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A new show at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center unveils the importance of fact-checking ... or not

Maria Lopez's upcoming exhibit at the Sangre de Cristo Arts & Conference Center features colorful, abstract works depicting Christian scenes. But the most eye-catching aspect of the Pueblo artist's self-titled show came within a press release.

"Her works," the Sangre wrote of Lopez, "are currently in the art collections of celebrities such as: Barack Obama, Dane Cook, Cheech Marin, George Lopez, Carlos Mencia, Chris Rock, David Letterman, Martha Stewart, Conan O'Brein [sic], Wanda Sykes, Tracy Morgan, John Leguizamo and others."

Sure enough, Lopez's Web site, lopezme.com, listed more than 20 celebrities who have one of her works in their "estate collections," and recently, the Pueblo Chieftain published an article that mentioned some of those names.

Asked her secret, Lopez happily shares: She goes to concerts, stand-up shows and other public appearances — and gives the works to famous people's handlers and representatives. She admits she doesn't know whether any of her works actually make it into celebrities' homes at all.

The Indy contacted several celebrity representatives about Lopez's paintings. While most inquiries were not returned, Melissa Richardson Banks, a representative of Cheech Marin, says she has no record of Lopez's work, despite Marin being an avid collector of Chicano art.

"I manage the collection, and I don't know who she is," says Banks, who adds that she'll ask Lopez to remove Marin's mention from her site.

A representative from Martha Stewart's publicity firm didn't know where to begin to look, but shares Banks' view that Lopez's paintings were probably classified as simple fan gifts, which generally reside well outside of estate collections.

When asked about the discrepancies, Lopez says she didn't know that her self-promotion — which she sees as both business plan and fan hobby — might have been seen as misleading.

Slim standard

At best, Lopez may be faulted for aggressive idealism or reckless naïveté. Either way, her claims didn't set off alarms at the Sangre.

Its curator of visual arts, Karin Larkin, approved Lopez's works hanging in the museum. She says she did not fact-check Lopez's credentials, and in fact is unapologetic about it. (Disclosure: Larkin is an ex-professor of mine.)

"Basically, we print the information that she gives us," says Larkin, adding, "To be quite honest, whose collections she's in doesn't really factor into my decision as to whether or not I display her. And the information that goes out into the press releases, I don't necessarily put together."

Plus, Larkin adds, "She's a foyer show. It's not like one of the big galleries that we're putting together."

Sangre's marketing specialist Nicki Hart, who assembled the press release, says taking information straight from the artist is good enough: "I take it in good faith that that information coming from the source is correct."

If that sounds strange, what's stranger is that few people in the arts sector seem bothered by it.

Dewey Blanton, an American Association of Museums media representative, says that in public relations, doing background research is a given, even if there's no standard for fact-checking exhibit information. And yet minutes later, Blanton calls back to confess that if he himself were an overextended, underpaid employee in a "small museum," he may be apt to overlook such things.

Kimberley Sherwood, a board member for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and a local nonprofit consultant, puts it this way: "I think there's a lot of room for innocent mistakes ... when we have fairly slim resources and people wearing many hats doing lots of different kinds of tasks ... there's a lot of room for understanding.

"I don't know that there's anything really there," says Sherwood of the situation, "other than perhaps a slim staff working hard to get their programming schedule out there so that they can encourage people to come and look at cool art."

In nearly a half-dozen calls, no one was willing to comment on the record about any dangers inherent to the Sangre's sloppiness.

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center curator Tariana Navas-Nieves is careful to say that all institutions are different, but that FAC releases and gallery text are fact-checked.

"I would say that every museum has their own processes on selecting artists to exhibit, or art into their collection," she says. "And obviously all museums generally fact-check the information, the biographical and support information for each artist."

Official approval

The irony here? Lopez probably doesn't need to embellish her biography. Recently, Lopez submitted a group of works to Navas-Nieves for consideration to become part of the FAC's permanent collection as a gift. And Lopez's art was accepted, receiving Navas-Nieves' formal recommendation as well as museum committee approval.

"My presentation of the works has to do with the works," says Navas-Nieves. "In her case, I found interesting how she takes religious subject matter and gives it kind of a modern take. ... So my selection of those works was based on that."

Meanwhile, at the Sangre, Hart says the staff is working on a plan for future situations like this one, but is not yet giving specifics. As of press time, Sangre had not released any clarification or statement. However, Lopez has changed her Web site, writing now that celebrities' paintings "were gifted."

edie@csindy.com

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