When Michael DeMarsche took over as president of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center last year, few expected that he'd be anything more than a careful custodian, someone who'd coddle the board of directors and keep things plodding along in their usual stolid manner.
A white guy in his late 40s? C'mon, he's just building up his 401(k), and waiting to retire. I don't think anyone suspected DeMarsche would turn out to be a risk-taking activist who'd shake up the FAC in ways heretofore unimaginable.
He's spent half-a-million bucks to buy two spectacular works for the permanent collection, one of which is sure to be fiercely controversial.
He removed the eccentric little Charlie Russell exhibition, which consisted largely of Russell ephemera/memorabilia, and replaced it with a coolly modern video screening room.
He junked the FAC's annual exercise in sweetly charitable sentimentality, the annual holiday decorated tree show, infuriating its many supporters.
He's re-creating the interior, starting by replacing arctic, 1950s hospital whites with warm, nontraditional shades. And he's transforming it physically by opening walls of windows that had been sealed shut and drywalled over for decades. Dark, narrow spaces are now flooded with light, as the architect intended. Next, DeMarsche says he will reopen the skylights that once illuminated the FAC's grand hallway and take down the musty Sacred Lands exhibition -- all due for completion by June 11.
He pulled out all the stops to publicize the FAC's hugely popular Linda McCartney photography show, drawing thousands of visitors, many for the first time.
DeMarsche's vision for the FAC is simple and coherent. "We owe the visitor -- and our members -- a great experience," he said. "That starts at the door with a clean facility and a friendly, informed staff. That means a diverse range of exhibitions and programs, strengthened collections, a restored building; whatever makes an exciting journey."
In his understated way, DeMarsche adds: "The last seven months have been something of a cultural change."
The arts community is delighted and supportive. "Colorado Springs has grown from a town to a city. Mike recognizes this, and he wants the center to reflect the desires and sophistication of a growing city," said Susan Edmondson, executive director of the Bee Vradenburg Foundation. "He's giving us a Fine Arts Center that befits a region of a half-million people."
Pikes Peak Arts Council chair Eve Tilley, who grew up steps away from the Fine Arts Center, agrees wholeheartedly: "What Mike DeMarsche is doing to the FAC is bringing it to life, bringing it into the 20th century, making it a real art museum."
And what about those new acquisitions? Thanks to an anonymous private donor, the FAC has commissioned Dale Chihuly, the renowned glass sculptor, to create a monumental chandelier for the entry hall. Chihuly, famed as the father of modern American art glass, is an important, accessible and crowd-pleasing artist. The chandelier will be formally unveiled on June 11, and expect something sensational; it'll cost that very generous donor upwards of $300,000.
The FAC's other acquisition may be a little more controversial. Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) was an important American scene/regionalist painter, whose long career spanned nearly three-quarters of a century. Already recognized for his vast talent in the 1930s, he exhibited with the likes of Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. A masterful draftsman, he never abandoned representational art for abstraction, despite the near-eclipse of such art for much of his productive life. In a deeply closeted era, he was unashamedly gay.
Take a look at Cadmus' masterpiece from 1971, "Study for a David and Goliath," which the FAC recently acquired. Done in acrylics, it's big (50" x 54") and amazing.
This is an exercise in composition, a display of bravura technical brilliance, and a cheerful, witty, rendition of love and desire. David, the golden-haired boy with the mischievous smile, was Cadmus' lover, Jon Andersson. Goliath is the artist himself. The painting is clearly derived from Caravaggio's self-portrait as Goliath's severed head, a reproduction of which is shown pinned up on the wall behind Paul's nude body. But Cadmus' message is that of the triumph of love, not death -- beside the smiling artist is an art book open to Caravaggio's "Amore Vincitore" (1598), a beautiful nude study.
DeMarsche, and the board, deserve great credit for their willingness to commit real money ($200,000) to a powerful 20th-century masterpiece. It's amazing in reproduction, but wait till you see the real thing. It's a grand reminder of how exciting art can be, and a fitting symbol of the revival of a once-fading institution.
-- John Hazlehurst