Curators and small gallery owners who show contemporary art that is challenging, relevant, and in any way innovative or political are often doomed to reprimand or commercial failure.
Not so for Gerry Riggs, curator at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' Gallery of Contemporary Art. Over the past decade, Riggs has continually brought premiere national and international contemporary art to Colorado Springs while tirelessly championing the local art scene -- in some ways offering a counterbalance to a community that has earned a national reputation as ground zero for conservative evangelicalism.
With his incredible love for contemporary art, his uncanny ability to bring spectacular shows on a shoestring budget and his absolute respect for artists, Riggs has earned a place of honor in the local arts community as a curator and teacher.
"Gerry Riggs is one of the most, if not the most important influence on contemporary art in the region," said Rodney Wood, former director of the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs. "You'd normally have to travel to New York to see the quality of shows he brings to Colorado Springs. He changes the way this community views art, and he's an educator."
Said David Turner, director of the Fine Arts Center: "He's created a very significant venue for contemporary art in this town. It's great that someone like him has one foot in a big institution like UCCS, and one foot in our art community." Added artist Sushe Felix: "What I appreciate about Gerry the most is that he'll bring in shows from around the world and nation and include local artists. He's always trying to raise the level of appreciation for local artists. He's got a really good eye, and he's really supportive."
With the recent Gallery of Contemporary Art's show of Russian and American prints, The View from Here, and the current exhibition, Shark's Ink 1976 - 2001: A 25 Year Retrospective, Riggs continues to bring some of the best contemporary art from around the world to Colorado Springs.
Art as a living
"I got into art because my father was a military diplomat, and wherever we lived they encouraged me to absorb the culture, and the best way to do that was to look at the art wherever we were. So, by the time I was college age, I was already pretty firmly into art. I knew that was what I wanted to do in college," Riggs said from behind a mountain of documents that cover every inch of his desk. Now 51, Riggs is slender and sharp featured, and dressed head to toe in black.
Originally interested in making art, Riggs toyed with filmmaking, photography and graphic arts. But he found that his primary interest was as an organizer for events and benefits and as a collaborator with other groups or organizations.
"I discovered how hard it was to make a living making art," Riggs said. "And that's where the whole museum thing came in."
After abandoning his aspirations to be a visual artist while studying at the University of Oklahoma in 1978, Riggs began working at the University's Fred Jones Museum of Art. The FJMA has one of the most comprehensive university museum collections in the United States and teachers would frequently bring their classes to the museum to show their students examples of art they were studying. Riggs soon found himself in the role of curator and teacher, a combination that suited him.
"When you're teaching about making art or looking at art or writing about art, you've got to look at art," he said. "You can't just read about it.
"When teachers would bring their classes over, I would talk to the students, and I discovered that I had a knack for it and that I really enjoyed it. So, to be able to use that collection and then talk to them about it as they're looking at it and watching the light bulbs going off, that just led me to believe that was what I should be doing."
After he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts, Riggs was recommended for another position at the Oklahoma Art Center just a few miles away, where he spent 7 years, eventually becoming the curator. During his tenure, Riggs also earned a Master's of liberal studies at the U. of O., and turned almost all of his attention to contemporary American art and printmaking.
From there he went on to be the director/curator at The Goddard Center in Ardmore, Okla., a small art museum and performing arts center on the border of Texas. Not long after, he got an offer from the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs.
In June 1991, David Wagner -- then the director of the FAC -- hired him to curate contemporary art and to be a liaison with the local art community.
"The FAC had kind of a black eye in the art community at the time for their lack of involvement with local artists and contemporary art in general," Riggs said. "[And] they were afraid to let me curate the way I wanted to.
"I could never tell someone what I could do and what I couldn't do, and that bothered me after awhile."
Riggs stayed at the FAC for a little over a year until he was offered a teaching and curating job at the Gallery of Contemporary at UCCS when then-curator Sally Perisho retired. It had always been his goal to be able to curate and teach, and he was thrilled to be back in a gallery where he had some intellectual freedom.
At a university gallery, Riggs explained, a curator isn't subject to the same kind of political or market-driven pressures that curators and gallery owners at private galleries or larger public institutions must face.
"A university can look at the bigger picture and try to represent what's happening in the world. Private museums tend only to take on shows they know they can fund -- and corporations only give money to institutions that they can put their name on because they want to look like corporate good guys," Riggs said. "So they're not going to approach anything that's the least bit controversial. And things that are timely and topical tend to be controversial. But that's what universities are about: dialogue and different points of view."
Never was this more true than in June of 1995, when Riggs brought Old Glory: The American Flag in Contemporary Art to the GCA. In 1989, The United States Supreme Court had ruled that flag burning was protected under the First Amendment.
After that ruling, Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich had made two attempts to pass a constitutional amendment to ban any desecration of the American flag. At the time of the Old Glory show, Gingrich -- who by then was the outspoken speaker of the House -- was making his third attempt to pass the amendment.
Organized by the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, Old Glory surveyed artists' depictions of the American flag throughout history -- from Robert Frank's photographs and Jasper Johns' flag painting of the 1950s and 1960s to Kate Millet's 1970's depiction of an American flag in a toilet inside a jail cell titled "The American Dream Goes to Pot". Also included were Dread Scott's famous "What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?," a 1988 piece which put a flag on the floor, forcing it to be walked upon in order for visitors to write comments in a ledger, and Yukinori Yanagi's 1993 piece, "Stars and Stripes," an ant farm composed of colored sand that was poured in the design of an American flag.
In other venues, the show created a huge controversy with protests by veterans and others in Phoenix and Cleveland. Riggs, however, decided to head off potential conflict here. He contacted Gil Asakawa, then the arts editor at the Gazette, to try to help him diffuse possible controversy. Asakawa subsequently penned a long article lending context to the works that "took much of the heat out of the show" locally, Riggs said.
Still, a few veterans protested to the UCCS administration, and one donor withdrew funding. The chancellor of the university at the time, Linda Bunnell-Shade, rebuked Riggs, but the faculty rushed to his defense.
"Ultimately, people respect integrity," Riggs said. "I haven't had much support from the administration since then, but they've left me alone."
Art on a budget
Often it isn't easy for a small gallery to acquire shows with an important national or international scope, but one of Riggs' most remarkable talents has proven to be his ability to acquire first-rate shows on an extremely limited budget.
Instead of scheduling exhibitions years in advance the way many institutions with larger budgets do, Riggs only books shows a year in advance, an approach that gives Riggs flexibility.
"It's pretty bare bones here, but it's amazing what we do with our budget," he said. "We have a policy of exhibiting that reflects our budget, and basically we don't schedule out for more than a year and three months so that we can pick up new shows when they're offered. Most museums book two, three and sometimes four years out. So what happens when a new show is offered is that most museums are already booked and can't take it."
Organizers of new shows are often eager to get into a gallery as soon as possible to start a buzz and get more bookings, explained Riggs. So many of them will reduce their price for initial showings, and thus Riggs is often able to pick them up on the GCA's budget. With a wide grin, Riggs refers to these kinds of bookings as "coups."
In 1997, for example, the Denver Art Museum encountered a scheduling conflict and was unable to house Proof Positive: 40 Years of Printmaking at ULAE. The show was a retrospective from the Universal Limited Artists Editions print studio and included many rare works by Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, poet Frank O'Hara, Jim Dine, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly, Claes Oldenburg and other giants of the 1960's and 70's pop and post-Abstract Expressionist New York art world.
The Denver Art Museum had already paid the deposit on the show and wanted to keep it in Colorado when they readlized they couldn't take it, so they offered it to Riggs and the GCA for the price of the shipping.
The Proof Positive show was just one of his "coups."
Another occurred in 1992, when he brought Contemporary Art from the Collection of Jason Rubell. That show, a private collection, featured works by feminist photographer Cindy Sherman, frequent art buffoon and jester Jeff Koons, the inescapable pop artist Keith Haring, self-described "dirty old man" Eric Fischl, wordsmith Jenny Holzer and the ethereal spiritscapes of Francesco Clemente.
In 1994 he brought Art and the Law, West Publishing Company's national traveling exhibition that features art works that explore the relationship between the law and society. The show included a piece called "Raw Deal" by Manitou Springs artist Floyd Tunson.
In 1996, Riggs brought Sniper's Nest: Art That Has Lived with Lucy Lippard, a look back at the private collection of radical art and cultural critic Lucy Lippard with works by Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt and Louise Bourgeois.
Last year, he brought UFO Show, an extended look at the UFO in popular culture, and The View From Here, contemporary prints from Russian and American artists.
If they see it
Riggs' goal and mission has always been to make the Gallery of Contemporary Art a venue for international, national and local art shows.
The international shows bring a broad spectrum of cultural diversity and global dialogue.
The national shows lend context to local issues and bring a variety of art for artists and fans here in the community.
The local shows, he says, provide a venue for area artists to stay in dialogue with one another and with particular issues facing the community.
There's no question about Riggs' pride in having been able to consistently bring great national and international shows to Colorado Springs, but the local shows are ultimately what mean the most to him and the community, he says.
"I'm always trying to bring things in from the outside just so local artists will have a chance to get exposed to it because I know how it can influence how they think, if they see it. But it seems like the shows we do that mean the most to the community are the ones that involve more of the community."
Just after the Old Glory show in August 1995, Riggs collaborated with 25 local citizens groups to mount Neo-Geo, a show that focused on local environmental issues including controlled growth, open spaces and trails, and the mining scar on the mountain west of the Springs.
"It turns out that there was a lot of concern about the new geography and what the future is going to look like here in our city. So whenever we touch on an issue that has to do with things that people really care about, real community-based stuff, we get tremendous response for it."
The art of the time
In 1996, Riggs collaborated with the Fine Arts Center to excavate an almost forgotten part of Colorado Springs art history with the show Boardman Robinson and His Circle.
The FAC was focusing exclusively on Robinson's work, so Riggs and local collector/artist Tracy Felix decided to focus their curatorial efforts on the famous artist's friends and associates, taking out an ad asking to borrow works from local collectors. They then spent months visiting people who'd collected or kept art from that era, and discovered along the way that Robinson wasn't as memorable as an artist as he was as an influence.
Due in large part to Robinson's connections and aesthetics, Colorado Springs became a thriving artist colony before World War II with a distinct regional look.
"It was landscape, definitely," Riggs said. "But there was a regionalism that you could call indigenous, and it represented the art of the time. It took place at the same time as the Abstract Expressionists and modern art, but what was important to people at the time was social realism.
"So this art was essentially a reflection of both social realism and a regionalist landscape aesthetic."
Through the process of curating this show Riggs realized that Colorado Springs really does have a rich regional art that was and is in danger of being lost because so many of Robinson's friends and collectors are now dead or dying.
"The Boardman show was one of the most important things the GCA has ever done because it represented the community itself, its early history, and we collaborated with local artists and collectors, many of whom are just dropping like flies now. So it's really good that we did that show when we did. Even so, there's a lot of knowledge that's being lost if this history isn't cultivated."
These shows, along with the annual student shows and the recent wild success of the Batty Packaging wearable art show have earned Riggs unending praise from local members of the arts community.
"There aren't a lot of venues for cutting-edge contemp," said Felix, "and I think UCCS is the best place for it.
"Gerry has a lot of energy when it comes to picking the shows there, and he doesn't hold back just because it's Colorado Springs."
Given Riggs' collaborative curatorial style, it's fitting that the GCA's current show, Shark's Ink, 1976-2001, is a retrospective of the work of another consummate collaborator, Bud Shark, an internationally-renowned master printer who lived in Boulder until he and his wife Barbara moved to Lyons, Colo., four years ago.
From early on in his career as a printer in graduate school at the University of New Mexico and as a master printer for Editions Alecto in London, Shark has been collaborating with all varieties of visual artists to make prints that reflect both his taste and interests, and the aesthetics of the artists he collaborates with.
Initially forced to do "contract printing" (printing editions for artists for a fee) just to stay afloat, Shark was later able to become a print edition publisher and handle everything from the production to sales and marketing. Controlling the process from beginning to end meant that he could work with the artists he chose, inviting them to his studio in Boulder for residencies.
During those residencies, Shark and his wife Barbara would invite an artist to stay with them for 10 days to 2 weeks and take care of all their meals and lodging, allowing the artist to focus exclusively on their work. Once the artist had finished their piece, and all of the potential problems in the printing process had been resolved, the artist signed off, leaving Shark to print the pieces with his assistants.
The process of selecting an artist is one of personal taste, dependent on the potential for collaborative compatibility.
"I'm usually interested in the work in some way," Shark said in an interview in his Lyons studio.
"Sometimes it's because it would be interesting to figure out how to do it, or some other technical challenge. But I had this sort of insight into myself where I realized that part of why I choose the artists I'm interested in is because I see their work and I think: Wow, I really like that! That's cool, and I'd like to be part of making that. So it's a vicarious thing."
From the flamboyant and technically mind-boggling 3-D lithographs by Red Grooms (the Nashville artist known for his colorful 3-D paper and mixed media sculptures) to the chalky, kinetic cityscapes of Yvonne Jacquette, and the Mexi-Pop collaged codices of Enrique Chagoya (a native of Mexico City known for his blending of Mexican and American pop cultural icons) the works of Shark and his collaborators almost all make bold use of color, demonstrate masterful printing technique, and subtly approach political content and themes without drowning in propaganda.
The 120 prints in Shark's Ink currently on display at UCCS include performance artist Laurie Anderson's "Mt. Daly/US IV," a dazzling high-contrast pop piece that was originally used for the cover art on her album Mister Heartbreak. All of Red Grooms' 3-D lithographs are there, as is Elliot Green's stark graffiti-meets-hobo art via a mix between Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen.
Tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy's masterful allegorical arrangements of tattoo iconography is included in the show, as is Hung Liu's rich color wash portraits from found photographs that explore the line between anonymity and identity. Manuel Ocampo's deceivingly cheery stylistic mlange that indicts everything sacred from church to art is represented, as are Hollis Sigler's painful but bright final suite of meditations on death; John Buck's monumental mural-like woodcuts that present the beauty of the natural environment while quietly telling the story of its demise; and Enrique Chagoya's playful yet cutting cultural commentaries on codices.
As he looks into the next decade, Riggs believes that Colorado Springs has reached a critical mass and now has a solid non-transitory taxpayer base that will begin to demand the kind of cultural institutions that most other towns of our size already have.
"I'm thinking that here in the next few years things are really going to start popping," he said.
But things already have, and Riggs, himself an artist, is right at the heart of it.