Art museums are often perceived as elitist guardians of high culture, or as forbiddingly didactic educational institutions or as contemptuous of the beliefs and values of the very visitors whom they seek to attract.
Not in Colorado Springs.
“For many museums, I think that’s in the past,” said Michael De Marsche, CEO of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. “I know that we’re completely focused on the quality of the experience that our members and visitors have — that they should expect and get the very best.”
That change in focus and the change in title (since the FAC was founded in 1935 every one of De Marsche’s predecessors had the title of museum director) have signaled profound changes in the FAC’s institutional culture.
“When I came to the Fine Arts Center, we had some real problems to solve,” De Marsche said. “Nearly half a million dollars had been spent on expansion plans — for an expansion on land that the FAC didn’t own. We still needed to expand — and we had to create a new plan, and persuade our supporters and the community that we were capable of executing it.”
De Marsche, unlike his predecessors, saw the challenges facing the center as primarily business-related, not arts-related. Like any newly-hired CEO, he studied his company’s history and its traditional market, and he looked for growth opportunities.
Perhaps inspired by for-profit entertainment venues, De Marsche focused on making the FAC welcoming, visitor-friendly and inclusive.
“When you walk into the doors of a museum, you know immediately whether the guard at the door wants you, whether the people at the desk want you, whether you’re welcome,” he said.
And, De Marsche continued, visitors should enter the museum with a sense of anticipation, with the expectation of seeing things that will please and delight them.
Seems obvious enough, but De Marsche said museums have often seen their roles very differently.
In business terms, the problems that De Marsche faced were similar to those that any CEO might face. Fierce competitors (e.g.,Tinseltown, the World Arena, concert promoters) had whittled away his market share, his aging facility required major renovation, his product line was tired and his customer base needed to be sharply expanded, both demographically and geographically.
De Marsche began by rebuilding his team — hiring people who shared his vision and letting go those who did not. Like so many successful executives before him, he had learned that change can’t be imposed upon an unwilling work force.
Next, he embarked upon some relatively inexpensive renovations to the FAC’s historic building, removing ill-considered alterations that had been made through the years to John Gaw Meem’s visionary design, once more filling the FAC’s galleries and corridors with natural light.
And finally, given an extraordinary exhibition that had been booked by his predecessor — the photographs of Linda McCartney — De Marsche aggressively promoted it, in a sharp break with the FAC’s genteel tradition.
The crowds came; they liked what they saw; and they were ready to return for subsequent, equally populist exhibitions.
Maggie Divilbiss, the founder and executive director of the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, applauds De Marsche’s approach.
“Let me tell you, I run this place just like a business — and if you don’t, you’ll be in trouble,” she said
Divilbiss is impressed by the changes that De Marsche has made at the FAC.
“Frankly, we never thought of the Fine Arts Center as our competition up until this guy came,” Divilbiss said. “They were always kinda tucked away, out of sight, and we had a lot more visitation. He has found a pot of gold there somehow.”
De Marsche joined the FAC in 2003. During the next two years, the center hosted three “mini-blockbuster” exhibitions: Peter Max, Andy Warhol and Dale Chihuly.
Just as De Marsche, the coolly analytical, no-nonsense CEO hardly fits the model of the tweedy aristocrat with a doctorate in medieval art history who might have headed the FAC a generation ago, so, too, do those three artists differ from many of their contemporaries.
Much of the public, and many artists, believe that true artists are lone visionaries who, heedless of the vulgar demands of the marketplace, craft masterpieces which are only recognized as such by generations to come. Look at Van Gogh, look at Pollock, look at Manet — artists who followed their muse to greatness.
As for those who enjoy success in their own time, they are often branded as commercial hacks or sellouts, unworthy of serious consideration.
In fact, the myth of the lonely, misunderstood genius is just that — a romantic invention of the popular press, dating back to the mid-19th century.
Successful artists have usually behaved just like successful businessmen, seeking to extend their markets, maximize their return and protect their brands.
The great American landscape artist, Frederick Edwin Church, literally took his paintings on tour. His best known work, the magisterial “Niagara” attracted tens of thousands of visitors, each of whom paid 50 cents for the privilege of viewing the masterpiece.
Not so much now, but good money in 1850.
Renaissance masters had legions of assistants, who did much of the work of painting, not to mention mixing pigments, making frames, gilding and varnishing. The master might only preside over the final touches, making small changes — quality control, rather than actual creation.
Warhol, Max and Chihuly are among our era’s most successful businessmen/artists. They’ve all created instantly recognizable brands, achieved substantial financial success and yet are recognized as serious artists.
Of the three, Dale Chihuly’s work is arguably the most appealing. And, just as importantly, Chihuly the businessman is a masterful dealmaker, adept at placing his work in museums in such a way that both the museum and Chihuly’s enterprises benefit.
In a three-part article, the Seattle Times described the “Chihuly Empire,” detailing the scope and ambition of his multiple businesses, painting a picture of Chihuly as a charismatic, hands-on CEO.
On the other side of an unmarked security door in an undistinguished warehouse, you can glimpse the soul of a multimillion-dollar business empire. … This is corporate headquarters for Chihuly Inc. The pushpins represent the locations of Chihuly’s U.S. sales force. The binders, research on past, present and future targets. City by city, country by country, Chihuly’s Napoleonic marketing campaign has created a luxury market for art glass unmatched since the glory days a century ago of Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps and vases. Chihuly Inc.’s all-conquering marketing approach is consistent with the man himself.
“I don’t get this less-is-more business,” he once admonished New York glass dealer Doug Heller. “More is more.”
Far from being a solitary creative genius, Chihuly employs dozens of glassblowers, who create his signature forms. All employees are required to sign non-compete, non-disclosure agreements, perhaps to protect Chihuly from allegations that the artist himself has little involvement in the creation of his signature works.
In fact, since an automobile accident 30 years ago, Chihuly has not blown any glass.
De Marsche and Chihuly, tough-minded, business-oriented, and entrepreneurial, quickly found common ground.
De Marsche, already familiar with Chihuly’s work and business acumen, orchestrated the FAC’s purchase of a spectacular Chihuly chandelier for the FAC’s entrance foyer. Its installation was accompanied by a show of Chihuly’s work, which attracted nearly 80,000 visitors — far more than any exhibition in the FAC’s 70-year history.
The success of that show, as well as the McCartney, Max and Warhol exhibitions, led to a tripling of the FAC’s membership, a jump in donations, and made it possible for De Marsche to launch a $28 million expansion project and open FAC Modern — downtown’s sparkling new satellite facility.
None of this would have been possible without Chihuly, whose gift for both artistic creation and self-promotion brought enormous crowds to the then-struggling Fine Arts Center.
On Sept. 8, Dale Chihuly and the FAC will, in effect, celebrate their successful business and artistic collaboration with an exhibition of 40 new works, valued at more than $1.5 million dollars and “personally selected” by the artist for the FAC’s permanent collection.
A dozen of the FAC’s patrons, prominent among them Tim Hoiles and Margot Lane, contributed the money that made the purchase possible.
De Marsche was enthused by the acquisition, and by what it means to the FAC.
“Dale really went out of his way to make this possible,” De Marsche said. “He’s just been incredible helpful. And it’ll be wonderful for the community. When people walk in the doors, they’ll know it’s theirs.”
And, he might have added, we owe it all to the deal-making abilities of a couple of canny businessmen-who just happen to be an artist and a museum director.