After 17 years of building the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum into a nationally recognized, fully accredited gem, director William C. Holmes has resigned to direct a museum in Mesa, Ariz.
His departure comes less than two months after the city's most recent threat to defund or close the museum altogether.
The threats of closure, combined with current popular sentiment -- that the arts constitute "fluff" when it comes to public funds -- will likely make the search for a replacement with Holmes' stature and expertise harder, said Marjorie Westbay, the chair of the museum's board of directors.
"My personal opinion is it will hamper the search somewhat, unless there is a commitment from the city government, City Council or the city manager that the museum will continue to be supported with city funds," Westbay said.
Anti-tax sentiment in Colorado Springs, Holmes said, has created a negative mood, which can be demoralizing among museum staff. "It seems pervasive; it's just too bad that we have to deal with that."
By contrast, Holmes is encouraged by the atmosphere in Mesa, where he will direct the Mesa Southwest Museum. The museum he will now head, larger than the Pioneers Museum, specializes in Southwest art and artifacts. A new wing has just been completed there, and another one is already being considered. Holmes described an arts center about a block away from the museum as "spectacular."
"They're really in a positive quality- of-life mode and that's refreshing," Holmes said of the flourishing cultural growth occurring in Mesa. "They really seem to value the arts and culture, which is good for me.
"I'm more a builder than a maintainer, and in Colorado Springs, we're in the period of maintaining."
Holmes believes Colorado Springs' great tradition and commitment to arts and culture -- beginning with General Palmer's original vision for the city and the Broadmoor Art Academy -- has been lost in recent years.
"People don't move to a place because the city fixes potholes in the street; they move because there's a good symphony, and libraries and museums," he said.
Though Colorado Springs has undergone a period of unprecedented economic prosperity over the past 10 years, the museum hasn't been given funds to add a staff person in over a decade.
Two months ago, after voters rejected the SCIP sales tax, city leaders initially responded by identifying the closing of the museum as a possible cost-cutting measure. Though the museum's exhibits, including traveling exhibits, are paid for with grants and private funds, the city pays the museum's operating costs, including salaries and utilities.
In April, City Manager Jim Mullen asked the city's department heads to identify $3.5 million worth of their programs that could potentially be cut. City Parks and Recreation manager Paul Butcher tagged the museum.
The threat prompted board chair Westbay to send the City a letter reminding them that closing it would be legally virtually impossible -- as well as morally and ethically reprehensible. If the City closed the museum, she pointed out, all of its donated artwork and artifacts would have to be returned. Disposing of the building would be another legal nightmare.
City officials responded, claiming that they were merely identifying different options for expected budget shortfalls. Now, the museum expects that it will soon have to charge for admission, Westbay said.
"I wouldn't say it was the last straw; it's just gone on for years," Holmes said of the recent threat of closure. "Over the years, you just get worn down after awhile and say, 'I don't have to do this.' "
Despite constant funding battles, Holmes said he is proud of the Pioneers Museum and his work here. Under his leadership, the museum received two national awards for excellence and earned full accreditation from the American Association of Museums. Less than 20 percent of the country's roughly 8,000 museums are accredited. When American Association of Museums members recently visited the Springs museum, they gasped at the beauty of the building as they walked inside, he said.
Holmes' final project, which will not be completed before his departure, is an outdoor sculpture of Katharine Lee Bates, sitting at the west entrance of the museum and gazing up at Pikes Peak, the inspiration of her song "America the Beautiful."
"This could be one of the best regional history museums in the country -- we've got a great building and collections," he said. "But we have to get the support -- not just financial support, but emotional, knowing that you're valued in the good times and bad."