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Centers of attention inspire an artistic awakening

With efforts like road trips and radio shows, three orgs lead an artistic reboot

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Editor's note: This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. on Jan. 30 to correct an erroneous characterization of governmental plans to improve the Alley Arts District.

They say it takes three to make a trend, three to make a crowd, and for writers, three items to prove your point. (See what I mean?) And if we're to track what's moving among the arts organizations in this town, you don't have to dig much to find three places that prove the Latin phrase: omne trium perfectum, or, everything that comes in threes is perfect.

OK, "perfect" isn't the right word, but how about "better"?

Since October 2008, locals in the arts world, like everyone else, have suffered financially. Galleries shuttered (remember Gallery Two-Ten? Edifice Gallery?), and nonprofits struggled to make ends meet. In 2010, Sam Gappmayer, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, told the Indy he'd been forced to cut staff by 20 percent in two years. Smokebrush Gallery had downsized even earlier, both in employees and square footage.

Lately, however, things have quietly started to pick up. Galleries, like Colorado Expressions on East Kiowa Street and G44 Gallery on South Eighth Street, have opened. The Ivywild School will debut as a cultural hub in March, with murals on its walls and guest artists in a studio run by former Smokebrush director Holly Parker. And Smokebrush itself has gone bigger again, moving to a new location in the Trestle Building and focusing on the "healing arts" with daily yoga classes and a lively schedule of art shows, concerts and receptions.

In the heart of downtown, the Alley Arts District is moving forward, slowly but steadily, with organizers hoping to create a cosmopolitan alleyway between Cascade Avenue and Tejon Street, stretching from East Platte Avenue to East Kiowa Street. It's a huge idea that requires coordination and agreement from the dozens of businesses and entities sharing the alley. But the city's pitching in a little help, with its Parking Enterprise listing lighting improvements there among the projects it hopes to complete in 2013.

2013 also marks the second year of the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region's Peak Arts Fund, which last year distributed $35,995 to 15 local arts nonprofits and hopes to raise $50,000 in its 2013 campaign that kicks off in March. COPPeR has also launched the Art in Store fronts initiative, which turns vacant shops downtown into sites for temporary art installations.

Suffice to say, there's more to talk about than a single story can handle. So let's look at three legacy organizations that help define the arts — and help produce some of what COPPeR says is an annual economic impact of nearly $100 million — in the Pikes Peak region. Taking markedly different paths, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the Business of Art Center and the Cottonwood Center for the Arts have all weathered the times' significant changes and emerged stronger.

Worldly wise

In 2007, the Fine Arts Center completed an expansion from 88,000 to roughly 137,000 square feet. A good thing, yes. But when the economy cratered soon after, covering the expansion's $28 million cost became more difficult.

The FAC carried on gallantly, making do with a small staff and then some — by offering expanded theater programming and events like family days to attract non-traditional museum visitors. Today, those bills are getting close to being paid off, says museum director Blake Milteer.

"It's a little more complex than that," cautions Gappmayer. "But in general, I think it's fair to say we're getting comfortable in the new digs ..."

Better, the museum is starting to assert itself more in the outside world.

Late last year, the FAC started the Museum Society, a museum group run by Milteer and development director Tom Jackson that takes members behind the scenes at the FAC, as well as to local collectors' homes, artists' studios and, most recently, to the Denver Art Museum for a walk through Becoming Van Gogh with exhibition curator Timothy J. Standring. Fees for the Society, on top of a regular museum membership, can be steep — $500 annually per couple for a full membership or $100 annually per couple for an introductory membership — but the perks are great. For the Denver trip, 20 group members chartered a Gray Line bus and sipped wine on the drive back while discussing the show with Milteer. They're planning a trip out of state to an arts destination this spring, with designs on an international venture in the future. (And mind you, they get in where most people don't.)

The group isn't only for art lovers, but collectors as well. With Milteer helping, those collectors can work to build a cohesive collection of their own (more on that later). Plus, those who buy art can build networks with brokers, galleries, artists and other curators. Those networks, in turn, link the FAC to other people and organizations, which then pulls the Springs as a whole into the web.

"Part of the goal of this group is to nurture a kind of worldliness that we can bring back to the community," Milteer says. Indeed, this Society puts the FAC in a new class of museums, in a way. Groups like this are pretty standard in the high-level art world. The DAM has one for most of its 12 curatorial departments, and big guns like the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City have some expressly for young professionals.

Further following the lead of major institutions, the FAC is creating an online database of key pieces from its collection. Volunteers are snapping images of the works with the museum registrar, and the marketing department is building the digital structure; Gappmayer estimates they're within months of going online. He says they'll post between 200 and 300 pieces in the first year, and add to that on an ongoing basis.

A system like this not only offers a point of FAC entry for, say, a Native American pottery enthusiast in Australia, but it helps display the collection for museums that may wish to borrow from it. Like the Society, it's something to put Colorado Springs on the map.

There's a third major coup in the FAC's effort to up its (and the Springs') profile, and it has to do with the Floyd Tunson retrospective that Michael Paglia of Westword called "one of the greatest ever devoted to a Coloradan." Next month, Artforum will run a review of the show — the FAC's first appearance in the international magazine that's widely considered the art world's publication of record.

As for the art itself? The FAC's permanent collection is growing by about 30 to 40 works annually. 2012 brought pieces from South African artist William Kentridge (the subject of a 2010 exhibit) and Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. It also brought a promise from Ron and Una Brasch: to donate their private collection, one with lots of big names, to the FAC upon their deaths.

"As a result of that promise," Gappmayer says, "Ron and Una work closely with [Milteer] as they continue to collect going forward so we can have an appropriate level of input into the shaping of that collection."

Ask Milteer about the present day, though, and he says there's one thing the FAC lacks — a flagship piece of art. The Walt Kuhn "Trio" and John Singer Sargent portrait of Elsie Palmer are great, but they haven't defined the place. "And it's time," Milteer says with a smile.

"We're always looking for that," Gappmayer says. "I know [Milteer] has his eye on — and I'm not going to say what — a particular piece that we hope to purchase in the next couple of months."

Like a phoenix

Patrick Bohnen offers a mug of tea from his new office inside the Business of Art Center. He's wearing a newsboy cap, a button-down shirt with a BAC button, and a kilt, his usual attire."I'll call it a skirt every now and then, because in all honesty that's what it is. It's not wool, it's not nine yards, it's not a great kilt, so ..." Bohnen says good-naturedly. He adds that he first donned the garment on a whim, and is not really Scottish.

What the 23-year-old is, however, is the BAC's newest gallery manager and curator. And though the gallery schedule is set through mid-2014, Bohnen is already busy trying to seek out Denver and Pueblo artists to show there.

Leaving his office, he meets up with Natalie Johnson, 36, BAC executive director, herself wearing a warm get-up of a dress, undershirt and boots. Everything about the two of them is fashionable, energetic, new. And the vibe carries through much of the complex, a testament to Johnson's ability to find opportunity in calamity.

Last August, just two months after Johnson arrived, an unknown group or person snuck into Venue 515, stopped up all the drains and let the water run overnight. Insurance would cover most of the $100,000 in repairs, but the BAC was still on the hook for $10,000 in ancillary costs, and without half its public space for months.

Johnson and company (numbering 25 studio artists and 65 member artists) responded by embarking on a vigorous membership drive. They held donation parties, like a community "group hug" reception and a concert at Stargazers Theatre & Event Center. And as they reconstructed the building, they thought big.

When the place reopened last November, revamped lighting afforded the BAC a another proper gallery space (bringing the complex a total of six such spaces), and a new upstairs layout yielded room for a community reading room and gallery. Johnson's own business, Black Cat Books, moved from a block and a half away to the gift shop area of the 513 building. She keeps the operations pretty separate, but a bookstore does well to draw people in to the galleries, she says, and keeps the place on a more regular business-hour schedule overall.

The center still regularly offers classes that focus, literally, on the business of art: public relations, marketing, building a patron base. But the galleries are flanked by nearly 30 studios, some with impressive kilns and printing presses. Venue 515 houses offices, holds concerts and events, and serves soups and coffees in its café.

Public (non-artist) membership has shot up to about 140 people, and Johnson reports that the BAC is in better financial shape than it has been in a long time.

All of which makes the BAC, more and more, a site of myriad activities. The Friday the Indy visited, Johnson counted 20 events going on that week alone, from one-time concerts to its weekly groups, which range from t'ai chi classes, to spirituality discussion gatherings, to kids' music jams to a knitting circle. On Jan. 19 it hosted volunteers for the National Day of Service.

The place, it seems, is outgrowing its name.

"We feel like 25 years ago when the organization was founded, there was a real need for that professional artist incubator program, where you're taking professional seminars and that sort of stuff," says Bohnen. "But now our mission has sort of shifted to more of a community center for artists ... wherein we provide studio space, we're providing galleries, we're providing shows."

That community part is certainly growing. In response to the Waldo Canyon Fire, the BAC launched Art for a New Start, which promised anyone who lost a home a free piece of art. It gave away about 240 pieces, and allowed fire victims to convene at a lighthearted reception free of stressful business and insurance talk.

While a new logo is in the works no matter what, Johnson says the board is taking its time on the name change. On a window looking into the clay studio there's a cluster of ideas scribbled on Post-It notes: Fart Monster Building, Big Art Manitou, Building Art Community, Don't Change It.

October will mark the center's 25th birthday, which is the absolute latest the board has to decide on a name. Johnson feels like something will be decided sooner, if not by next month. Knowing her and Bohnen, you get the feeling it'll happen.

Branching out, building up

Cottonwood Center for the Arts may be 40,000 square feet in size, but to get an idea of the changes that have rocked the place from foundation to roof, all you need to see is the lobby.

There's artwork in it.

Every month, a handful of Cottonwood members display, salon-style, in the building's entryway. In mid-January, they presented stained glass, folk paintings and traditional landscapes. The walls used to be bare, before Jon Khoury became executive director.

Khoury, 50, arrived Aug. 6, and in the six short months since then has transformed the 15-year-old institution. For instance, Cottonwood's artist studios are completely filled, including the new "studios" they created by clearing out old storage closets. If you want in, you join others on a waiting list.

There are now monthly art shows with exhibits and parties scattered in between, upping the event count. Khoury says there were more people signed up for art classes in the first 11 days of 2013 than in the nine months prior to his arrival.

Which gives the energetic and sassy Khoury, who transported his wife and kids here from New York, every reason to be proud. But mostly, the Colorado College grad comes off as modest.

"The thing I know the most is that when people work together, things happen," he says.

For instance, a grant allowed Cottonwood's clay studio to be redone and to expand outside, allowing for high-fire soda and raku kilns. Springs Salsa and Dance Fitness, a venerable local dance company, has moved in. Khoury also negotiated a special studio for students from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, who lost their own when the city widened Austin Bluffs Parkway. Among the other new tenants, there's a writer, tattoo artist, a body artist (whose résumé includes work on Syfy's Face Off) and woman who's starting her own newspaper.

Even on a fairly mellow Friday, the place is buzzing. People are walking in and out; laughter from bright studios spills down hallways. "When I come in here at 7 o'clock in the morning, there are people leaving," Khoury says. "There are people who have been here all night."

It's unlikely to slow down anytime soon.

Cottonwood hit radio waves for the first time Jan. 27 with the locally produced Roadtrip Radio, which airs at 8 some Sunday mornings on KREL-AM 1580. Roadtrip host Patty Sue Spiers and Khoury have already recorded four shows, interviewing staff members in Cottonwood's gallery; next they'll move on to Cottonwood artists. For now, the segments will air monthly, but they could become weekly installments. If those are successful, they'll record live.

Spiers first approached Cottonwood about the show after her crew filmed a 30-minute segment on the place late last year for Roadtrip Television. Khoury says it attracted the highest ratings that host station, KWHS-LD, Channel 51, has ever recorded.

Meanwhile, Cottonwood on Tejon, the institution's satellite gallery, is also flourishing. In December, it posted better sales numbers than it had during the entire previous year — likely because Khoury has made it the only place to buy Cottonwood art. The main building is for work and events, and to sell in the store, you must be juried in.

As for those classes mentioned earlier? Cottonwood's going to start offering kids' courses, too, timed around school breaks in the spring and summer. And on Wednesdays, the public can drop in during a three-hour window for a live drawing session with a model and a mentor (not an instructor, Khoury says). It's just $5 if you're a member, and $10 if you're not.

"The goal is not [to] try to compete with everybody else, but to make our own way," he says.

Khoury lived that mantra in New York, making a living representing artists and organizing unusual events. For instance, he developed "Moveable Art" shows, in which companies like IBM and Pepsi hosted temporary art displays in their buildings. Another venture he led called "Lunchtime Café" brought in artwork, baristas and live music (ranging from steel drums to chamber groups) to company cafeterias. "No one else was doing it," he says. "That's how I built a business."

Some of his goals for Cottonwood are equally bold: For one, he hopes to turn the dead-end road to Cottonwood's east — home to Vallejo's Restaurant and the new Mardosz Fine Art — into a district of its own.

Regardless, Khoury has already earned Cottonwood's love. Near his office lies the shared studio of Jo Carol Ciborowski and Tish Lacy Reed. During our visit, Khoury pops in to find Reed talking with former Cottonwood artist Deb Komitor. Both women greet him warmly and gush over what he's done.

"It's wonderful. It's really hopping," Komitor says. "It's hopping. Good energy here."

"Oh my god. This man!" Reed says, laughing. "You're such a breath of fresh air."

Khoury demurs politely. "And just to clarify something," he says later, "what was going on here before we all arrived was great. It was a beautiful start. It was a foundation to let us do what we want to do.

"We're kind of getting into a new mode now where people are realizing that it's not just a flash in the pan, it's really for real and it continues to grow," he says. "And it's just amazing. And I mean 'grow' just in terms of diversity, the people, the action in the building. It's unbelievable."

edie@csindy.com

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