To find an unfinished corner of the newly remodeled Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, you have to dig deep. From the outside, it seems the FAC is settling into its new life as a full-grown museum. In reality, though, the expansion project is far from over. While the galleries are open and running, a new basement is still under construction, and being equipped to store the FAC's vast collection. Its walls and floors are finished; its climate is controlled, too. But there's not a single painting or sculpture down there.
In place of the artwork, a fleet of state-of-the-art, steel storage cabinets stands near completion. At 8,262 square feet, the basement, which lies within the footprint of the expansion, is to be outfitted with nearly 200 of these cabinets. They will hold sculptures and three-dimensional objects, and roll on tracks some via hand crank, others motorized to eliminate extra space between shelves.
Then there are ceiling-to-floor wire racks, built specifically to hang paintings, and long, flat drawers meant to accommodate textiles.
With 23,800 objects to the museum's name, the FAC needed more space to store its two major collections, the Fine Arts Collection and the ethnographic Taylor Collection. Now, with these custom cabinets nearing completion, the FAC can start moving everything back in, and take another step toward finishing its expansion.
"When we bring [the works] back from off-site is really the beginning of that process," says curatorial assistant Brian Robinson, one of the employees most heavily involved with the day-to-day operations of the basement. "It's a very time-intensive process because we have to deal with each piece individually."
Moving the pieces back in involves carefully unpacking them, numbering and fitting them into the correct storage space, and configuring a cataloging system for the storage area. Cataloguing, then, will take another two years.
Time and space
Robinson's workplace is nothing like the stereotypical damp basement; it's actually quite pleasant, due to the climate controls, which help prevent colors from fading and altering, and wooden sculptures and canvases from drying and cracking. The basement isn't dark, either; although most pieces will be stored inside the cabinets, specially installed lights brighten the room while simultaneously protecting the 2-D pieces that will hang on the new racks.
Robinson says the FAC had originally hoped to finish all of its projects in time for August's Extremely Grand Opening, but the volume of the permanent collection was too much to work through at once especially with exterior construction for the new wing of the museum.
So the FAC sent a portion of its works off-site; about 1,500 pieces from the collection were shipped to a special storage facility in Denver, where they stayed for a little over a year. The rest were kept in the building's original basement, which lies underneath the bar area on the main floor. Going forward, this space will be used for the theater department, as offices and storage rooms for sets and costumes.
The visual arts offices have moved into the new basement as well. The curators are now just steps away from the collection. Says Blake Milteer, curator of 19th-21st century American art, "We can live with [the art]."
These storage facilities, made by the German company Glasbau Hahn, a company that specializes in compacting storage and museum display cases, were custom-made for the FAC. Early in the building's expansion, Glasbau Hahn sent workers to the site to measure for the units for later installation.
"With ever-expanding collections," says Robinson, "you can either spend your money on building brand-new storage facilities that are just going to fill up ... or go ahead and build a new space like we did, and make it more efficient."
Efficient use of space is vital to any museum institution that wants to continue collecting. Robinson points out that with this customized storage system, the FAC gains between 60 and 75 percent more storage capacity. And that means more than just leg room for the current pieces.
"Instead of having a life-span of five years before we'd start running out of space again," says Robinson, "we have a life span of 25 years."
When the artwork does find a home on-site, however temporary, the FAC will begin more regularly rotating and refreshing its permanent galleries. Tariana Navas-Nieves, curator of Hispanic and Native American art, is planning an exhibition in the spring that will combine the New Mexican altar photography of Alex Harris with santos, or figurines of saints, from the Taylor Collection.
Navas-Nieves says the museum's gallery of works on paper will also see a lot of change, due to the papers' fragile nature. Such sensitivity requires that they return to a dark drawer every 6 to 9 months.
"That encourages change," Navas-Nieves says with a laugh.
With this new storage asset still in its infantile stages, Navas-Nieves, Milteer, Robinson and their co-workers are eager to rediscover their collection as they catalogue it. In the future, they hope portions of the collection will be available for traveling exhibitions, and that the completed basement will be open to educators and researchers for visits and studies.
"We're all big fans of our collection," Robinson says.
No surprise, then, that so much thought is being put into its home.