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Fine Arts Center looks to the future as it celebrates its past

FAC 100


  • Laura Gilpin, ©Amon Carter Museum, Courtesy of the Fine Arts Center

Under a dusting of film grain and the sepia glow of an age-worn photograph, a group of well-dressed artists lounge about in a sunlit garden. A lady holds a parasol against her shoulder, serving as model for a painter who has depicted her in broad brushstrokes on a shaded canvas. Nearby, a gentleman chats with another woman at her easel, her smiling face wreathed by Colorado sunlight. On a small canvas in front of her we see the beginnings of a painting depicting the lush flora of the grounds of the Broadmoor Art Academy. These artists and their fellows appear elegant and proper by our standards, but this serenity represents only one facet of their community.

Images like this reflect what we tend to think of the people who helped build the artistic coterie of early-20th-century Colorado Springs, but the photos don't capture everything. Erin Hannan, director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, says, "Some of the photos that we see are these really sort of genteel people in Garden of the Gods doing en plein air painting and that sort of thing, but meanwhile back at the ranch, there's hijinks going on, and nude models for the figure drawing and these big costume balls. There was a lot of activity that we forget when we look at those genteel pictures, that there was a lot of fun to be had."

In the jam-packed 100 years since the founding of the Broadmoor Art Academy, which became the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center we know today, this community of artists has upheld both sides of its founders' legacy — the refined and the provocative, the fine art and the fun art. Just as the Broadmoor Art Academy offered layers of active artistic engagement to a burgeoning Colorado Springs arts scene, the FAC has developed its own rich, diverse layers of programming, proving that as much as things change, they still stay the same.

Founded in 1919, the Broadmoor Art Academy quickly became a gathering place for artists in the Pikes Peak region, even referred to as a "colony" by some, where professionals vowed to train young artists, and create and exhibit work that would become nationally known. At the time, Colorado Springs was working toward its reputation as "Little London," following an influx of entrepreneurs and revenue brought to the region by the lucrative mining industry. But as with any economy, Colorado Springs could only thrive with activity, and the Broadmoor Art Academy became the first center of cultural experience and artistic engagement in the area.

The presentation of a Spanish colonial altar. - LAURA GILPIN, ©AMON CARTER MUSEUM, COURTESY OF THE FINE ARTS CENTER
  • Laura Gilpin, ©Amon Carter Museum, Courtesy of the Fine Arts Center
  • The presentation of a Spanish colonial altar.

In its headquarters at the former home of Julie and Spencer Penrose, the BAA attracted, taught and retained hundreds of artists over the years, including big names like Lawrence Barrett, Boardman Robinson, Laura Gilpin and Lew Tilley, figures drawn both to the picture-perfect landscape of the region and the vibrant and diverse artistic exploration happening within and outside the Academy's walls. Though the BAA's educators tended to focus on easel painting, the institution has always supported more than just visual art. It presented theater productions, with its own company of players, musical concerts and dance performances to a quickly growing city — a city the BAA grew alongside to accommodate. With diverse mediums, eclectic performances and contemporary schools of thought, the organization cast a wide net, and it included the whole city in its threads.

Of course, a growing arts center meant a need for more space, and so less than 20 years into its operation the BAA took on an ambitious project: creating the Fine Arts Center building, the location that we know today at 30 W. Dale St. Constructed as a one-of-a-kind fusion of Art Deco and Southwestern styles, the building represented everything the BAA itself had come to represent — a contemporary, classy space to explore artistic expression, firmly rooted in the artistic traditions of its home region, presenting what the FAC now refers to as a "sense of place."

The newly christened Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center opened officially in 1936, "at the height of the Depression, [spearheaded] by these audacious women who envisioned this really sort of bold, artistic statement for a pretty small community," Hannan says.

One of these women, Fountain Valley School founder Elizabeth Sage Hare, proved supremely influential not just in the programming of the FAC, but in its underlying philosophy. She was a radical presence in town, the kind of powerhouse of a woman Hannan and her fellow FAC administrators see today in the staff they've employed and the strong women leaders in Colorado Springs.

"It was pretty well known that Elizabeth Sage Hare perhaps, but [also] Boardman Robinson, was a socialist, and that there was this real sort of progressiveness coming from the East Coast into Colorado Springs," Hannan says. "And it would certainly have a presence, if you will, at the art school here at the Fine Arts Center." Hare curated the celebrations that marked the FAC's opening, and Hannan says her choices were considered racy for the times. "Martha Graham danced onstage and she was very avant-garde. The paper wrote about her dancing barefoot on the stage and people were sort of verklempt."

Martha Graham was only the beginning of the eclectic programming the new FAC had to offer, and the excitement of new art never failed to draw the community through the FAC's doors. It hasn't failed since. Over the last century, donations, admissions, grants and other earned revenue have fully supported the FAC. Even the center's massive 2007 renovation only became possible through a capital campaign driven by local philanthropists. They raised about $29 million — reportedly the largest nonprofit fundraising initiative in the city's history.

The support of the community has brought them this far, and now, thanks to a 2016 partnership with Colorado College, the FAC has more resources at its disposal than ever. Hannan says: "I think it's really exciting, just sort of on a really basic level, to see two organizations that have been around for so long — in the case of the college almost 150 years, now for us 100 years — to come together and start to create a narrative around joining forces, and like-minded institutions coming together to create a greater impact than you can individually."

CC president Jill Tiefenthaler echoes her sentiment: "With the alliance between the Fine Arts Center and CC, we are reaching more people of all ages and backgrounds, providing innovative educational opportunities and giving them meaningful ways to engage with artists, performers, scholars and their work."

Historically, patrons have responded most to the FAC's emphasis on engagement, even as that engagement has changed over time.

The BAA players performing Ferenc Molnár's Mr. Somebody. - LAURA GILPIN, ©AMON CARTER MUSEUM, COURTESY OF THE FINE ARTS CENTER
  • Laura Gilpin, ©Amon Carter Museum, Courtesy of the Fine Arts Center
  • The BAA players performing Ferenc Molnár's Mr. Somebody.

The founders' sense of boundary-pushing artistic exploration and avant-garde progressivism earned them the support of the community early on, and those same values have remained a staple of the FAC we know today. The diversity of the FAC's programming, once a diversity of media and now a diversity of experience and identity, extends from the gallery walls to behind the stage curtain. Hannan lists recent exhibits such as Force/Resistance (2017), which examined racism, police brutality and protest from the perspectives of prominent artists of color; and iamuslima (2018), Baseera Khan's exploration of Muslim identity, as examples of exhibits that have challenged perspectives and encouraged dialogue.

Plus, the award-winning FAC theater company, helmed by Scott Levy, has presented its own unique offerings in recent years. Three 2018 plays, Fun Home, Intimate Apparel and Church & State, explored LGBTQ identities, race and class divisions, and political-religious conflict respectively. Plays such as these presented alongside theater staples like Man of La Mancha (winner of five Henry awards in 2017) and Annie (2018), offered both the radical and the classic, opening avenues for any number of people to see themselves and their stories reflected onstage.

Ron Brasch, a longtime board member and donor, speaks to the importance of the FAC's prescient programming: "Sometimes, I think, 'What's the value of art or culture or education when there is so much that needs to be changed to better our community and our world?' Every time, I answer my question — that the FAC is needed more than ever because of our challenging and difficult times."

All aspects of this institution attempt to dismantle or call attention to the imaginary lines we as a society set up around each other — or the imaginary lines academia has often erected between fine art and accessible art. People outside the art world may believe that they cannot engage with fine art either financially or intellectually, but accessibility has become a major focus of the FAC's programming. In fact, according to Hannan, it's one of the FAC's founding values.

  • Laura Gilpin, ©Amon Carter Museum, Courtesy of the Fine Arts Center
  • Members of the BAA with artist Birger Sandzén.

"Alice Bemis Taylor, who was significantly involved in building this building and creating what we know today as a multidisciplinary arts center, wanted it to be open and free to the public," Hannan says. While financially that model may not be feasible in this day and age, the FAC has done its best to execute Bemis' vision.

In addition to recently lowering the price of admission and continuing to offer monthly free admission days, the FAC has reevaluated everything from the layout of its public spaces to the nature of its special events. After all, this diverse and interesting programming only matters if people can access, appreciate and absorb it.

"We've had a really great relationship with the community, and a really great mutual partnership with the community," Hannan says. "... And I think we've done a really good job of remaining connected, and part of the fabric." But, Hannan adds, the goal will always be to become more relevant and welcoming, especially now that they are a part of Colorado College. "Because at the end of the day, we are really a community asset. We're really part of the public trust, if you will. Creating that sense of ownership for our residents and for visitors is really important to us."

To reach this end, they have opened their doors to the community in the form of the Passport to the Arts program, which provides discounts and opportunities to fourth-graders and their families, and programs such as art classes and exhibits that cater to our city's large military and veteran population. But outreach is only part of their efforts. They have also reached inward and increased the impact of their exhibits with multimedia and interactive features. "So in addition to what is a more passive experience of viewing the artwork," Hannan says, "[we have] an educational or an enriching engagement as part of that, that may be a digital tour that is easy to access and gets you more deeply into the detail behind the artwork, or that gives you a chance to create your own work and have it become part of a bigger compilation of the rest of the community's artwork."

A recent initiative, For Freedoms, invited the public to make signs expressing their most valued freedoms, which were then displayed on the FAC lawn. Then there's Jaune Quick-to-See Smith's current exhibit, In the Footsteps of My Ancestors, where patrons can create their own work of art within the exhibit and add it to a community installation.

Ralph Allen paints his mural, Envoutement. - JENNIFER COOMBES, COURTESY OF THE FINE ARTS CENTER
  • Jennifer Coombes, Courtesy of the Fine Arts Center
  • Ralph Allen paints his mural, Envoutement.

These features also open artistic experiences to people with disabilities. Longtime donor and once-board member Kathy Loo mentions the Tactile Gallery specifically as one of the FAC's greatest assets to the community, as it presents artwork to those without sight and encourages the rest of us to see art in a new way.

All of this feeds into one of the greatest goals of the BAA, which the FAC and CC have carried into the modern age: the creation of meaningful dialogue and educational experience around artistic expression.

In 1968, the FAC officially opened The Bemis School of Art, which has since offered art classes to the community in such diverse mediums as photography, painting, animation and more. Originally catering to children, over the last five decades the Bemis class roster has grown to offer classes for kids and adults alike, with plentiful special offerings.

Bemis Director Tara Sevanne Thomas says, "The FAC/Bemis provides a variety of classes for the underserved population of Colorado Springs — Military Artistic Healing for active duty and veterans, collaborations with [Round Up for Autism] and Griffith Centers for Children and more." But the partnership with Colorado College has opened doors for the FAC to engage in more and deeper educational experiences.

The partnership's strategic plan outlines six goals, including its desire to "nurture a community of artists," and "build an innovative program of arts education," among other goals that harken back to the values and traditions of the BAA. In its section regarding arts education, the plan reads in part: "Recognizing that first-hand experience is vital to our educational offerings, the FAC will become even more available to young people in our region."

This philosophy has already expanded the FAC's offerings beyond the Bemis School of Art. Hannan points to the Andrew G. Mellon Artist-in-Residence program, which has so far welcomed three artists to spend dedicated time at the FAC: Raven Chacon, Melanie Yazzie and Virgil Ortiz. These artists hosted discussions with the community and CC students, invited students to observe or even work in their studios, and overall engaged people in their art on a new and exciting level for the institution.

Further, the FAC has been expanding its tours for K-12 schools, and Hannan says the kids benefit immensely from their ability to simply explore and engage in arts, often for the first time. "And this first foray into a real arts experience basically opens up their eyes and hopefully sparks or ignites lifelong appreciation for the arts," she says.

And, hopefully, sparks or ignites understanding of diverse viewpoints and identities, diverse stories and experiences.

The one-of-a-kind FAC building was erected in 1936, renovated in 2007. - PHILLIP SPEARS, COURTESY OF THE FINE ARTS CENTER
  • Phillip Spears, Courtesy of the Fine Arts Center
  • The one-of-a-kind FAC building was erected in 1936, renovated in 2007.

Because, as it was in the beginning of the Broadmoor Arts Academy a century ago, one picture doesn't represent the multifaceted whole. One cannot simply look to the FAC's art exhibits or its theater program or its educational offerings to understand its impact. Building on a 100-year legacy, the FAC has become more than a place to exhibit art; it is a place to experience art. In all of its forms.

"We want to be able to accomplish what is perhaps somewhat unusual," Hannan says, "and that is to be able to both serve really strongly as an arts educational service for the campus community, and also have really strong roots in the community, and to do both of those well. And the way I look at it is we want to be able to provide depth. We want to be able to provide excellence, and we want to be inclusive."

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