The press release announcing David Dahlin as the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's new chief executive was gushing and laudatory. Judging from interim CEO Nechie Hall's remarks, you'd think the FAC had just persuaded the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to leave Manhattan for Colorado Springs.
"We have such a strong staff and executive team who have been creating top-quality experiences and programming," Hall said. "David's refreshing vision and proven business acumen will complement that collective talent with exactly the kind of leadership the organization needs."
Board chair Jim Raughton sounded just as enthused: "The board is delighted that a CEO of David's international caliber will be leading this institution. As Nechie Hall hands the tiller to David Dahlin, it's with confidence that our rich legacy remains in good hands."
So who's David Dahlin? He spent 19 years at Compassion International as chief of staff, chief operating officer and then executive vice president, participating in efforts including fundraising, communication and brand cultivation.
"I have lived in Colorado Springs for 25 years, know the beauty and strength of this community, and am thrilled to bring my extensive experience to such a respected arts institution," Dahlin said in his contribution to the press release. "I look forward to leveraging the power of the arts in not only contributing to the soul of the community, but in exposing people to diverse perspectives, and driving a vibrant economy."
For all the verbiage, there's one thing missing from Dahlin's impressive skill set: the arts. He "considers himself an eclectic leader with diverse global experiences, and personal interests as an amateur musician, scientist, gardener, cook and philosopher," but he apparently has been detached from the city's arts community.
Asked whether Dahlin was a member of the FAC, Hall said, "I don't know. I don't think the search committee even asked that question."
Were they concerned about Dahlin's apparent inexperience with the arts?
"We polled the staff and other interested parties ... and an arts background was the least important attribute of the new CEO," Hall replied.
That seems hard to believe. The hire is either a barrier-breaking decision or a devolutionary step. The FAC has long been a resolutely secular institution, a beacon of tolerance and diversity. Past directors pushed the boundaries; remember when Michael DeMarsche used FAC funds to buy Paul Cadmus' homoerotic masterpiece, "Study for a David and Goliath," in 2004?
At the time, Susan Edmondson applauded this and other 2004 initiatives.
"Colorado Springs has grown from a town to a city. Mike recognizes this, and he wants the center to reflect the desires and sophistication of a growing city," said Edmondson, then executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation and now a member of the FAC board and president/CEO of the Downtown Partnership. But by hiring Dahlin, the FAC seems to be reaching out to a segment of the community that may have felt unwelcome, one that believes art ought to be comforting, classical and conservative, not "sophisticated." That's the community in which Dahlin has thrived.
Compassion International is a wholly admirable organization, globally fighting childhood poverty. The nonprofit aids more than a half-million kids worldwide, with a vast network of donors who contribute $38 monthly to help a specific child. It's a Christ-centered entity, and its employment policies are clear: The first requirement is "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
The FAC, by contrast, is an equal-opportunity employer.
Can Dahlin expand the FAC's universe of visitors, members and donors without unintentionally marginalizing current supporters? We'll see — but it's worth noting that many arts institutions have sought experienced arts administrators as CEOs. In 2009, the Denver Art Museum chose one of its senior curators, Christoph Heinrich, to replace 20-year veteran Lewis Sharp.
"This appointment continues our tradition of naming innovative curators to ... set the artistic vision," DAM board chair Fred Hamilton said then.
And when the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History sought a new director a few years ago, its board chose an experienced museum curator.
Cathy Wright of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.