Superlatives barely contain the excitement: It's an "Extremely Grand Opening" and the "Greatest Art Event in the History of Colorado Springs."
The emphasis is ours, but it's hardly misplaced. The grandiosity of this event is inevitable. If you've somehow missed this past year's buzz surrounding the renovation, expansion and gala reopening of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, give up now and don't bother changing out of your sweatpants ever.
This is the Colorado Springs art community's moment in the spotlight. Our 70-year-old, one-of-a-kind Southwestern Art Deco landmark, in its expanded incarnation, is ready for business again.
Architect David Owen Tryba has long since rolled up the blueprints, contractor GE Johnson's crews have hauled off the crane, and this week the army of construction workers will file out of the new gallery spaces and glass corridor constructed to balance and complement John Gaw Meem's monolithic cement work of 1936.
By now, FAC President/CEO Michael De Marsche has surely prepared a whole series of words that sound good after "absolutely," for the many speeches he'll deliver for the occasion. ("Absolutely tremendous! ...")
It all begs the question: Is this really the greatest art event in our history?
"No," says Eve Tilley, local writer, director and artist, 11-year president of the Pikes Peak Arts Council and 60-year resident of the Springs. "I'm going to be really catty and say the biggest event was when they tore down the old Burns Theater downtown ... that was such a tragedy."
(The Pikes Peak Avenue theater, constructed of marble and gilded wood in 1912, was demolished in 1973.)
Then, perhaps overcome by her personal history having grown up in the interesting house built into the embankment below the FAC's parking lot on Mesa Road, and having learned to ride her bicycle outside the museum she reconsiders.
"Yes," she says. "I would say it's the biggest event. It's huge for the city's future artistic reputation and economic prosperity."
So the charismatic De Marsche, in his short four-year tenure, hasn't just been blowing smoke when he's called the re-opening of the Fine Arts Center's main building "one of the seminal moments in the cultural history of Colorado Springs"?
Unlocking the basement
"There's a reason why all great cities in America and Europe have built an art museum at the heart of their city," says De Marsche. "There are often parallels drawn between art museums and Gothic cathedrals as big, magnificent buildings that are showpieces of architecture. They attracted people from all over their region and sometimes well outside that region. They were places of not only worship, but commerce and civic pride."
According to a study conducted in 2003 by the American Association of Museums (AAM) in Washington, D.C., expanding such places is a multibillion-dollar industry. Jason Hall, AAM director of government and media relations, explains that it's also a necessity.
"They teach through objects, and you have to have space to do that," he says. "It's as simple as that."
Much like the FAC prior to this renovation, Hall says most museums have the majority of their permanent collections locked up in basements because they lack the space to display them while accommodating traveling exhibitions.
At the newly remodeled FAC, that'll no longer be a problem. It has expanded from roughly 88,000 square feet to almost 137,000. Of that, 28,000 square feet is dedicated to gallery space that will accommodate both traveling exhibitions and rotating works from the FAC's permanent collection of American art and "arguably," according to the FAC, "the largest collection of Southwestern art in the world."
Based on a 2006 financial survey conducted by AAM, the average capital-campaign goal of expanding art museums is $20 million, with expansion costing $365 per added square foot and renovation $163.
The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's capital campaign co-chairs, Buck Blessing and Kathy Loo, have surpassed their early goal of $28.4 million, reaching $28.6 million. They're now shooting for $30.5 million and hope to reinsert a handful of ideas trimmed to match the original campaign goal.
Reshaping the city
But outside of the more spacious, secure, elaborate and now climate-controlled halls that should be able to accommodate any show in the world, what does it mean for Colorado Springs at large?
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised that the whole composition of Colorado Springs begins to change dramatically within the next 10 to 15 years," De Marsche says.
With the caliber of shows on the way, including an Impressionist and Modern Masters from the New Orleans Museum of Art exhibit in December, De Marsche believes people will travel from all over the world to visit the FAC. During a recent museum construction tour, De Marsche joked that he no longer has to extol the FAC's capabilities over the phone to prospective exhibition curators.
An overseas collector he recently called told De Marsche that they had already peeked at the FAC's Web site and were satisfied with the museum's facilities. That never used to happen, he says.
"In essence," De Marsche says, "[the museum's stature] reshapes how we view our own city."
Tilley says a trickle-down theory explains how expansion may affect other artists and venues in town.
"We have some really good artists in this community, and we have some very decent art galleries," she says. "If we become an arts destination for serious art collectors, people will want to see what else is in the community. And that's bound to boost the sales and reputations of local artists."
Also, De Marsche says, with the FAC bringing in only the highest-quality art, the community will develop a "cultivation of people who frequent galleries looking for original works of art to own."
De Marsche believes that people who have been exposed to high culture tend to become dissatisfied with the secondary medium of prints and reproductions, and that thereby supports the opening of more local galleries and art-based commerce.
Defining the scene
But before we get farther ahead of ourselves, there's the here-and-now litmus attendance, and how well the new FAC is received.
The AAM calculates that "attendance is a primary and almost universally available measure of mission delivery," and even though it alone should not dictate success, "it is a measure of how many people were interested in and exposed to the museum's message."
Further study of the AAM surveys proves that not all museums survive their expansions particularly if they "are not in tune with community interests." The data also show that architecture and design are as crucial to community satisfaction as the exhibitions themselves.
With humility, De Marsche stands by the words "hope" and "vision" when detailing how he, the capital campaign organizers and the board of trustees reached this threshold of a new tomorrow. But ultimately, no one can scream "Success!" until after the doors open.
So how does De Marsche sleep at night? Because of one man: Dale Chihuly.
De Marsche says the turning point "when I knew we could do it" came in 2004, when An Exhibition by Dale Chihuly attracted a record-smashing 80,000 attendees to the FAC. Prior to that show, De Marsche says, he had told board members that if they wanted to launch a major fundraising campaign, they'd better first determine if they had an audience for art in Colorado Springs.
Turns out they did. And it boosted the confidence of both the FAC and the larger community.
"No more Sunday painters," explains Tilley. "If we want the reputation of a community with a very fine art museum, we have to put fine art into that art museum."
Tryba, De Marsche and the folks on the museum's end have done their job up to this point. Ultimately, it will be the crowds that decide whether this is the "Greatest Art Event in the History of Colorado Springs."
"I knew if we built a great building, they're gonna come," De Marsche says, in true Field of Dreams fashion. "I continue to this day to be absolutely confident that we have a big enough audience of art appreciators in Colorado Springs to sustain this building and this institution."
When the FAC concludes its $30.5 million fundraising effort, more than 400 donors will have contributed, predicts co-chair Buck Blessing.
Here's a by-the-numbers breakdown of the $28.6 million already in hand:
$76,209 is the average amount gifted to the FAC
1 percent of those total funds raised came from government sources
2 percent came from corporations
34 percent came from foundations
63 percent came from individuals
18 million dollars amassed from those individuals
33 number of people who, despite never previously donating to the FAC, gave $25,000 or more