Arts sector rich in diversity, lacking in opportunities

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People change jobs all the time, so you have to wonder why Bettina Swigger’s decision to leave her job as executive director of COPPeR earlier this week caused such a stir.

We featured the news on our website, as did the Gazette. Facebook exploded with sadly congratulatory posts, such as these two.

“We were fortunate to have you here these past 13 years, but we couldn’t keep you forever.” Amber Cote.

“Hey, congratulations! But I can hardly imagine Colorado Springs without you!” Mark Arnest.

What’s the big deal?

In a city that has seen many young professionals leave town for greener pastures, Swigger epitomized everything that we’d like to see the city be, and become.

After graduating from Colorado College, she stayed here and forged a powerful career in the arts. After managing the college’s multidisciplinary summer arts program, she became the founding director of COPPeR, the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region. Under her leadership, COPPeR became what it was intended to be — a strong, vital voice for the arts “creating strategic partnerships to ensure that the arts are rightfully positioned as vital to economic development, education, civic life and a sustainable future.”

In an email to friends and associates, Swigger explained the process that led to a new job as executive director of Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“I submitted my resume,” Swigger wrote, “mostly as an exercise, thinking that it would be a good test of my abilities to see how I could do in a process that used a national search firm. I really didn’t expect to get the job; I didn’t even really expect to get an interview. But here I am.”

And here we are, confronting a sad commentary on the paucity of opportunity in Colorado Springs.

We’re a metropolitan area of more than half a million souls. We have a noticeably lively, even flourishing, arts scene. Yet unless you invent a new organization, as Swigger did, there are few positions for professional arts administrators.

There’s the Fine Arts Center, the Philharmonic, The UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art, The Business of Arts Center, Theatreworks, Opera Theatre of the Rockies, the Pioneers Museum and Colorado College. But that’s about it if you’re looking for a position at Swigger’s current level.

There are scores, even hundreds, of local arts organizations that depend on volunteers or part — timers, but few that offer real jobs. And most of those that do have been around for 30 years or more.

Why so little growth? El Paso County population, currently estimated by the U.S. Census at 603,000, has doubled since 1980 and quadrupled since 1960. You’d think that we would have added a few lasting, powerful arts organizations as well.

Sadly, we haven’t done so, although we’ve managed to create one of the most vibrant nonprofit sectors of any medium-sized city in the United States. Of the 100 leading nonprofits in the United States, five are headquartered in Colorado Springs — Compassion International, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, Young Life, Junior Achievement, and Focus on the Family.

For young people who choose a career in religious nonprofit management, Colorado Springs is an exciting, dynamic market, full of opportunity.

As Focus on the Family’s Gary Schneeberger told me recently, “We’re reaching out to young people, trying to get younger ourselves. We have more than 20 people in their 20s in management positions.”

Focus and Compassion each employ more than 700 people, while dozens of smaller religious nonprofits offer professional-level employment.

Is that a fair comparison? Should we expect to have an arts sector that employs thousands more?

Maybe not. But I’d love to see more arts organizations of the sort that can offer professional opportunities to more Bettina Swiggers.

We need more art openings, more plays, more concerts, more cool places to go, more artists, more crazed entrepreneurs creating fun little venues, more film festivals, more creative young people everywhere.

It’s the only way to ensure that our city’s arts scene continues to reinvent itself, and of enabling the future Swiggers of our community to learn and grow and, best of all, stay.

Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861. Watch him at 7:45 a.m. every Tuesday and Friday on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.

4 Responses to Arts sector rich in diversity, lacking in opportunities

  1. John, John, John, you are such a dreamer…

    Dick Burns
    November 26, 2010 at 8:55 am

  2. John, you flatter me. Thank you so much for your kind words. And yes, you may have a point regarding the dearth of full-time nonprofit arts jobs in the region, though that did not contribute to my decision to leave. I believe that the founders of COPPeR (and, for the record, that credit goes to the wise and visionary Susan Edmondson, Kimberley Sherwood and Michael Coumatos – I’ve served as first ED but did not found the organization) are very proud of the fact that they created an organization whose mission could be moved forward by not one but TWO full-time professionals – talk about exponential growth in a sector!

    Incidentally, COPPeR has signed on to participate in the Creative Vitality Index, which is a sophisticated tool of measuring the creative economy, to include commercial arts industry, volume of retail sales and non-profit economic impact. Stay tuned!

    Bettina Swigger
    November 29, 2010 at 10:29 am

  3. While we may have the population and organizations, we’re missing the most basic ingredient: an MFA program and the artists and art students it would attract. It’s too bad that between UCCS, The FAC and CC there isn’t a great post-grad arts and or writing program with excellent, national-caliber artists/writers to teach and start drawing the kinds of young people who will open galleries and make the kind of art that the Broadmoor Academy/FAC crowd did pre-MFA programs. Maybe one day.

    Noel Black
    November 29, 2010 at 3:28 pm

  4. I can definitely attest to the sentiments herein – it’s one thing though to have these kinds of opportunities and quite another for them to pay a living wage. As one advances into one’s 30s and family becomes a priority, finding decent paying nonprofit jobs – in any “industry”, arts or otherwise, exclusive of the big religious organizations – is next to impossible.

    and Noel’s right too about the lack of post-grad arts education. My husband is a practicing professional artist who teaches in programs that do not require an MFA. But what a pity and waste of his talents that this credential, which could open so many doors to him and others, is totally lacking anywhere in this part of the state. The closest you can obtain one is Boulder.

    Jennifer Malenky
    November 30, 2010 at 11:27 am