Merger prolongs Fine Arts Center's life

The announcement scarcely came as a surprise. After negotiating the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's terms of surrender, Colorado College and the FAC announced that the city's iconic art museum/art school/performing arts space would be absorbed by its deep-pocketed neighbor.

So ends an illustrious 80-year run for the institution, which opened its doors to the world in April 1936. Martha Graham danced, Alexander Calder designed a stage set and Frank Lloyd Wright explained John Gaw Meem's extraordinary new building to a politely skeptical audience.

The FAC was hardly a product of the city's hardscrabble business culture. By 1935, the euphoria of the 1920s had long since been replaced by the dogged fatalism of the Depression. The FAC was created by three women philanthropists; Alice Bemis Taylor, Betty Hare and Julie Penrose. Penrose donated the site, Taylor paid for the building, donated her collection of Hispanic and Native American art, and joined Hare in providing a modest endowment.

To its supporters, the Fine Arts Center represented the best of Colorado Springs. It recalled the gracious, cultured city that Gen. William Palmer had founded 64 years before, a place that welcomed and celebrated artists and the arts.

The FAC never quite outgrew its regal origins. It was in the city, but not of the city. In its first 25 years it became a nationally prominent institution, directed by Boardman Robinson and hosting artists such as Adolf Dehn and Robert Motherwell.

Even in Palmer's day, ours was a conservative city. By the late 1950s, it had become a narrowly philistine community largely uninterested in the arts. Residents of the exploding suburban ring had little connection to downtown and even less to its liberal culture. An increasingly transient and military population didn't help.

Sustained by dedicated supporters, most residing in the North End or the Broadmoor area, the FAC prevailed. Over the years, it managed to expand its collections, maintain its majestic building and contribute immensely to the city — but the city was largely indifferent to its charms.

Multiple homegrown entrepreneurs founded enduring companies and left powerful legacies for the arts in Denver, Omaha, Fort Worth and other Sun Belt cities — but not so much in Colorado Springs. We've had reasonably wealthy residents who have supported the arts generously, but not enough to ensure its continuing independence. Spectacular and aspirational when built, it has since been surpassed by its richer peers.

[pullquote-1] In 1961, the Amon Carter Museum opened in Fort Worth, funded by a bequest from its namesake. Designed by Philip Johnson and built on a nine-acre parcel donated by the city, that museum invaded Colorado Springs and hired the FAC's brilliant young director, Mitch Wilder.

Wilder and his successors built one of America's greatest small museums, rivaled only by its Fort Worth neighbor, the Kimbell. It opened in 1972 with a simple mission statement: Acquire only the best. Numbering only 350 works, the Kimbell's collection is tiny by museum standards. It includes many masterpieces but none by Americans — by mutual agreement, that's the Amon Carter's territory.

While the FAC struggled, the two Fort Worth museums thrived because their founders created supporting foundations that each have hundreds of millions in assets. The FAC's bare-bones foundation has about $10 million.

In retrospect, it's amazing that the FAC has hung on for so long. To endure, art museums must have generous donors, community support and, if they're lucky, dedicated public funding. That's not easy in Colorado Springs, where dozens of worthy nonprofits jostle for scant resources.

Sugarcoat it as we may, it's a failure. What would we say if the University of Denver acquired the Denver Art Museum? We'd be stunned and amazed.

Will we get another chance? Not in my lifetime, but perhaps if one of our ambitious young entrepreneurs makes a billion and endows a new museum, maybe sometime after 2050.

Meanwhile, we might as well party, as did a few hundred supporters at last Saturday evening's annual FAC gala. It was a festive occasion, full of hope for the future — and, as philanthropist Jim Raughton pointed out, the deal is far from an unconditional surrender.

"The FAC foundation is still in place," he said, "and some of us will make sure that it remains well-funded. It'll be able to contribute $1 million annually — and that will give [the community] a voice."