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Tracing the decline of Colorado Springs' cultural golden age

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It's hard to believe there was a time in Colorado Springs' misfit history when Martha Graham danced on the Fine Arts Center's stage, Picassos hung in the gallery and people actually came to Colorado Springs to (gulp) be artists. Why is it, then, that schoolchildren all across America know the name of Santa Fe artist Georgia O'Keeffe while most people in Colorado Springs would be hard-pressed to do anything but shrug at the names of Boardman Robinson or Berger Sandzen? As the Fine Arts Center begins its search to replace former FAC Director David Turner and cautiously considers expansion plans in an economy in dire need of anti-depressants, I decided to look into the fine art of forgetting that Colorado Springs seems to have mastered.

By all accounts, one of the most significant reasons for the decline of the arts community in Colorado Springs, noted the late Archie Musick in his memoir Musick Medley, was that the art world in the 1940s made a huge swing away from the figurative, social-realist style, which had become indigenous to Colorado Springs and the Broadmoor Academy (the school that later became the Fine Arts Center), toward abstract expressionism. This rift in aesthetics also created a number of fissures in friendship and allegiances, muddling the politics and vision at the Fine Arts Center, and leading to the art school's closure in 1945.

Another major factor, said Tracy Felix -- local painter, historian and collector of Broadmoor Academy art -- is that Colorado Springs has been conservative since its founding (William Jackson Palmer, a Quaker, decreed it a dry town long before prohibition). The establishment of Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy in the 1950s, along with the gradual demise of the FAC's art school, brought about an even more solidly conservative military-based culture that marked the end of the salad days for local artists.

Yet another cause for the decline noted by Stanley L. Cuba and Elizabeth Cunningham, authors of Pikes Peak Visions: The Broadmoor Academy, 1919-1945, was the rise of "professionally-oriented, degree-granting art departments, which were rapidly developing at American universities. Because the Fine Arts Center wasn't an accredited school, and because aesthetics had changed so dramatically in America, it simply couldn't compete with the universities.

Internally, Tracy Felix believes that many of the past directors and board members at the Fine Arts Center simply failed to recognize the importance of Colorado Springs' art history.

"I don't think [the Fine Arts Center] ever believed that its history was significant enough," Felix says. "Colorado Springs has lots of money but zero open-mindedness. It's military, and it's always been conservative. And I think this conservatism has worked against its history. People always thought: 'Oh, well, it isn't not important.' To this day they don't think it's important. I think Colorado Springs missed the boat on doing its own history. And now, in retrospect, they're trying to get back to it. But it's been so long, and it's half-hearted... It's frustrating."

David Turner, former director of the Fine Arts Center, added that a major trend in the early 20th century was for artists to move out of the cities and into smaller, more rural art colonies. This trend took a swing back in the other direction during the late 1940's and 1950's when New York City became the global center of the art world. Turner believes the pendulum is now swinging back toward artists moving to smaller towns with more emphasis on regional art.

Finally, Turner noted the shift of the Fine Arts Center toward teaching children when the Bemis School of Art For Children (situated just behind the FAC) was built in 1968. The change in mission meant that aspiring artists had fewer reasons to come to the FAC and professional artists had fewer opportunities to teach.

Fortunately, if and when the Fine Arts Center builds its new wing, Turner noted: "In all of the plans being discussed there's always talk of a Colorado Art Gallery. One aspect of the gallery will be history, and the other will be focused on Colorado Springs' Contemporary Art."

Now that the FAC has just set the cogs of a national search in motion, let's all hope that the new director (whoever she may be) and the FAC can gather enough institutional memory to forget the latter half of the 20th century and figure out how to keep the momentum moving forward.

-- nblack@csindy.com

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