Three weeks ago, boxes and crates stood carefully stacked on the floor in one of the new galleries at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The heap was huge and compact it contained all the works hanging in the FAC show opening Dec. 8, Impressionist and Modern Masters from the New Orleans Museum of Art.
There wasn't much else to see; museum employees were in preparation mode, preparing spaces for the paintings and sculptures they'd hold. But the boxes and crates remained untouched, their contents only discernable by the artists' names written on their sides: Picasso, Rodin and Monet, to name a few.
This exhibit, though, isn't just about big names.
"We've actually got a show where there are going to be some great surprises," explains Blake Milteer, curator of 19th-21st century art. "And a show that actually allows us to tell a story that's not just "bang, bang, bang, bang, masterwork, masterwork, masterwork.'
"Great, big deal we see that all the time."
Impressionism makes up its backbone, but the show contains works from before, during and after the Impressionist movement.
To help the audience get the picture, the FAC has set aside part of its gallery for an interpretive area. A large timeline starts at 1600 and ends in 2005.
"You get to see Impressionism not as this singular point in art history, with paintings everybody loves," says Milteer. "You get to see it as a ... real turning point ... in history."
The premise of this show sounds similar to that of Inspiring Impressionism, premiering at the Denver Art Museum in late February. On its Web site, the DAM claims, "[the show] explores how impressionist artists were inspired by their artistic predecessors a theme rarely examined in previous exhibitions."
The DAM and the FAC have shared exhibit themes in the past, with modern and contemporary art shows like the FAC's The Eclectic Eye: Pop and Illusion, Selections from the Frederick R. Weisman Foundation and the DAM's earlier RADAR: Selections from the Collection of Vicki & Kent Logan.
The DAM won't comment about the similarities, but stands behind its claim that Inspiring Impressionism is truly unique.
Milteer agrees to an extent.
"Theirs doesn't have the modern component," he says. "It ends with Impressionism. Their show is more strictly, as I understand it, a one-to-one comparison. Theirs is much more of a contained sort of story."
Milteer believes it the FAC's real edge over the DAM show, however, has to do with its source.
"The fact that it all comes from one place is extraordinary," Milteer says.
Former FAC President/CEO Michael De Marsche helped the New Orleans Museum of Art select many of the works that would eventually make up its traveling Impressionist and Modern Masters.
Most, if not all, of the Impressionist masters were French, and curator of Hispanic and Native American art Tariana Navas-Nieves notes that "New Orleans has a direct connection to France, and the collection reflects that."
The DAM, on the other hand, has pulled in works from more than 70 international sources for Inspiring Impressionism. It has organized the show itself, working over the course of 10 years. While the FAC takes viewers from the Rococo period up to ultra-modern Abstract Impressionism, the DAM specifically compares Impressionists' paintings with the works known to have inspired them.
Denver Post fine arts critic Kyle MacMillian is quick to opine that the shows are quite different. He sees merit in each, but in pitting one Impressionist show against another, gives the DAM the edge.
"[The FAC show] loosely gives you an overview," he says. "[It] is not a scholarly show."
MacMillian does say the DAM's online claim is "an overstatement," but he knocks the FAC show for offering only highlights from the New Orleans Museum of Art.
"The New Orleans show doesn't carve any new art historical ground at all," he says.
But, MacMillian adds, "I think there are Denver people who are going to drive down to Colorado Springs to see the show."
The next step
That, alone, is a victory. With Impressionist and Modern Masters, the FAC should keep the momentum generated by its "Extremely Grand Opening" and its first exhibit, Eclectic Eye. Since the museum's $28.4 million expansion, the FAC now boasts a set of galleries outfitted to hold entirely different forms of art.
This also allows the museum to accommodate different concepts within its displays. Whereas the Eclectic Eye exhibit simply offered a remarkable collection, Milteer points out that this time, the story of Impressionism is as important as the pieces themselves.
It's also a bit of a continuation: With the work in this new show extending well into the 21st century, Milteer explains, "it's going to, in reverse order, pick up where the Weisman show began."
Partnerships between mid-sized institutions like the FAC and the New Orleans Museum of Art are opening doors, according to Milteer. By sharing one another's collections, the museums in these medium-sized markets are able to perhaps keep their crowds from fleeing to New York City, Chicago or, as is likely the case here, Denver, to see great art.
With that in mind, the staff at the FAC is pleased to have its newest show, and yet another chance to showcase its new galleries. And with an exhibit that displays nearly 400 years of formative art, the FAC has the opportunity to make a strong statement, to critics and supporters alike.
"When you walk into a gallery," Milteer says, "you have to think, "Wow ... I was not expecting this.'"
Impressionist and Modern Masters from the New Orleans Museum of Art
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.
Opening celebration Friday, Dec. 7, 5-8 p.m., with light hors d'oeuvres, music and cash bar. Celebration admission $10-$20.
Show runs Dec. 8 through March 9, 2008; Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission: $6.75-$12; call 634-5581 or visit csfineartscenter.org.