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January 14, 2015 News » Cover Story

The tao of Jon 

A brash New Yorker has imbued Cottonwood Center for the Arts with energy, ambition and — a little weirdly — love

The city's newest theater venue has 75 seats, counts 240 events booked into 2016, comes equipped with an all-new lighting and sound system, and even has a small green room tucked off to the side. It sits smack in the middle of Cottonwood Center for the Arts, at 427 E. Colorado Ave., on the second floor in a nest of sound-proofing materials.

Those materials ensure that when THEATREdART or the Star Bar Players or any local dance company performs in the David Lord Theater, it won't disturb the artists working in surrounding studios, or the gallery opening downstairs, or the writing class next door, or the walk-in customer perusing the shopfront/lobby, where you can buy knitted goods, handmade soaps or a $25,000 chest of drawers made without power tools, screws or nails.

The mid-December day I'm there, it's empty, and I watch the lights go up, then shift through a rainbow of hues and moods on the spare set of TdA's show, Rhinoceros. There are plans still to install running lights and a computer system that will allow theater companies to load all their cues so lighting and sound will run automatically.

It's from this perch in the back that Cottonwood executive director Jon Khoury, beaming with pride, is manipulating all the new tools. Which makes for a perfect metaphor.

Cottonwood decided to build the theater last year, and launched a $5,000 Indiegogo campaign in August that in two short weeks attracted $6,800. Another donor gave an additional $5,000, and before the year was out, it was built.

If you know Cottonwood and Khoury a little bit, this kind of story comes as no surprise. Since he arrived on Aug. 6, 2012, this 17-year-old nonprofit has flourished. Writers and musicians have joined scores of visual artists in the building's 64 studios, and today there's a waiting list of over 50 other hopefuls; large closet spaces are being converted into new studios. Two months ago, $15,000 in artwork was sold in a span of hours at the opening reception for artists Nancy Stage Robinson and Karen Khoury (Jon's wife).

Cottonwood can now welcome more glass artists, since it has glass kilns on the property. A donor gifted a $14,000 printer that artists can use for free. A drab break room now operates as a humble library with a not-so-humble collection of art books and magazines where writing groups meet.

None of this was happening before, and you can pretty much point to Khoury as the reason why it's happening now. Khoury's got a strong set of philosophies, and you get the sense that there's something in the water at Cottonwood. People here are happy and bubbly. Everyone knows everyone else, even though 100 people are in the building on any given day. Words like "family" come up a lot.

Damn if it doesn't make you the least bit suspicious.

"I heard the challenge of Cottonwood, and realized it was going to be a tough battle initially, especially, but I knew that I was going to be able to be me," Khoury says of the initial job offer. "And therefore I knew that it would be successful, because I wouldn't tolerate anything else."

So there. Khoury, sounding every bit like the New Yorker he is, isn't afraid of big claims. He isn't afraid of anything, really. But more on that later. This story begins on the morning I arrive to follow the 52-year-old around, to get a feel for what's driving the Cottonwood renaissance.

"Even when I'm at home, this place is on my mind. My phone rings at all hours for different things."

Though he works 70 to 75 hours per week on-site, Khoury will gladly come to the call, and no work is beneath him. His office — with a desk, sofa and conference table where staff congregate regularly — lies near the front desk. During the course of my visit, he meets visitors in the lobby, learning quickly what each wants and delivering precise responses. An older man who regularly takes the early bus here arrives, and Khoury greets him with cookies and a coffee. Later, he negotiates with a buyer over a $3,000 piece of sculpture, an entrancing elephant made up of thousands of tiny random objects. When it sells, the cluster of staff in his office cheers, the kind of high-fives-all-around cheer that says this is great, but not all that unusual. Khoury will probably deliver the piece himself.

Together we tour the two floors, poking our heads in studios and meeting areas and a new thing called the Spray Café, where artists can safely use aerosols and sprays. The upstairs layout twists about, revealing doors decorated like those in a dorm hallway. Business cards are offered up in creative containers, and artist statements are lovingly framed and displayed next to selected artworks. We tour more formal galleries and what were once small pass-through areas that are now professionally lit and decorated to function as mini-galleries.

Khoury's breathless at each stop. He moves quickly, speaks firmly, and leans in closely when you're talking. He's deaf in one ear, though you wouldn't know it. His features and thick hair are dark, and his expressions fit his heavy New York accent.

He seems to know every last inch of the 40,000-square-foot building, and can talk about the whereabouts of every penny that rolls through Cottonwood billing. But that's just the business side. Throughout the day, he also takes moments to reflect, almost to himself, on how much he loves it here. And artists make clear that the feeling is mutual.

"He's our guru and he's a genius. He's meant everything to Cottonwood."

"He's turned this place around. Look at this place, fabulous."

"It's so much inspiration, it's unbelievable. Come by my studio, take a look."

If the touchy-feely stuff is getting too ... well, touchy-feely, consider the following:

• Since Khoury arrived, Cottonwood's staff has grown from two to 14. Not all full-time, but all work at least 15 to 20 hours a week and are paid above minimum wage. All teachers and facilitators for events, like, say, the open critiques, are paid. "We have no volunteers," he says.

• Artists' studio rent accounts for 36 percent of Cottonwood's income. It used to be 70 percent. Back in the day, Khoury says, the "magic number" they had to clear each month was $15,000. Now on rent alone Cottonwood clears $20,000, and can reach $45,000 to $50,000 overall. And he only raises rents between tenants, not when artists re-sign their leases.

• The $100,000-plus in debt that Khoury inherited has now been paid off.

• Before Khoury, Cottonwood was open four days a week. Starting Feb. 1, it will expand to seven.

• According to Cottonwood's IRS forms, program service revenue grew from $276,981 in 2012 to $328,463 in 2013, and Khoury says it will break $400,000 in 2014. He's aiming for half a million dollars this year.

• He expects the sale of artwork — just that from Cottonwood's galleries, and not whatever artists sell from individual studios — to jump from $41,564 in 2013 to $88,000 in 2014.

• Khoury, whose résumé includes contract event planning for the likes of Pepsi/Frito Lay, The Associated Press and Google, makes about $53,000 a year.

Around 11, Khoury wants coffee, so he takes orders and we drive a few blocks over to Dutch Brothers, where I get his drink: a small Dutch Freeze with whipped cream. It's espresso-y and sweet.

Along the way, we pass the new KKTV building across from Cottonwood, and real estate signage peppered all over the various lots.

"You know how people always ... say, 'Oh the arts and culture are important to the economy. You gotta have it, so blah blah blah'?" Khoury asks. He answers: "Not only is it important, it might be the most important thing.

"You need to give people a reason to stay in the city that they live. You know, they're building condos right here. Huge thing. High-end. And everything east of our building, all the way up to the [former] Gazette building, is being developed. And I can tell you, we have a lot to do with that. Because, think what that means if you're a real estate person. To say, 'Oh and the arts center's right here. You can take classes, you can bring your kids, you can do this, you can do that.' Nothing was happening [previously]."

Despite all the good, 2014 wasn't always smooth. In March, Cottonwood was hit with a notice of default from one of the two parties that hold notes on the building. Months of litigation ensued, and the family of the individual who held one of the notes tried to put the building up for sale with Cottonwood still in it. They also sued Khoury personally.

Khoury says the center was always up-to-date on its payments, and that the family didn't understand the particulars of the loan. But he was left with the fallout of Gazette coverage that had patrons worried and phones ringing, while Cottonwood's lawyers handled the legwork, which included going to trial to seek an injunction to stop the sale of the building.

After a 2½-day hearing at the end of October, the judge halted the foreclosure proceedings, and threw out the suit against Khoury. The parties then went to mediation, in which Cottonwood revalued the building based on tax data — $1.4 million, versus $3 million-plus on the note — and put plans in motion for an eventual capital campaign to buy the building outright.

"Even if we didn't prevail the way we did, we would be somewhere else, doing the same thing," Khoury says. "We're too important now, we serve too many people, for this to go away."

Felicia Kelly, at just 28 years old, considers herself a veteran at Cottonwood, having started three years ago. She's in charge of all media and marketing, but also does the heavy work on programming art shows and events. She has 2015's schedule all laid out, working off of last year's successes and mistakes.

There are juried group shows, including a touchable art exhibit, and smaller groupings based on local portfolios. Cottonwood will hold all its openings on the last Saturday of each month this year, a move that Kelly feels will gather more crowds than the usual First Friday call. The Body Art show, a showcase of body painting and wearable art that has increased in popularity over the last two years, is growing and refining its focus. Slated for Nov. 14, it's now called ARTWEAR | The Runway Show.

Dia de Los Muertos, though, the organization's most popular event, will not return.

"It's because it's become so mainstream," she says. "Everyone is jumping on."

Or, as Khoury puts it, "How many fucking times can you do it? You gotta move on in art."

This kind of attitude, and the freedom it enables, is part of what Kelly loves about her work.

"He's the easiest person in the world to work for," she says of Khoury. "He always says, 'Don't come to me with an idea, come to me when it's finished. If you have an idea, just do it. If it doesn't work, we'll figure it out.'"

"I guess there's no fear that we're going to screw something up, and I think there was a lot of fear of change before," she says. "There were people who had been here for years and years and years, and they just got comfortable."

Cottonwood before Khoury probably wouldn't have dropped Dia de Los Muertos, or taken the risk of breaking away from the First Friday schedule. It might have cut back its hours substantially at this time of year, as a lot of organizations and galleries do. But Kelly is preternaturally aware of the energy a place emits, and wanted to, for instance, plunge into January with its abstract art show, one of Cottonwood's biggest calls for entries.

The center also takes an unorthodox financial approach in, as Khoury puts it, "fighting extremes with extremes." It will rent out the theater free of charge for certain groups, as it did for a recent talent show put on by adults with disabilities. If promotion is needed, or tickets sold, Cottonwood will do that, too. It offers a free art intensive weekend for high school students (with classes on subjects like street art and postmodern nonrepresentational art) through the rapidly growing Adduce Foundation, and has laid the groundwork to do something similar this spring with Urban Peak, a nonprofit that helps teens facing homelessness.

But Khoury rejects offering charity when it comes to promoting Cottonwood's own artists or events.Back on a snowy morning in November, the Cultural Office for the Pikes Peak Region held a public debriefing on October's Arts Month. Some arts leaders referenced disappointment with the drive; perhaps next year could they partner up and offer ticket discounts or coupons of some kind?

Khoury had been quiet at this meeting, until now.

"Forget discounts!" he said, standing up. "I don't want us to undersell ourselves anymore."

Instead of reaching for impossible audiences, and attempting to stretch further, he argued, why not feed resources into the current audiences and deepen their experiences? And why not quit holding out hands for help?

The discussion then shifted to talk about a "more confident choir." Someone compared Khoury to a Kennedy.

I ask him about the exchange today while he lunches on the huevos rancheros Karen brought him. "Extremes are really important," he says. "So I'll go in there and argue, 'Do not give 25 percent off' ... because that's just lukewarm. But if you go to groups like this group that was up here the other day and did the talent show, and there's many of them coming, that's the other extreme. Not only are we discounting it, and not charging them, they're getting it for free.

"So what does that do for Kathy Loo?" he asks, alluding to the well-known local philanthropist. "That makes Kathy Loo say, 'Oh my god, I want to be a part of that.' If Kathy Loo sees a promotion we're doing, 50 percent off art — who gives a shit? It makes it look like we have bad art here and we're trying to get rid of it.

"And so from a mission standpoint, that's how we reach those people who, we are told, are almost unreachable. Now we have access to them. So from a tactical standpoint, extremes in art work well."

Khoury was born in Yonkers, and lived in Westchester County most of his life, save four years at Colorado College, where he was first introduced to Colorado Springs. He was an English major, and to this day is a voracious reader with a love for William Faulkner and police procedural novels from the likes of Mickey Spillane.

He was living with Karen, his second wife, and their daughter Daisy in Croton-on-Hudson, doing event planning and representing 200-plus musicians, artists and dancers in New York, when they decided to pursue a new life here. Both had had enough of New York living, and the Springs had stayed on Khoury's mind ever since college.

As Cottonwood board chair David Lord (he of the aforementioned theater) remembers it, the board was smitten from the start. Asked about whether Cottonwood was taking risk in hiring Khoury, he replies, "I think the risk was ... why would Jon want to leave the East Coast and New York, and move to Colorado Springs [for], to be honest with you, a struggling nonprofit?"

Khoury was aware he'd be making a huge shift, especially given the conservative nature of Colorado Springs. But taking risks is another of Khoury's maxims, because a big risk can yield a big reward, both in life and in art.

As expected, the transition wasn't easy.

Khoury quickly heard from some detractors, inside and outside the Cottonwood realm, though he won't name any today.

"There was a ton of pushback, from the board, from artists, from all kinds of people. 'Why do we have to do things like that?' Like we did a body art show, that just brought in this whole different crowd of drunken, tattoo body art people and the board was like, 'Why do we need to do that?'"

Another time, some Cottonwood artists wanted to put an 18-or-older disclaimer on a certain art show with explicit content, but Khoury refused.

"And all I will say in that case is, if you think that a woman's breast is pornographic, then we have very little to talk about. Or if you think looking at a penis or a vagina or an ass is pornographic, then you have issues."

In those early days, though, the Khourys were dealing with their own, more serious, issues. Six weeks after she arrived, Karen was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Over the course of nine months she underwent chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy and radiation.

And when it came to getting through that period, Cottonwood and the Khourys proved a perfect match.

"I couldn't believe how everyone embraced us and took care of us and was so willing to help," Karen says. "So that transition was a little difficult, but ... we became so much closer to the community because of it."

She is in good shape today, although she takes a chemo pill daily and is watched over closely by her oncologist.

"The lesson that we learned is, the length of your life is irrelevant," Jon says. "It's the quality of your time and the day-to-day and appreciation of little things. We were always that way, and this just convinced us."

When I ask him how he deals with the anxiety of it all, Khoury takes a view not unlike that of Alan Watts. "The two most irrational things are guilt and worry. Guilt is what you did, and worry is what you might do. Neither one of which you have any control over at all." When he's feeling scared, he says he visualizes himself in a top hat, and imagines himself closing the top, and by that measure cutting out the fear. Can't really argue with that, and Khoury can tell.

"Alright, what else do you wanna know? I'm getting tired."

I end the day in Karen's studio upstairs. We discuss the magenta Mexican oilcloth runner over her little worktable that's covered with scraps of paper, paint chips and glue. We go over Cottonwood's upcoming minimalism show, which it has planned in tandem with the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's Georgia O'Keeffe blockbuster, and how Cottonwood will focus on another woman artist who found inspiration in the West: Agnes Martin.

Karen is soft-spoken and petite. She smiles readily, and her head is crowned with a halo of tight gold ribbons of hair. (After she lost all her hair from chemo, what was once wavy grew back completely curly.) She calls herself a "diehard fine artist" and likens Cottonwood to something like an art school.

"It's rare to find a community like this, when you're not in school, you know?" she says. "I remember being in graduate school and one of my professors saying, 'This is rare, to have a community of artists, so really take advantage of this time,' and that's what Cottonwood is doing."

She feels confident about the growth of Cottonwood, and the community of the city at large. So much so that the family plans to move out of their current home in Briargate this year and rent downtown, so they can save money for a down payment on a house in the neighborhood. Daisy will go to Palmer High School in the fall, and Jon's two older sons will be thoroughly entrenched in college.

Karen's well aware it's hard to appear objective in speaking about her husband as a business leader, but her love for him runs deep, and is obvious. They've been together for almost 17 years.

"He's a dynamic personality, he's probably one of the best public speakers I've ever met in my life," she says. Later, she adds, "I think his biggest skill is his big mouth."

But there's his work ethic, too. Khoury, in fact, sets reminders on his phone to take time off.

"Basically, if he steps into the building, he knows he's going to be working, even if he's just coming to pick something up or just coming in to check on something," Karen says. "But he might even make a special trip down here just to check on an artist just to see if they're doing OK ... that's just who he is."

Karen soon leaves to pick her daughter up from school, and I roam the hallways a bit, lingering over a long wall dedicated to artwork from local schoolchildren, then the library again and the bright laminate wood that will soon replace the ancient carpeting. Christmas music echoes about, and motion sensors click the lighting on as I turn a corner. It's like winter break on campus, when all the students have gone home.

Khoury is still here when I come back downstairs. Someone's brought in packs of cards scrapped by Wildwood Casino, and he informs me he can do card tricks. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't request proof, so he shuffles the deck and asks me to pick a card that "is the prime example of femininity."

Without saying it aloud, I pick a card, and then tell him the queen of hearts, feeling somewhat unimaginative. I look down, and it's the card in my hand.

He does another, saying this is how he first impressed Karen, then walks me to my car and we part. And I realize that having been there all day, I've imbibed some of Cottonwood's water, too.

Earlier that afternoon, I had asked Khoury about his life five years from now.

"Actually my plan, really, in my head is five years from when I started, so I'm halfway through that right now. But I never thought that we'd be able to come this far this quickly, so there might be a longer term for me after five years.

"I hope there is — I just didn't think that the community was going to embrace things the way they have, so I might stay longer. But the goal within that five years is to become the most important arts organization in the state of Colorado. That's how I think. ...

"Minimally in the city, and that's not in any way undermining, it's just [me] challenging myself to do everything possible to reach that dream. And this is really corny, but if you reach for the stars, the worst you can get is the moon.

"I also want all the other arts organizations to have that same level of success. But since I have no control over that, I'm trying to do that here, and my projection out is that Cottonwood is a sustainable entity, significant entity, and we will do nothing but grow toward that ultimate dream and goal of being the most important, influential arts entity in the state.

"So if another thing comes along, I really am not actively thinking about anything beyond Cottonwood. This is my family, this is my home, this is everything. But at some point, Cottonwood will be ready for another director, and hopefully it will be perfect timing for me to say, handing over the reins, 'Take it and go.'"

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