Academic approach already takes a toll ahead of FAC/CC merger 

To be, or not a Ph.D.

click to enlarge Alice Bemis Taylor links Colorado College and the FAC historically, being a major donor to both organizations. - COURTESY FAC
  • Courtesy FAC
  • Alice Bemis Taylor links Colorado College and the FAC historically, being a major donor to both organizations.

Historically, Colorado College and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center have been intertwined, dating to philanthropist Alice Bemis Taylor eight decades ago. She funded the FAC's construction in 1936 and was a significant financial contributor to the college, which now hosts her extensive library collection as well as a residence hall bearing her name.

But today a neighborly relationship stands to be consummated with a new union, first whispered of in January, that would place the financially beleaguered, premier arts institution under the well-endowed college's care. Once the ink dries on the deal, expect Tigers in the gallery — and hopefully not a bull in a china shop.

One bit of personnel-related news ahead of the seemingly imminent merger has some members and stakeholders concerned about a heavy-handed handover. That would be the formal announcement last Thursday evening at an honorary retrospective send-off for outgoing executive director and chief curator Blake Milteer: Due to new potentiality created by the deal, Joy Armstrong will not become the FAC's new ED and chief curator for the long term, contrary to what the FAC publicized last November.

Instead, FAC president and CEO David Dahlin has asked Armstrong to step in as an interim ED and chief curator once Milteer heads to Scotland, expected soon. At that point, she will become the sole curator for an undetermined amount of time.

Dahlin has called Armstrong, who began volunteering at the museum in 2009, a "rock star among us" and "an exceptional talent." She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Denver, studying Studio Art and Mass Communications, and earned a master's degree in art history from Kent State University.

But apparently — and we don't have all the details yet due to tight lips surrounding the final negotiations — Colorado College wants a Ph.D.-credentialed lead curator for the FAC.

Leslie Weddell, CC's director of news and media relations, can only offer this much of an explanation at present: "If an alliance between Colorado College and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is finalized, we expect we will be adding new resources to the museum. We would go through a strategic planning process that involves the FAC, CC and the community that would help to guide those allocations.

"We will need a director with the background and credentials to integrate the academic mission and programs while continuing the community mission. Most likely this person would be experienced in working with an academic program in a museum."

A hamstrung Dahlin, who championed Armstrong's planned ascension, finds diplomacy in the facts of the matter.

"We're looking at a different structure than what we were considering when we initially asked Joy to take on that position," he says. "The future position will be significantly different. Not to minimize Joy at all, because she's very well educated at a master's level, but in the academic world, they value terminal degrees."

Those in and outside of academia have long debated the necessity of a Ph.D., with many contemporary calls for reinventing our college models. Jill Hartz is the president of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries and executive director of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, which reports to the provost's office at the University of Oregon.

click to enlarge David Dahlin (right) and Joy Armstrong co-moderate Blake Milteer's send-off. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • David Dahlin (right) and Joy Armstrong co-moderate Blake Milteer's send-off.

As a Ph.D. pertains to academic museums, Hartz says many executive directors don't have a Ph.D. Though many factors come into play, such as the institution's size, and sometimes the ED and chief curator roles are separate positions. "They don't always go together," she says, "because the director is the vision holder, the person who moves the institution forward as a strategic thinker — is fundraising, is wearing multiple hats in terms of just survival and growth. Whereas the curator is really working on collections and exhibitions, primarily."

Hartz isn't aware of any federal grants for which a Ph.D. in the director's role is contingent, so long as a museum is properly accredited (which the FAC is). Though she does think a Ph.D. can be of assistance on an interdepartmental level, essentially by commanding respect.

"Faculty often think we are a supportive unit to advance their work, as opposed to an academic unit in our own right," she says. "If [curators] have Ph.D.s, then they're seen as more of an equal by faculty."

Hartz prefaces this assessment with the caveat of not being familiar with the FAC's specific structure or CC's motivations, and she adds that the Ph.D. prerequisite really varies by department across campuses.

"Even here in the [Oregon] journalism school, they're looking at practitioners who have national reputations who may not even have master's degrees," she says, "but they've built up a career that is a value for teaching students. Whereas I think generally in the other academic departments the Ph.D. is unequivocally required, especially for tenure. I don't think that's going to change anytime soon."

As for the new face of a CC-run FAC, Hartz presumes "it shouldn't be a shock — a turnaround, like, 'now we only serve the academic interest.' Because museums really are there to support and engage community members in as broad and diverse ways as possible."

Some changes almost certainly will do that. One example, she says, is perhaps areas of the FAC could be installed with works for classes or research purposes. "I find those kinds of projects are of interest to the community at large anyway. They want to see how we're training new generations. It's exciting."

As some see it, in order not to look a bit like the Big Bad Wolf or calloused new overlord, CC will later owe the arts community and early supporters of Armstrong more explanation of the decision-making process. With her strong curatorial background, why not train her into the academic side, or hire others to handle that role?

Dahlin, making of lemonade with lemons, points to positives that the acquisition might offer Armstrong.

"This will allow Joy to focus on modern and contemporary art, and maximize her role in that regard," he says. "We've been understaffed for many years. Our curators have had to be jacks of all trades. She and Blake haven't gotten to do all they could have because they've had to wear so many hats. The future state of the FAC will allow Joy to focus on her expertise. This can be a long-term good thing for Joy. It can suit her strengths, and she can totally thrive in that role."

Ultimately, as an army matters more than a single soldier, what's best for the arts institution must rise to priority. Although what's best for students should be what leads CC's motivations.

The hope is that the two intertwine harmoniously.

"We're hoping and expecting to add additional curators, gain depth, attract research and research grants in our future state," Dahlin says, adding that "more robust programming" ultimately will be "a treat to the community."

Still, it's a bummer all the excitement will be built upon a Chess opening that equates to a rug-pull for the FAC's "homegrown talent," who'd already been selected to lead the museum into the new era. It feels a bit like launching a blockbuster exhibit — but hanging the fan-favorite art piece in the stairwell.

Nobody will find Joy in that.


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