Flatirons Crossing

Cydney Payton puts a smart spin on women's art for one of her last BMoCA shows.

Cydney Payton, director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, is set to leave the institution she essentially created out of thin air at the end of the year. The handsome Elbows & Tea Leaves -- Front Range Women in the Visual Arts (1974-2000) is the next-to-last BMoCA exhibit that will have her signature; when The Living End closes in December, Payton will step down after running the place for eight years.

It was at the regular June meeting of BMoCA's board of directors that Payton announced she planned to leave her post. "It couldn't have been a surprise to them," says Payton. "It had been coming for a long time." But forewarned or not, the board was shocked, and one member even broke down in sobs when Payton delivered the bad news.

And bad news it was, because Payton is an exceptional talent. It's going to be darn near impossible for the modest and underfunded BMoCA to find a replacement with her kind of vision and skill.

Linda Herritt, detail of untitled wall hanging.
Linda Herritt, detail of untitled wall hanging.

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Through August 28

303-443-2122

Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th Street, Boulder

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Payton arrived on the local art scene in 1984, when she took a job as an assistant at the now defunct K. Phillips Gallery in Larimer Square. Though she didn't work long for Phillips, she did learn a lot. "One day I showed up for work and the gallery had been seized for non-payment of taxes," Payton says, adding with a laugh, "It wasn't the last time I got locked out in the art world."

In 1985 Payton convinced a bank to lend her $5,000 to start her own gallery, Cydney Payton Artfolio, which she opened on 15th Street in the Highland neighborhood, then a center for small galleries. Though Payton's place was quite tiny, it quickly emerged as one of the most important exhibition venues in the area. Payton accomplished this by presenting top regional artists, including several who were just starting out but would later emerge as local masters.

In 1990 Payton established a partnership with art dealer Robin Rule to create the Payton-Rule Gallery, one of several galleries that opened that year on Wazee Street. In many ways, these galleries launched the transformation of lower downtown from a rundown industrial neighborhood into the city's premier urban district. But Payton-Rule, as well as most of the other ventures, was way ahead of its time; although the gallery presented some of the finest art shows ever seen in these parts, too-high expenses coupled with too-few clients led to the acrimonious disintegration of the partnership in 1992.

Payton must have a guardian angel, though, because just as she was facing financial failure in Denver, the foundering Boulder Art Center was looking for a new director. And it wanted Payton for her aesthetic successes.

"John Matlack was on the board, and he asked me to apply for the director's job. I'm not sure how he convinced the rest of them," muses Payton, "but I think they pulled the tarot, threw the I Ching, lit some incense and then came up with me for the job." Payton's only half-kidding: "After they hired me, I attended a ritual cleansing of the building at midnight in which chanting and incense-burning were used to ward off the evil spirits thought to inhabit it," she remembers. A BAC boardmember served as high priestess.

And at the time, the BAC needed an exorcism. It was a run-down barn of a building, dark and dirty, that only occasionally played host to interesting art shows. As I recall the place in my mind's eye, I think of the color brown.

Although Payton inherited a couple of shows from the previous regime, in the fall of '92 she launched a brave new era with a group of cutting-edge exhibits on the topic of AIDS. One of these, Body and Language, included a Robert Mapplethorpe photo of an entwined pair of male nudes, as well as Andres Serrano's notorious "Piss Christ." Mapplethorpe and Serrano were the twin bêtes noires of the religious right at the time. But leave it to Boulder: Almost no one batted an eye, although a Boulder Camera critic did call Mapplethorpe a "child molester."

From a programming standpoint, it could be said that the BAC became BMoCA with that show -- but the name change wasn't official until 1995. "The word 'museum' has helped us a lot with funding," says Payton. When she was hired, the institution's operating budget was less than $90,000; today, it's nearly half a million.

Topical shows featuring big-name art stars soon became standard fare, and Payton often hung Colorado greats side by side with their more famous colleagues. She also sprinkled the calendar with exhibits highlighting the state's best artists. Overall, Payton has presented so many significant shows that it's impossible to list them all, but standouts include important solos featuring the likes of Floyd Tunson, George Woodman and Jeffrey Keith plus groundbreaking historical exhibits -- most notably, Vanguard Art in Coloradoand the current Elbows & Tea Leaves.

Today, with women playing a major role in the arts and with exhibits such as Elbows & Tea Leaves that showcase women's art fairly common, it's sometimes hard to recall that just a couple of decades ago, women were essentially excluded from art exhibitions as well as art history and art criticism.

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