Museums sit atop storehouses of local treasures

Pioneers Museum Director Matt Mayberry discusses a photo of a mill once located where the Norris-Penrose Events Center is now.

Here’s your business model: Your store is beautifully located, in a spacious and spectacular building. Your brand is deeply embedded in the community. Your inventory is exceptional. Your advertising is intense, targeted and effective. Your staff is courteous, knowledgeable and customer-oriented.

You open your doors, and in come the customers. They look, they browse, they exclaim in wonder — but they never buy. Every so often you move the inventory to climate-controlled, on-premises storage, and replace it. Again the customers come — and once again, you don’t make a single sale.

How do you make money? Simple — you charge people for the privilege of browsing, and you solicit donations from community members who are deeply attached to your business. They give you cash, or more inventory to display.

Think you could survive — and even thrive — with such a business plan? The Pioneers Museum and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center have done so for decades.

With most businesses, what you see is what you get. McDonald’s doesn’t have a secret menu, Wal-Mart doesn’t hold back merchandise, and Coaltrain doesn’t have secret caves where all the best wines are kept. Business, as Mel Brooks put it in Spaceballs, is all about “the moichandise, the moichandise!”

Lots in storage

The museum and the FAC have plenty of “merch,” but it doesn’t turn over.

“We have somewhere north of 20,000 objects in our collections,” said FAC curator Blake Milteer, “and perhaps 700 are on display at any time.” Some pieces are never removed from permanent display, such as murals, outdoor sculptures, and iconic artworks such as Sargent’s “Portrait of Elsie Palmer.”

Everything else is in the basement — or, more precisely, in the secured, temperature-controlled storage areas beneath the Fine Arts Center.

Steel-cased doors lead to a series of windowless vaults, which were enlarged and updated during the FAC’s 2007 renovation/expansion. They’re big, quiet spaces, as full of treasure as King Tut’s tomb.

Thousands of paintings, alphabetized by artist, hang on sliding wire-mesh panels, tightly arrayed on metal tracks. Half a dozen copper-plate engravings from Audubon’s “Birds of America” catch a visitor’s eye.

“We’re planning to do an Audubon show,” Milteer said. The framed engravings aren’t even the tip of the iceberg — the FAC owns two nearly complete sets of the first (Havell) edition of Audubon’s monumental work, almost all unframed. Taken together, the museum may have most of the 435 images that Audubon created during the 1820s.

Only 120 complete sets remain, most in museums. They’re extraordinarily valuable. Earlier this year, Christie’s sold one for $7.9 million.

Other spaces are dedicated to ceramics, basketwork, sculpture and textiles. The collections are focused on Native American, Spanish colonial, and Southwestern art and artifacts, with a particular focus on artists associated with the Pikes Peak region.

Yet there are a few strange outliers. What appears to be the upper section of a late 18th century Philadelphia highboy rests in a corner near the paintings.

“There are some things here that we haven’t researched,” said Milteer.

That includes the collection itself.

“There was an inventory taken in the ‘80s, and another in the ‘90s,” said Milteer. “We’re updating those, but we only have four full-time staffers. We rely completely on volunteers for the project.”

The FAC’s collection is insured, although the amount of insurance is confidential.

Since it’d take three decades or more to rotate the entire collection through the museum’s galleries, wouldn’t a little judicious pruning be in order? For example, the FAC has several small oils by renowned Colorado artist Charles Partridge Adams, three of which appear to depict Mount Sneffels. Couldn’t the museum just sell them all, and use the proceeds to acquire a single major work?

It’s not so simple, Milteer pointed out. Deaccessioning even minor items requires a lengthy public process, and often angers donors and/or donor families. A past FAC director sold off dozens of irreplaceable objects, including the museum’s entire Northwest Coast collection.

“We don’t do things that way anymore,” said Milteer. “In fact, we’re aggressively collecting in some areas.”

Pioneers Museum curator Leah Davis Witherow concurred.

“Deaccessioning is not a word we use,” said Witherow.

The mission of the Pioneers Museum is simple: to receive, conserve, preserve and exhibit the objects and documents that illuminate our city’s past and present.

“We have about 80,000 objects,” said museum director Matt Mayberry, “and 6,200 cubic feet of documents in storage — we have literally millions and millions of pages (of historic material).”

The storage rooms are a collector’s dream — no matter what you collect. Like toys? A pristine Steiff elephant awaits. Or maybe you’d like some black-powder loads for your Winchester 30/40 — or hundreds of pipes from all eras, the last intact historic pipe collection in any American museum.

Do you appreciate historic firearms? The museum’s collection fills an entire vault. And call Blake Milteer — there’s a brilliantly executed major painting by Charles Partridge Adams of Mount Princeton, a lot closer to home than Mount Sneffels!

Like the Fine Arts Center, the museum also has significant collections of ceramics, basketwork, and textiles. Its unsurpassed collection of early van Briggle is on permanent display, recently reconfigured to better illustrate the creative brilliance of Anne and Artus van Briggle.

But the museum’s core is located in the rooms and vaults that house the fundamental historic documents of our region. Winfield Scott Stratton’s archives are here, as are General William Palmer’s.

“I’ve been hoping that someone would use this archive to write the definitive history of Stratton,” said Witherow, “but I have to tell myself that these archives are here for the future too — someone will write that history.”

Asked what the museum’s single defining object or document might be (other than the iconic building that houses it), Witherow and Mayberry don’t hesitate.

It’s a tiny card with a brief, handwritten note.

“Will Mr. Risley please see and hear the bearer, Gen. Palmer.”

Signed “A. Lincoln, Feb. 7, 1865.”

The card, along with other material, was donated to the museum by Gen. Palmer’s daughter, Elsie.

And what is the Fine Arts Center’s defining piece?

That would be a painting acquired in 1964 by the Fine Arts Center from the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo for $30,000. It’s an acknowledged masterpiece, which is today valued at many millions of dollars.

It’s John Singer Sargent’s “Portrait of Elsie Palmer.”

The talented Mr. Risley’s ties to Colorado Springs history

Who was the mysterious Mr. Risley, who met with Gen. William Palmer at President Abraham Lincoln’s behest? Neither Matt Mayberry nor Leah Davis Witherow at the Pioneers Museum knew, so we decided to do a bit of sleuthing — and the answer may surprise you as much as it surprised (and delighted!) us.

Hanson A. Risley was a special treasury agent during the Civil War, charged with enforcing the wartime prohibition against trading with the South. He was in almost daily contact with the president, and had extremely broad powers over commerce, particularly concerning the disposition of captured or abandoned stocks of cotton.

We don’t know why Palmer met with Risley, but the canny Washington insider and the ambitious young general apparently hit it off.

In 1875, Risley joined Palmer in Colorado Springs where the two became partners in a number of ventures. Risley served as “solicitor’ (i.e., general counsel) to the Denver, Rio Grande and Western Railway, and as vice president of the Colorado Springs Hotel Company, which owned the Antlers.

But his most interesting job was his first. In 1876, according to Frank Hall’s “History of Colorado,” Risley served for a year as editor of a fledgling local newspaper — the Gazette.

Risley retired from active business venture in the late 1880s, and lived quietly in Colorado Springs until his death in 1893. He left no descendants.

One Response to Museums sit atop storehouses of local treasures

  1. Mary Lincoln Mellon Palmer, the wife of General Palmer, also known as Queen, her father William Proctor Mellon was also an agent for the treasury department during the war.

    Dianne
    September 24, 2012 at 3:00 pm