The arts in Colorado Springs: going, going gone? 

Not surprisingly -- and yet with a brutally surprising swiftness -- the post-9/11 economy has hit many Colorado Springs arts institutions with the whistling weight of a cartoon anvil pounding Wile E. Coyote into a pancake.

Just take a look at the ongoing travails of the Colorado Springs Symphony and the resignation of Maestro Laurence Leighton Smith, last year's loss of longtime Pioneers Museum Director William Holmes, the abrupt departure of Fine Arts Center Curator Scott Snyder, arts Everyman and Business of Art Center Director Rodney Wood (who moved to Pueblo), and FAC Director David Turner's resignation after accepting a new post at the University of Oregon.

On top of that, recent cuts in the State of Colorado's arts and education budgets have prompted UCCS to mandate a 37.5 percent tax on all federal or state grants so they can recoup overhead costs. That means, for example, that the Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS, which is funded almost entirely through grants, will lose 37.5 percent of its shoestring budget on top of the losses it will suffer from decreased state funding of the arts through the Colorado Council on the Arts.

But despite the innocuous finger-pointing at the always enigmatic and abstract "economic crisis" and "budget cuts" that are often cited as the bottom line in the media, Colorado Springs residents would be wise to quickly begin seriously considering the wide range of problems facing the sustainability of a vital arts community.

"It has little to do with budget cuts," said Gerry Riggs, director of the Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS. "The arts are not aligned with current political atmosphere ... Normally it could contribute to a positive economy, but it tends to be the first thing that gets cut when there's a downturn in the economy -- politically, not economically."

The tax that's being levied on the grants Riggs gets for his spectacular international, national and local art shows will definitely be felt in the gallery, he said. "It's all I can do to keep my program money. I can't raise overhead money too. It's tough, and it'll be tougher. Instead of being able to bring in national shows it's going to be all regional. There'll be good shows, but we won't be able to look at what's going on in the rest of the world, and that's sad."

For Rodney Wood, former director of the BAC, Colorado Springs just wasn't affordable anymore, and the lack of public support was, for him, demoralizing.

"I moved to Pueblo because it's a lot cheaper. I can make a lot more art in Pueblo," said Wood. "Colorado Springs has not exhibited a lot of public support for funding of the arts. And that's an issue of respect for the artists. When this money thing comes up it erodes the potential growth of respect as much as it relates the growth in funding. This climate makes the word "need" go further down the food chain. And it's going to attract fewer people to the area because it's such a battle."

While Scott Snyder cited a multitude of reasons for leaving the Fine Arts Center after a very brief stint as curator, he couldn't deny that the high cost of living in Colorado Springs was a major factor in his decision.

The FAC's Turner, a consummate arts diplomat, wouldn't go so far as saying that his decision to move to a position at the University of Oregon (where they just finished a major museum expansion) had anything directly to do with the troubled fund-raising climate. But he did say quite clearly: "I look back and see the history of the cultural organizations in this town and when you think of 1936 and that a town of about 40,000 people built an institution this big already... we are way behind in keeping up with the growth of a population number that's almost half a million."

Sadly, Turner noted, the original plans for a 90,000-square-foot expansion of the FAC in the parking lot across the street will have to be put on hold due to lack of funding. The FAC does, however, plan to build a 12,000-foot expansion on the corner of Cascade Avenue and Dale Street where the public sculpture garden currently stands. No timeline was given.

The loss of Turner will likely be felt for years. No one has done more to kindle interest from the community in the FAC since Boardman Robinson in the 1930s and 1940s. Suffice it to say, it will be incredibly difficult to attract a new director who will have the combination of forward-thinking vision and skills at community diplomacy in the current drought of arts funding.

So what does this all mean? No symphony? No new arts wing at the FAC? No more Gerry Riggs or Gallery of Contemporary Art? No more artists? No new businesses attracted by our vibrant cultural amenities?

People in the community can either begin to step up, or time will tell ... a lot sooner than you might think.

-- nblack@csindy.com


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