COPPeR spreads wings with new leader

COPPeR-header“It’s hard to remember we’re still kind of a startup,” said COPPeR founding board member Susan Edmondson, now president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership. “When we make decisions now, we’re not in a panic mode.”

COPPeR, the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, was founded seven years ago with a stated mission to “provide an umbrella service encompassing areas such as marketing and communication, broad-based data gathering and strategic programming, and advocacy for the arts industry in its entirety.”

That’s a mouthful from the organization’s website. More simply, COPPeR was founded to provide voice and visibility to the region’s scattered and disconnected arts community, and to link artists, galleries, musicians and performance groups with each other and the larger community. Its founders hoped for the best, but had few illusions.

Members of the arts and young professional community had long yearned for such an organization, but efforts to create one had fallen short.

Woman-about-town Dana Deason single-handedly supported a website,, that had similar goals. Absent funding and broad community buy-in, it struggled. Once Deason left town, she shut it down.

“We didn’t know (how things would work out),” recalled Edmondson. “We thought we might be in a basement working at a card table.”

Some card table! Today, COPPeR operates out of a spiffy Tejon Street location adjacent to the downtown Gallery of Contemporary Art. With a full-time staff of three, as well as lots of volunteer community support, COPPeR has been successful by any measure.

Fast-track success

Bettina Swigger

Bettina Swigger

Any nascent nonprofit would be dazzled by the institutional support that COPPeR has managed to round up in half a decade. Donors include the Anschutz Foundation, El Pomar Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation, The Petritz Foundation, the city of Colorado Springs, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Credit for the organization’s success goes to Edmondson, who as the then-executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation spearheaded its creation; to Nor’wood Development Group president Chris Jenkins, who provided the Tejon Street space, and to the scores of individuals and organizations who provided financial and volunteer support.

But the organization couldn’t have succeeded without its first two brilliant young executive directors, Bettina Swigger and Christina McGrath.

Swigger was named COPPeR’s first ED in 2006. One of COPPeR’s founders, Swigger attended Colorado College and joined its staff after graduation. When hired by COPPeR, she was the manager of the Colorado College Summer Arts Festival, which includes a summer music festival, dance performances, a vocal arts symposium and a film series.

Swigger gave COPPeR instant credibility. For many in the arts and nonprofit communities, any job at Colorado College is a Colorado Springs dream job. Benefits! Interesting, smart colleagues! Absorbing, valuable work! Smart young people everywhere!

For Swigger to abandon a CC permajob for an obscure startup wasn’t just interesting — it was unbelievable.

As events proved, she was right to do so. Three years later, she moved up several notches in the arts world by taking a position as executive director of the world-renowned Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

That job came to her because of her success in knitting together dozens of quarrelsome arts constituencies and potential supporters. Swigger launched, the local go-to website for arts and culture, and presided over a volunteer-driven, two-year effort that culminated in the creation of a cultural plan for the region. A detailed 22-page document, the plan established a roadmap to guide artists, arts advocates, arts-related nonprofits and the greater community to strengthen the region’s position as an arts and cultural destination.

When she left, then-board chair Amanda Mountain praised her contribution to the arts.

“We’ve worked together with artists and arts organizations, donors, businesspeople and local government and municipalities to leverage the role of arts and culture as a vital part of the fabric of community identity, and a significant economic driver,” said Mountain.

McGrath’s momentum

Christina McGrath

Christina McGrath

COPPeR didn’t miss a beat when Swigger left, hiring superstar 25-year-old Colorado Springs native Christina McGrath as her replacement. McGrath came from El Pomar Foundation, where she had begun work straight out of college as one of the foundation’s fellows. It was a heady experience, but McGrath adapted quickly. She now serves on El Pomar’s board, as well as on that of the Colorado Springs School. In her nearly three years at COPPeR’s helm, McGrath continued and expanded the organization’s reach and community presence until announcing recently that she would leave in early 2014, following her soon-to-be husband overseas on an Air Force assignment.

Many in the community believed that Swigger and McGrath’s successor would be cut from the same cloth — young, female, smart and intimately involved with the city’s arts and nonprofit community. It was something of a surprise when COPPeR’s board selected veteran Maryland arts executive Andy Vick as the organization’s third executive director.

McGrath, who is moving to Oxford, England, thinks it was a good choice.

“You always want them to hire up when they choose your successor,” she said with a smile. “Bettina and I led the organization (in its infancy), but now it may need some different skills. It would have been tough to hire locally, because there isn’t another similar organization in Colorado Springs.”

Newcomer’s credentials

Andy Vick

Andy Vick

Andy Vick is currently executive director of the Allegany Arts Council in Maryland, a position he has held since 2003. He’s had positions statewide in Maryland, including serving as chairman of the Canal Place Preservation and Development Authority and on the board of trustees for Maryland Citizens for the Arts. A graphic and visual artist, he ran a high-end craft business, Beth Piver Designs.

“Our community is poised for growth and development,” said McGrath, “and Andy will help by bringing national best practices and a fresh perspective to COPPeR and our already vibrant arts community.”

Edmondson, who was term-limited off the COPPeR board, is also supportive, but she has some advice for Vick, for COPPeR and the community as a whole.

“Support for the arts can’t be just lip service,” she said. “We’re there to help (the community achieve shared goals), to help with the solution, but we have to be at the table.”

Vick will take over at COPPeR on Feb. 1. He will step into a powerful, centered organization, one shaped and created by some of our city’s most gifted and charismatic leaders. Can he fill their shoes — or, more precisely, their Manolos?