It's been 50 years since the heyday of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in the '30s and '40s. Once considered the greatest museum west of the Mississippi, the FAC boasted a stable of artists that included greats like Edgar Britton, Thomas Hart Benton, Boardman Robinson and many others who either taught at, or attended, the Fine Arts Center School.
Though the FAC faded into a shadow of its former self during the latter half of the 20th century, the six-year tenure of recently departed Director David Turner seemed to be generating momentum for a renaissance within walls of the museum that architect John Gaw Meem erected in 1936. Turner hired Scott Snyder, a fiery young curator with contemporary art in his veins, and began making plans for a much-needed expansion.
That wave of momentum nearly crashed after Snyder resigned less than a year after his hire, and Turner resigned shortly thereafter, leaving in January for a position at his alma mater, the University of Oregon.
The FAC quickly regrouped under the temporary leadership of Jon Stepleton, and hired Michael De Marsche, who recently founded the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University in Alabama.
The Indy spoke with De Marsche by phone as he was packing up to move from Auburn to Colorado Springs.
Indy: What attracted you to this job at the FAC?
Michael De Marsche: In many respects [the FAC] is way ahead of its time. I think the trend in the future is going to be organizing museums with theaters and schools. It's got a beautiful building and a great permanent collection. In short, it's got a lot of potential to get rolling into a new future. The architecture also attracted me, and the fact that the center wants to get underway with a major renovation project. Certainly that excites me -- to engage with a building that's of such historical significance as that one.
Indy: Colorado Springs, as you may know, is not a town recognized for widespread financial support of the arts. How do you plan to deal with that?
MDM: I'm coming from Auburn, Alabama -- not exactly a hotbed of culture -- and the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg before that. If you reach out to the public and help educate them about the exciting things that are happening in arts and theater, they'll get excited. I think it's as simple as that. In Auburn we've built a membership of 1,100 members, and we haven't even opened the doors yet. Millions and millions of people travel around this country looking for museums. Art museums out-ticket all professional sports combined. ... I think people in my profession do a poor job in getting the word out about what we actually provide. People want to come into town and go to a museum and go to a play. In the U.S. right now, there's virtually no area that isn't excited about culture. We're living in a time when museums are absolutely booming. We have to create some dynamic programs and get out there and market them. We have to educate, inform and entertain. There's no reason in the world why the FAC can't do that in a big way.
Indy: How do you plan to reach out to the community here?
MDM: You can't leave any stone unturned. There's a fascinating thing occurring right now with the baby boom generation looking for educational and continuing education opportunities. I think we at the FAC should really tap into that. I think we can also engage with students. You have to have some kind of stimulus that attracts young up-and-coming artists to your center that makes them want to learn. You have to have international artists and lecturers who come in. And we have to be an intellectual center. Not elitist, but a center that engages people on a serious level. ... Great art and great lecturers engage people. I've never been an elitist. I get onto sports talk radio here in Auburn. Me and two disc jockeys talk about what's going on, tours, building projects, art exhibitions.
Indy: Until David Turner came to the FAC six years ago, the center had become notorious for overlooking, even ignoring regional artists and contemporary art. What are your thoughts about these two areas of exhibition?
MDM: What we exhibit must be museum quality work. ... My preference is to bring in what has been established as the very best. And a good, dynamic art museum usually has a fair amount of controversy. It's energy. I like to think that I bring energy to places.
Indy: How do you see yourself working with, and promoting, the FAC's permanent collection and its history?
MDM: Whatever area in your museum that is outstanding, whether that be a work you purchased yesterday, or a work you've had for 60 years, you've got to promote that. I've got to get some education and spend some real time learning about the center, the artists connected with it and the history.
Indy: Given the exciting new museums that are being planned, or have already been built, everywhere from Bilbao to Milwaukee, do you think Gwathmey and Siegel's proposed expansion design is exciting enough to get people both inside and outside the community excited about the FAC again?
MDM: The board wants to get the renovation up, running and finished and then start thinking about the expansion. I think any new building needs to be very exciting. ... I don't know what the plans from Gwathmey Siegel look like, so I can't speak to how exciting they are. But I can guarantee you, if I'm president, it's going to have to be exciting because you're going to have to engage patrons who'll want to fund it. In my mind right now: Get the FAC renovated, and build from there. That thing's gonna be a stunner when it's finished. I also think the galleries need to be rethought out.
Indy: What's your overall vision for the FAC in the coming years?
MDM: What I would like to bring is really a sense of high-quality exhibitions of international reputation. I'd like to think we could organize some of those within our own curatorial staff. Certainly some will travel to Colorado Springs. But I really need to get inside and spend a lot of hours ... there's a lot of work I need to do.