Decades ago, Colorado Springs was home to many serious artists whose work was enthusiastically supported by local collectors.
The arts scene was so vibrant that for decades, from the late 1920s to the 1950s, national attention was often focused upon the city and its artists. Iconic publications such as Time and Life published extensive pieces about our lively arts scene.
The Oct. 7, 1940 issue of Life devoted several pages to the arts community of Colorado Springs.
“At the edge of the Rocky Mountains and in view of Pikes Peak lies an art student’s paradise. It is the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. … Young artists come from all over the country to study with such noted painters as Arnold Blanch and Adolf Dehn … and simultaneously delight their artistic souls with some of the grandest scenery in the world.”
Dehn and Blanch, now considered titans of mid-20th century art, are long gone. The scenery is still here, but the network of collectors and galleries that once fueled the arts in the city also has largely vanished.
Denver, Albuquerque and Boulder, once considered artistic backwaters, have become regional centers of the visual arts while Colorado Springs has stagnated.
That may be partially attributable to the extraordinary level of taxpayer support offered to the arts by the citizens of each of those cities.
In 1978, Albuquerque voters approved an Art in Municipal Places ordinance. The initiative, which set aside 1 percent of city construction funds for the purchase or commission of works of art, has provided millions of dollars to artists. Albuquerque now has a remarkable collection of public art, hundreds of resident artists and more than 100 galleries that sell their creations. Three city employees administer the program.
The Albuquerque Museum receives more than $3 million in annual operating support from the city, which also funds a science center museum and a balloon museum.
Voters in Denver and Boulder have been even more supportive.
In 1989, voters in the seven counties that comprise the Denver Metropolitan Area approved a 0.1 percent sales tax to fund a regional Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. The tax raises approximately $40 million annually, and supports not only institutions such as the Denver Art Museum, but also “an astonishing array of small organizations with cultural and scientific missions.”
Denver’s Office of Cultural Affairs is a city department. Eleven full-time professionals staff the department, which provides an array of support services to the arts in Denver.
Boulder benefits from the SCFD, and also provides approximately $500,000 annually to the city’s arts commission from a dedicated sales tax. The commission offers a variety of grants to arts organizations and individual artists.
Meanwhile, municipal support for the visual arts in Colorado Springs, never particularly strong to begin with, is now non-existent.
Colorado Springs voters rejected funding for a cultural facilities district in 1995 and have since supported measures that may force the city-owned Pioneers’ Museum to either privatize or close its doors.
The city’s arts commission has no public funding. And the city offers no direct financial support to the annual Pikes Peak Arts Fest, a privately organized arts and crafts show held annually in America the Beautiful Park.
None of this is to suggest that the Colorado Springs arts community is moribund. In fact, it is doing all it can to keep moving forward. But the lack of public support makes it especially hard work, buyers are few and far between, and opportunities to exhibit aren’t nearly as plentiful as anyone in the community would like.
“To do a show costs about $1,000 to $2,500 in materials,” said local artist Lance Greene. “After working on paintings for two months, I have to sell $5,000 per show to break even. If everyone just stops by, eats cheese and crackers, drinks a beer then leaves, I’m out $5,000.
“No one can keep that up for long, so how can any artist afford to go on making art without buyers?”
Of course, despite the challenges, serious artists continue to live and work in Colorado Springs.
Some, like Jean Gumpper, Floyd Tunson, and Sean O’Meallie are successful enough to dedicate much of their time to art. Others are part-time artists with other employment. All share a common goal.
They’d like to find more ways to exhibit and more buyers.
To a degree, Colorado College helped accomplish that goal with its new Cornerstone Arts Center, which was completed two years ago.
Across the street on Cascade, the David Tryba-designed addition to the Fine Arts Center was completed in 2007. It, too, has helped re-energize and expand the city’s arts community.
Private donors, meanwhile, have continued to fund downtown’s “Arts in the Streets” program, which is entering its 12th year. This year’s edition, sponsored by Norwood, G.E. Johnson, and U.S. Bank, will offer prizes of $15,000, $7,500, and $2,500 to three selected artists.
In Old Colorado City, 14 artists have studios above Michael Garman’s gallery. Under the Colorado Avenue Bridge, Smokebrush and the Bridge Gallery have marketed serious contemporary art in good times and bad.
More recently, Brett Andrus and Lauren Ciborowski opened ModBo, a tiny contemporary arts gallery/performance space in a downtown alley last year. Together with their equally tiny next-door neighbor, Rubbish, they’ve made a space for serious art in the heart of the city’s noisy entertainment district.
“In my other life I’m a mortgage broker,” said Andrus, 31. “When I lived in Savannah, I sold lots of paintings. Collectors were interested in buying young artists before their work became unaffordable. We’re not quite there in Colorado Springs.”
Bettina Swigger, who heads the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, or COPPeR, echoes that sentiment.
“We have a really fantastic arts community,” she said, “but I don’t think that we have a great art market — yet. But people are starting to pay attention.”
Swigger is irritated by the near-universal assumption that Taos and Santa Fe are hotbeds of the arts, and that Colorado Springs is not.
“People say, ‘Oh, they have such a wonderful arts scene,’ and they go there and buy art without ever realizing what we have here.”
Swigger also noted another factor.
“It’s very difficult for artists to price their works appropriately (for the local market),” she said.
In other words, locals aren’t accustomed to spending big on art.
With that in mind, Rubbish last year staged a “2009” sale. Gallery artists created dozens of small, spontaneous works, all priced at $20.09.
“It was raining $20 bills,” said Dana Deason, who created the city’s first online arts/events website, sceneinthesprings.com. “I think they (Rubbish) created a lot of collectors.”
More collectors, she and others hope, will eventually mean greater public support for the arts.
Deason, for one, thinks the city’s time has come.
“We’re weird and we’re cheap,” she said, “so why not?”