Sam Gappmayer, often easygoing and almost unassuming at art openings and public appearances, takes on a serious air when it's time to get down to business. He carries a notebook around the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, walking fast and speaking carefully. Name tag pinned to his jacket, he's friendly, but firm.
Gappmayer was hired as the institution's president and CEO in October 2008, just over a year after Michael de Marsche's resignation. The 54-year-old entered his position as the economic downfall began in earnest, and he inherited a museum in debt due to the FAC's 2006 expansion.
Then and today, he says, his job entails three main goals: promoting integration between the FAC's museum, theater and Bemis School of Art; maintaining the FAC's relevance in the community; and promoting its sustainability.
The last of those three, he says, is the one on which he's most focused. Gappmayer says he was hired to "bring something that represented less drama and more just rock-solid, sustained growth."
But there is hardly less drama. The FAC is facing litigation with one of its two museum curators, Tariana Navas-Nieves, who says that Gappmayer discriminated against her on the basis of sex and race when demoting her last August. Other employees have claimed wrongful termination, too, with at least two cases having been settled out of court. And some of them have even claimed the FAC's permanent collection is at risk under Gappmayer's watch.
According to FAC board of directors secretary Susie Burghart (disclosure: Burghart is married to Independent columnist Rich Tosches), the current board fully backs Gappmayer. Both she and board chair Jennifer George say he has done a great job at the FAC, and Burghart notes that "any executive in an arts organization these days has to have the business part" taken care of.
"I think I would tell you any nonprofit is running into all the same problems," she says. "It doesn't matter who you are or what you do — ultimately you are a business and you have to run as such."
Navas-Nieves, 42, was hired by de Marsche in December 2006 as curator of Hispanic and Native American Art. She joined the FAC just four months prior to Blake Milteer, 41, her fellow Denver Art Museum employee who became curator of 19th-21st Century American Art.
According to the complaint Navas-Nieves filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Denver late last year, Gappmayer approached her in early August and informed her that she was going to be demoted to part-time; Milteer was going to be promoted to museum director (while maintaining his former curatorial duties), staying on full-time.
Navas-Nieves felt that Milteer lacked adequate experience and qualifications for the position and asked for a chance to apply for the main job. (The FAC would not share Milteer's résumé.) Gappmayer allowed Navas-Nieves and Milteer to submit proposals for the higher position, but ended up sticking with the original decision, which was made with other authorities in the FAC system.
In the EEOC discrimination charge, Navas-Nieves' complaints are clearly checked in boxes marked race, sex, national origin and retaliation (citing a negative performance evaluation by Milteer following her demotion).
David Lane, Navas-Nieves' lawyer, says they are looking for a fair process in which she can reapply for the museum director position: "It looks like they just need to give everyone a fair shake, and it doesn't look like that's been happening."
Gappmayer says he cannot comment on the situation with Navas-Nieves, including why he decided to promote Milteer over her, while the issue is in litigation. A mediation session was originally set for May 3, but has been postponed until late June.
Two other women who spoke with the Independent feel they were unfairly terminated, and say they didn't pursue legal action for varying reasons, including the cost. Two others have settled out of court, and those details are private.
There are women in executive positions at the FAC, including the chief financial officer and chief operating officer. Of the 124 full- and part-time employees at the FAC, 74 are women.
Burghart, while unable to comment on any personnel issues, says firmly of the board, "I will tell you that we support Sam." George says the same.
Gappmayer has support from former co-workers as well. Two employees at Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum, Idaho, the institution Gappmayer headed prior to coming to the FAC, had sparkling comments for him. Artistic director Kristin Poole and controller Stacie Brew both worked for Gappmayer during his six years as executive director.
"He is an extremely fair-minded man in my mind," says Brew.
Poole, who helped hire Gappmayer, says, "He's a highly ethical human being."
Neither had heard of issues at the FAC.
Brian Robinson worked at the FAC for 3½ years as a museum assistant and curatorial assistant to Navas-Nieves. Robinson, 34, says he technically reported to both Milteer and Navas-Nieves but gravitated to Navas-Nieves for management.
Robinson quit at the end of 2009 to pursue his education but says he wanted to go, too, because he felt Navas-Nieves was being treated unfairly. He also took issue with a project the curatorial staff was asked to carry out last October that involved "an accelerated collection move," a transfer of 10,000 art objects from one portion of the museum to new basement space, the bulk of it happening in a month.
"In my mind," Robinson says, "it'd be the same thing as having your husband or your wife demanding that you pack up the kitchen so you can move it in 20 minutes. It's possible, if you just shove everything into boxes and just shove it out the door. But how's your fine china going to survive that?"
Robinson adds that Gappmayer made the move so theater equipment being stored in rented off-site space could be brought into the FAC building.
"What this really breaks down to," Robinson says, "is to save a couple thousand dollars, they're endangering a multimillion-dollar art collection."
Saskia Kesners, 26, the FAC's former registrar and collections manager who led the move before being terminated in March, puts it this way: "It seemed like that the business was dictating the needs of the collection, as opposed to the collection dictating the needs of the business."
But even Kesners says the move "went much better" than she expected. Gappmayer notes that the FAC recruited, trained and oversaw volunteers to help; COO Kari Torgerson has a document outlining the October moving process with a manifest of 44 staff, docents and volunteers.
Gappmayer also says moving the objects — about 80 percent of the collection — actually saved them from possible damage in the old storage basement. On a tour, he points to overhead pipes with a history of leaking, wooden shelves that express damaging gases, and other less-than-ideal conditions. (There are still many objects that need to be moved to the new location.)
And, yes, he says, the move saved the FAC money. Gappmayer notes that he is obligated to uphold public trust in both the care of the collection and the use of donor funds: "Some people say that somehow taints the decision, that there was also a financial benefit. But I don't feel that way."
The bigger picture
When asked when de Marsche's curatorial planning schedule ended, and his began, Gappmayer mentions that some shows, including The Baroque World of Fernando Botero, may have been contracted after de Marsche left, during an interim period. But he's not sure.
"I honestly don't know which [shows de Marsche] contributed to," he says.
That will probably startle staffers and others who think of visual art shows, and the visual art collection, as the FAC's raison d'être. But Gappmayer says he always has to be thinking of all three of its programming areas.
"We have the theater, the Bemis School and the museum, and the collection is part of the museum," he says. "And it's interesting, as I talk to different people, some people have the perception that one or the other of those three is sort of the favored area at the Fine Arts Center. I think as long as I hear those concerns co-equally for each of those three areas, we're doing a pretty good job of maintaining an equal level of resource with each. From a budget perspective, that's certainly the case."
The FAC won't release its budget numbers — in an e-mail, Gappmayer writes, "I believe the opportunity for misinterpretation is fairly high" — but it does report that 2009 was a deficit year on the operational side of the business. Expenses for the operational budget for the fiscal year 2008 to 2009 dropped 22 percent, and another 18 percent from 2009 to 2010.
CFO Debbie Linster says that the FAC is on track with its 2010 board-approved budget. But Gappmayer's still watching money closely: He says it was a financial decision to cut ties with Garden of the Gods Gourmet, which had run the FAC's in-house restaurant, Café 36, to much acclaim for two years. More than a month after the announcement, the FAC is still looking for a replacement.
All things considered, Gappmayer says he feels good about what he's done in 18 months. Among his biggest accomplishments was finishing the FAC's reaccrediation process with the American Association of Museums.
"To be reaccredited after a building project was important to us. [It] reflects the professional conduct of the staff and the board and the support of the community."
Even if it's a smaller staff, getting less community support in the tough economy.
"We've seen about a 20 percent drop in our budget," he says, "and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw about that kind of drop in staff." Gappmayer says there are 46 full-time employees at the FAC now, as opposed to a number in the 60s when he started.