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Does anyone in the local arts community support the Fine Arts Center's proposed expansion?

The FAC has floated plans for a new wing to be constructed to the south of the existing building. Such an expansion, which would irrevocably alter the FAC's historic south facade, appears to have no support, except from the FAC's board and administration.

One prominent local architect, who asked not to be named, was eloquent in his praise of the existing building: "It's one of the finest buildings in the West," he noted, "It's our Guggenheim Museum."

The architect said that he has expressed grave concerns about the plan to FAC Director David Turner and the museum's board of directors. He was, he said, surprised that the FAC was not interested in expanding either to the east, into the current sculpture garden, or to the north, since they could easily do so without compromising the historic structure.

One architect who does support the project is Kim Hill of Hamel, Greene, Abrahamson -- who created the concept plan. Hill stressed that the FAC "is very early in the master planning process" and that no actual plans yet exist. But it was hard not to be a little skeptical. After all, Hill admitted her firm has been working with the FAC for nearly two years on the project. Moreover, I saw early renditions of the planned expansion over a year and a half ago, and they have not significantly changed since then.

And there's another problem. Since much of the proposed new wing would be built on land that is now part of Monument Valley Park, the FAC would have to get around General Palmer's original deed of gift. That deed prohibits the sale or transfer of Palmer-dedicated parkland, which was reaffirmed in a 1974 court case.

When asked, an attorney with the city was coldly explicit: The Palmer deeds, she said, do not contemplate a sale or trade. "If the city were approached today with a sale or trade proposal, the city would say no."

So just what the hell is going on here? If the FAC proceeds with this scheme, they'll alienate a bunch of their core supporters -- a curious way to start a major project that will certainly require large-scale fund raising.

And it's equally curious that Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace has already publicly proclaimed her support for the expansion, opining that General Palmer, if he were alive today, would understand that times have changed and give the FAC a chunk of parkland.

Maybe, to understand what's really going on, we need to look back -- to 1936 and 1994.

In 1936, when the FAC was originally constructed, the site had been given to the institution by Spec and Julie Penrose, the original benefactors of the El Pomar Foundation. Since then, El Pomar has consistently, even munificently, supported the FAC. Why? Because El Pomar's trustees have long believed that the Foundation's grants ought to be consonant with the intentions of its founders.

Does El Pomar have an interest in the proposed expansion? Sure -- FAC board Chair, Steve Gaines says that there have been "initial meetings" with El Pomar. "They totally realize the importance of expansion."

And remember 1994, when Pete Susemihl assumed the leadership of a task force trying to fund the construction of a new sports arena? At the time, it seemed like an impossible task -- to raise $50 million in private funds to build an arena without a major sports franchise as a tenant and with only token support from local governments.

A lot of us wondered at the time why Pete would undertake such a project. In retrospect, it's clear that El Pomar (read: Bill Hybl) had already signed on as the major donor. And as every non-profit in town is well aware, El Pomar loves big, flashy, signature projects -- the World Arena, the Pikes Peak Center, the Tutt Library. I bet dollars to donuts (although maybe not Krispy Kremes) that the proposed FAC expansion -- big, flashy, highly visible -- already has a name (The El Pomar Galleries? The Penrose Wing?) and that El Pomar has already given Gaines and Turner their marching orders.

That'd explain why the mayor has already jumped on the train, and why the FAC hasn't given any consideration to less intrusive sites -- and why the board, apparently unanimous in its support for the new wing, is unconcerned about alienating many of the institution's core supporters.

It's the same old Colorado Springs story. In a transient city of branch offices, wholly owned subsidiaries and government workers, El Pomar is still the wedding planner for the marriage of money and power.

And guess what? We're not invited to the ceremony.


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