In early November, eight days before he left town and headed for the greener arts pastures of Sante Fe, Rodney Wood sat in a window booth at Boulder Street Coffee Roasters, giving some serious thought to his future, his past and, more than anything else, the town he was leaving.
"It's time for some of us to move on," he said.
He spoke of himself and of his contemporaries in the Colorado Springs art community. He remembered their past accomplishments and their failures. He recalled the things they had produced: the paintings, the sculptures, the performances, the galleries.
Wood, long a respected artist and arts advocate in these parts, was quite nostalgic that morning, but he was also fairly critical. He listed the faults of the local art community with next-to-no jogging of his memory: There aren't enough local buyers; affordable studio space isn't available; there aren't enough galleries; the city and its citizens don't embrace the arts; there's no legitimate arts district.
Yeah, Wood was definitely ready to try out a new city.
He wasn't alone. Gerry Riggs of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Elaine Bean of Phototroph Gallery are gone now, too. And, Wood said, there were plenty of others he had heard were considering a move in the near future. For kicks, he counted the names. Once his tally reached six, he paused.
"I can go on ..." he offered.
No need. He had made his point.
"They're dropping like flies," Wood said. "They're running. It's almost getting to the point where it's an exodus."
But, Wood noted, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"If I leave," he said, "there opens up a void. The younger artists now have that opportunity to step up."
Translation: The younger ones have the chance to create a scene as they see fit to turn the now shapeless form of the Colorado Springs arts community into something of envy. Perhaps on a national level.
Problem was and here's where Wood was worried he had no clue who those leaders of tomorrow would be. He fumbled around for a moment. Finally, he settled on a handful of potential candidates. Among the names he mentioned: Christopher Lynn, Riggs' replacement at UCCS' Gallery of Contemporary Art; Rubbish's Carlita Trujillo; and local artist Dave Voth.
"There need to be more people who are willing to take some risks and just go for it," Wood said.
These relative unknowns could step up, he said. They were young enough, sure. They could make things happen. If they got together, got organized and got inspired, they could round up the troops and make something of this town.
But would anyone listen?
Sink or swim
In the nearly six months that have passed since that late autumn morning, some of Wood's hopes for the art community have started to come true. With himself, Riggs and Bean gone, the young art advocates in town have been forced to take on a more prominent role in the community not as the spokespeople for tomorrow, but as the leaders of today.
In his Gallery of Contemporary Art, Christopher Lynn nervously smiles and glances about the room. He sits at a table he has set up, in front of rows of chairs he's also put into place.
It's a few minutes after 7 p.m. when Lynn announces a greeting to the people in attendance. This night, April 12, is the first of what Lynn hopes will become a quarterly event in Colorado Springs. He calls it the Incubator Series, and the idea is simple: Get the directors and curators, the media, the artists and the buyers into the same room to discuss their thoughts on the local arts scene.
It's an attempt, Lynn says, to dissolve the mysteries of the community, and to allow the entire arts process, from creation to purchase, to become more transparent. Lynn thinks it will help everyone within the community better understand their roles. And this understanding, he believes, will lead to a stronger scene.
Since starting his tenure at UCCS last year, Lynn has been forced to curate the shows that Riggs scheduled before leaving town when he arrived, the gallery was booked for a year. So instead of curatorial work, Lynn, who came to UCCS after working as an assistant curator at DePauw University in Indiana, has focused on special events.
So far, he has hosted a number of "bad art" nights, where members of the community have come together to make the worst art they could, and movie nights, where he has shown films that might expand the ways in which the viewers think, artistically. Tonight's Incubator panel is just a different means to the same end.
After explaining as much, Lynn introduces the six gallery curators and directors that sit beside him, facing the audience: There's Julie Cole of the Smokebrush Foundation for the Arts, Jessica Hunter Larsen of Colorado College, Tom McElroy of Studio 802, Tariana Navas-Nieves of the Fine Arts Center, Holly Parker of the Business of Art Center, and Rubbish's Trujillo.
It's a weird night, the Thursday of the epic snowstorm that never hits. Earlier, Lynn had posted reassurances onto his gallery Web site that said this event would still take place, but it's clear that his publicity efforts have produced lukewarm results at best; there are no more than 15 people in attendance. And they're mostly local media types, collectors and artists the people for which most of this information should already be common knowledge. In essence, the panelists are preaching to the choir. More than once over the course of the evening, audience members usurp and undermine the direction of the conversation.
Nonetheless, Lynn carries on. He gives each member a chance to talk about his or her role in the arts community again, in the name of full disclosure. But at the start, discussion is slow.
Aside from McElroy, the panel's participants are relatively new to their posts. None of them has held his or her current position for more than a couple years, and many are even more fresh-faced than that. Navas-Nieves, for instance, signed on just three months ago with the FAC as the curator of Hispanic and Native American art. (Prior to being hired, she worked as a consultant at the Denver Art Museum.)
Once the new arrivals finally do muster some confidence at the night's event, though, their naivet shines through. Their visions and their pride are grandiose each panelist promises at some point that he or she wants to educate the community, to introduce new, unfamiliar artists, and to push the limits of acceptable art in this town.
"I don't think you'll find that to be that difficult out here," McElroy blurts out at one point, fed up with hearing the same answers.
But his curmudgeonly remarks, plentiful throughout the evening, are repeatedly disregarded by his fellow panelists. Parker, formerly of Smokebrush and recently appointed a curator at the BAC, certainly pays him no mind.
"We have a really vibrant arts community here," she says. "I've always said that Colorado Springs is on the verge of doing something interesting, but I'm honestly excited about what we're seeing right now."
She and her fellow optimists again note the youth of the panelists. Aside from McElroy, who is 52, each of the panelists is 38 or younger.
They also point out the positives around town, like how the reconstruction of the Fine Arts Center's main building should do wonders for the scene. So should, they say, Colorado College's new Cornerstone arts building, which is going up just across the street from the FAC. Everyone seems confident that, arts-wise, Colorado Springs is at a "tipping point."
Repeatedly, that term is brought up and it works wonders. Aside from a few diatribes about poor media coverage and a lack of local art history appreciation, a glass-half-full mentality dominates the remainder of the evening. The panelists, even McElroy, discuss the benefits of collaborative efforts like this evening's panel. They promise to work more closely with one another. They talk promotional and cross-promotional tactics. They smile as their can-do spirit percolates down the line.
And then it ends. An hour-and-a-half or so after beginning the night, Lynn wraps it up, perhaps trying to seal in that lovey-dovey spirit as the standing image of the evening.
It doesn't really work, though. At least not for him.
"It went OK," he says afterward. His facial expression tells a different story, as does his lament that the weather must have kept some people inside.
"The difficulty with something like this is just getting it started," he says. "But once it's done once, it gets a lot easier."
This night could have been a watershed moment for the new regime in the Springs' arts scene. For many of the panelists, this was their first time meeting one another. But the panelists, like Lynn, are bothered by the turnout. If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one around to hear it ...
At a crossroads
For all his dissenting remarks during the Incubator panel a few nights prior, McElroy, who often goes by his artistic pseudonym of Atomic Elroy, says he was happy to participate and help Lynn out.
"Gerry Riggs was a great friend of mine," McElroy says over a cup of coffee. "They couldn't have replaced him with a better person."
Still, as pleased as he was with the idea of the event, he wasn't necessarily blown away by it. Having run experimental performance-based and video-installation spaces in this town since 1990, McElroy has a certain edge on the newbies he sat in with. He's seen this all before.
"Parker started talking about the "tipping point,'" McElroy says with a roll of the eyes. "I've heard that all my life. "Ten years,' they say. "Ten years from now, things will be different.'"
He's not exactly sold.
"We are at a tipping point," McElroy says. "But it's a tipping point. It could go either way."
He points to Rubbish, a gallery he said "this town needs 10" of during the panel discussion. Trujillo and her partner at Rubbish, Jon Lindstrom, artists themselves, are aiming to assist the other up-and-comers around town. Unfortunately, McElroy says, people like Trujillo and Lindstrom are the exception to the rule in Colorado Springs.
"People don't follow things through here," McElroy continues. "Losing that complacency is really important. Stopping the thought that someone else will do it for you."
He says he's heard plenty of artists complain about the scene. Rarely has he seen anyone do much beyond that.
"People in the arts community want it to be them and their buddies having a good time and taking part in a scene," he says. "They're posers. That's the whole thing in a nutshell. A lack of motivation is rewarded here."
But will anything change? McElroy's unsure.
"We all like to bitch," he says, with a smile.
McElroy admits that his track record might not put him in the best position to criticize. Studio 802 is already McElroy's second venture in 2007. Earlier in the year, he shut down Chaos Studios, another attempt to shake up the local arts community with sometimes difficult-to-interpret work.
"People laugh at me sometimes," McElroy says. "I've had three failed enterprises in the past three years. But I'm still doing it."
Developing a center
At the Incubator panel, one popular appeal focused on the FAC and its role in the community. Should the Fine Arts Center do more to assist smaller ventures around town?
Nationally, a facility such as the FAC is somewhat of an anomaly. Unlike the Denver Art Museum, for instance, the FAC is a completely privately funded arts institution.
Since Michael De Marsche's arrival as director, the FAC's membership has increased from 3,000 to almost 7,200. Its endowment has reached almost $16 million. Shouldn't the FAC be spreading that wealth around?
No, De Marsche says quite frankly. Not financially, at least the FAC is helping out the community in other ways. He points to the ongoing construction at the intersection of Cascade Avenue and Dale Street. De Marsche believes that the $28.4 million remodeling of the FAC, which will add almost 49,000 square feet to the building, will help anchor a more specific arts district. Unlike the area under the Colorado Avenue bridge that the Smokebrush Foundation urged the city to call the Depot Arts District, De Marsche sees this northern downtown neighborhood becoming the new art hub.
The only thing holding it back, he says, is time.
"We're just now in the infantile stages of the process," De Marsche explains.
It'll be a long process, he says, but it could be quite successful. He adds that people need to be more confident about the arts scene's future; things are already improving.
McElroy agrees, crediting De Marsche with "making art sexy" in Colorado Springs, especially to the people on the outskirts of town.
The two further agree that the future of the area surrounding the FAC Main and the Cornerstone arts building will be vital to continuing that growth. They envision coffee shops, bookstores and smaller galleries sprouting up.
One day, De Marsche says, Colorado Springs could be on par with Seattle or Portland, Ore., when it comes to arts culture.
"The first step is happening," De Marsche says. "If we don't get bogged down in negative and silly discussions, the sky's the limit. But it's going to take some vision."
Paths to success
Despite all the praise she and Rubbish earned during the Incubator discussion, Trujillo remained relatively quiet throughout.
"I get nervous," she says with a smile and a shrug.
When it comes to her Bijou Street space, though, she has no reason to be. It's galleries like Rubbish, everyone in the arts community seems to agree, that are essential to a growing scene.
The irony is that Trujillo and Lindstrom never really planned on opening a gallery. But after a friend tipped them off to the space in the alleyway across from 15C, they looked into it and were pleased with what they saw. Two days and a signed two-year lease later, they were gallery owners.
"It's been pretty awesome," Trujillo says of running her own space. "Rubbish makes me feel like I'm really important."
Through Rubbish, Trujilo has been able to offer up her own works to a wider swath of the masses. Furthermore, her accomplishments at Rubbish seem to have opened up the eyes of the artists in the scene. The goal now, it seems, is simply to get the work shown location is not so much an issue as opportunity is. Thanks to Rubbish, non-traditional galleries are starting to become embraced (see sidebar, page 15).
In a similar vein, local graffiti artist Richard Arnot has redefined established artistic limits in Colorado Springs. Fed up at the lack of appreciation for his work which is rarely classified as "fine" art Arnot founded Nocturnal Mockery, an annual event to celebrate the underground Front Range artists who are rarely, if ever, shown on the gallery circuit.
"I didn't know who to approach [at the galleries]," Arnot says. "I guess I could've gone through a lot of hoops, but I wanted gratification."
Now in its fifth year, NocMoc has grown into an event that attracts audiences of all ages and backgrounds, from the blue-haired set to the spike-haired set (although with a heavy lean toward the latter). It's been good to Arnot, who recently quit his day job delivering flowers.
"I definitely quit because things are going well," he says.
Like Trujillo and McElroy, other panelists at the Incubator were lukewarm about what was accomplished that night. Once they had taken some time to reflect upon it, their in-panel optimism had quickly faded.
For Cole and Parker, in fact, it seems the session did little more than reopen old wounds. Though Parker led the optimistic rally during the Incubator, she balks when re-imagining the immediate future of the scene.
"The tipping point isn't instant," she concedes. "It's kind of like birth: It puts us into a stage of infancy that puts us closer to the position of having a thriving scene."
Cole, too, notes that a super-successful local art scene is a ways off. She tries to point her finger at one problem, but each one leads her to another and sometimes, back again. There's a lack of crowds because there's a lack of funding, she says. And there's a lack of funding because there's a lack of a crowd.
"There may be no one party to blame," she says, "but that doesn't mean there's not a problem."
One glaring problem: honesty.
When spoken with individually, each of the panelists interviewed reluctantly concede two of the points they so steadfastly argued during Lynn's mediated discussion.
First, they admit that while Colorado Springs has plenty of artists, many of whom are quite talented, the art being produced locally could stand to improve a bit, on the whole.
Second, they concede that they may have overstated the importance of young artists sticking it out here, for better or for worse. In retrospect, they say that such opinions are selfish ones. It's important, these new powers acknowledge, for young artists to venture outside of Colorado Springs and to understand what's happening elsewhere and to grow as artists and people. Each of the Incubator panelists, in fact, was either born elsewhere or left the Springs for college.
There's a worry there, though. If an artist skips town, who's to say that artist will come back?
That's a dilemma local artist Dave Voth, who signs his work as "Davoth," says he's currently wrestling.
Having shown locally at galleries like Rubbish, Smokebrush and Plantera, Voth is beginning to look into ways in which he can show his artwork in Denver. One friend he has there recently sold 23 pieces for $800 a pop in a night. Here, Voth struggles to sell one and if he does so, the evening's a success.
"I've done OK," he says with a shrug. "Better than some and worse than others."
He smiles. For Voth, the Colorado Springs art scene is what it is. He doesn't make a living off his art, he says, and he doesn't know much more than this town.
The 39-year-old Kansas native moved here 10 years ago from Wichita. He freely admits he "hasn't been to too many cities," so he's not sure if a larger city would provide the extra sales kick he's told it will. Still, it's enticing.
"I've definitely thought seriously about leaving several times," Voth says, "And I'm still kind of on the edge with it."
Such statements must seem like daggers to the backs of the city's curators and directors. For Rodney Wood, Voth's mentor, it might be especially disheartening. After all, Voth was one of the artists Wood hoped would step into a leadership role in town.
But Voth, who was one of the few crowd members at the Incubator (he says he was there to support his friend Trujillo), wasn't necessarily moved by what he heard from the new local art directors and curators who are going to be shaping the scene for years to come.
"I would've like to have heard more about what would help, instead of what the problems are," Voth says. "And I know there are a lot of problems."
Nonetheless, Voth says the Incubator series is a step in the right direction.
"What I hope is that a lot of this continues," Voth says. "I'm excited about what's going on now."
At that, Voth announces he has committed to putting off his departure for at least another year. For now, the idea of "the tipping point" seems to have won him over.
Whether it'll be worth his while, no one can say for sure. That's the problem with "the tipping point." You can fall either way.