Going Down?

The CVA plummets overnight from the art world's penthouse to the basement.

It might seem like the art world is the kind of charmed place that's always filled with hearts and flowers -- or at least pictures of them -- and to a great extent, it is. Unfortunately, sometimes the hearts are broken and the flowers are wilted. That's how it is right now at the highly respected Center for the Visual Arts (a part of the Metropolitan State College of Denver), which may be on its way out of business.

I have no way of knowing for sure, since Metro's administrators wouldn't talk to me about the CVA's future -- or anything else. But they've taken the first step: They've fired award-winning CVA director Sally Perisho.

And I know what I think of that: I think it stinks.

The Metro State Center for the Visual Arts.
James Bludworth
The Metro State Center for the Visual Arts.

It's scary to imagine the CVA without Perisho, since she's the sole reason for its success. One of her secrets was that she didn't run the place as a typical -- and thereby largely irrelevant -- campus-based gallery. Instead, she directed it more like a small museum, featuring only museum-quality exhibits. This policy took advantage of the CVA's high-profile downtown location, and it attracted visitors not just from the Auraria campus, but from the community as well.

Perisho's serious approach allowed the CVA to rise to the highest ranks of the cultural infrastructure around here. It is -- or was, until two weeks ago -- a premier arts facility that compares favorably with much older, larger and better-financed museums and art centers up and down the Front Range.

Perisho wove the CVA from whole cloth soon after Metro State took the bold move of opening an off-campus art center back in 1991. With a sweeping vision and an ambitious program, she oversaw the immediate conversion of an antiques store at 17th and Wazee streets (where Common Grounds is now) into a top venue that, from the beginning, presented one important exhibit after another. There have been shows that highlight the work of national and international artists, plus others that have taken a careful look at regional talents. Perisho has presented both historical and contemporary shows and has made a solid contribution to the community's awareness of our own artistic heritage.

She also has raised a lot of money. Grants and gifts supplemented Metro's resources, which kept the high-quality schedule going and allowed the center to relocate into its larger, fancier quarters on Wazee Street.

For her accomplishments, Perisho won many awards, including the Governor's Award for excellence in the arts in 2001, and a Certificate of Achievement for leadership and accomplishments from Metro itself -- just six weeks ago!

Then, on December 20, Metro president Sheila Kaplan inexplicably fired Perisho. After ten years with the CVA, Perisho was barred from entering the center and, more specifically, from her office, and was prevented from retrieving her belongings, her research files and her books. She was told that her personal effects would be returned to her at some later date. (Is Metro afraid that Perisho will abscond with the plastic wine glasses in the CVA's back room?)

Resting on policy, the college provided no explanation for the outrageous turn of events in either its press release, penned by Cathy Lucas, director of campus communication for Metro, or in a letter signed by Kaplan that was sent to members of the CVA's advisory council tersely announcing Perisho's departure.

As shocking as the news is, however, the move has been in the works for some time.

I first stumbled over the fact that Perisho was having trouble with a staff member a few months ago, trouble that would play a significant role in the disaster of her dismissal. I discovered the problem in the most unlikely way, however -- the staffer herself told me.

I'd called Perisho on September 7 to schedule an interview with her about her then- current show. It turned out she wasn't in her office that day, and I ended up speaking for nearly two hours with the receptionist, Vanetta Klok. The conversation mostly involved trivial matters, but it was interspersed with some substantial Perisho-bashing. To listen to Klok, you'd have thought that the CVA ran despite Perisho, not because of her. According to Klok, Perisho hardly had anything to do. "All she does is unpack some boxes," I chillingly recall her having said that day.

What I didn't know at the time was that Klok had pushed a formal complaint against Perisho all the way to mediation. Based on that, Perisho's boss, Carolyn Schaefer Wollard, Metro's vice president in the Office of Institutional Advancement, sent Perisho a scalding letter filled with Orwellian Newspeak. "Progress on making the necessary changes in response to my verbal communication has not been satisfactory," reads one line. A copy of this letter, dated August 29, 2001, was sent to Kaplan. In it, Wollard demands that Perisho "develop a positive relationship" with Klok, who is not mentioned by name, though Klok's "formal complaint" and the "mediator" are referred to. Perisho is also accused of not getting along with certain volunteers who also happen to work under Wollard in the Office of Institutional Advancement.

Wollard brings up another matter in her letter, too, and it is this issue that Perisho believes set her demise as director in motion. Perisho had asked Kaplan to reassign the CVA from Wollard's jurisdiction to the Office of the Provost, which is how things had been until a few years ago. Perisho says she'd made that request in response to granting agencies and foundations that had said it was inappropriate for the CVA to fall under the Office of Institutional Advancement, Metro's marketing-and-development department. Their reasoning was that CVA would have more autonomy under the provost and not be in danger of becoming part of the college's marketing plan, as it might be if it remains within Wollard's department.

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