. And anyway, they can keep this stuff at arm’s length by noting that it’s all available online.
Yet museums and universities have been deeply connected for thousands of years. The word “museum” comes from a building erected at Alexandria by Ptolemy | Soter, from the Greek mouseion for “seat of the Muses.” But nobody cares about this stuff now, creating dilemmas for museums and donors.
Does it make sense for longtime collectors of pre-21st century art to give or will their collections to their alma mater’s museum, where it may rarely be displayed? Conversely, should the museum hang on to controversial and troubling pieces in their collections, or auction them off? The easiest thing to do is nothing, especially since the prices of mid-level 19th and 20th century regional artworks have been declining for years.
Ours is an age of decluttering, of dispensing with objects and getting rich via crypto, NFTs, social media influencing and the like. I have hundreds of drawings, paintings, prints, lithographs and posters collected over the decades — call it the Hazlehurst Museum of Mediocre Art. My kids only want one of the half-dozen good ones. That’s why I’m still trying to collect — it’s so cheap that even I can afford sort-of good stuff.
Yet I mourn the Fine Arts Center exhibitions that may never happen, thanks both to the troubling shadows of the past and the needs of the present. Imagine a comprehensive show of the works of the four greatest photographers of 20th-century Colorado Springs: W.H. Jackson, Laura Gilpin, Myron Wood and Robert Adams. Gilpin was born here, Wood lived and worked here from 1947 until his death in 1999. Jackson’s photographs define and celebrate 19th century Colorado Springs, while Robert Adams redefined it The New West. Published in 1970, the prescient photographic essay wordlessly documented the careless,
explosive growth of the time.
The FAC’s collection includes 96 of Gilpin’s prints, and a few by Jackson, Adams and Wood. The PPLD owns Wood’s extensive archives while Jackson’s Colorado images are abundant and available in many collections, including
History Colorado and the Library of Congress. It’d be easy to put a show together, but probably not one that includes Adams.
The National Gallery is about to open a major retrospective of his work on May 29, titled American Silence. The exhibition will be documented in a book whose cover photo shows a Frontier gas station at deep dusk in 1969, with Pikes Peak silhouetted in the night sky. Titled “Pikes Peak Colorado Springs,” it both celebrates and diminishes the vanished city I remember so well. Alas, I even remember the radio jingle: “Fill her up, Fill her up with Frontier, Frontier Ethyl 1960 gasoline!”
FAC exhibition? Nope — it’s bound for Reno after its run in Washington. We may think we’re cool, but we’re still a flyover…