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.

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.

Wollard's letter reveals how angry this made her, and she characterizes the request as "ignoring the appropriate chain-of-command," as "attempting to blindside the President" and as being "unprofessional." Wollard ends the letter by writing that the document would serve as "formal notice" that Perisho's "performance is unsatisfactory and must improve immediately."

The injustice of it makes my teeth hurt. Were I to list all the distinctions, all the accomplishments, all the awards Perisho has received over the years, this page would provide insufficient space.

As for Wollard, her only claim to fame is an embarrassing and failed attempt to promote a pretentious new nickname for Metropolitan State College of Denver. She wanted people to start calling the commuter college "The Met." Hey, doesn't "Metro" already have a perfectly good nickname?

In terms of Wollard's administrative style, the following is a telling anecdote: On September 12, while the rest of us were in a state of shock over the horrors of the day before, Wollard dictated another insulting letter to Perisho -- an inspiring display of dedication to her job, wouldn't you say? Interestingly, this missive wasn't on the letterhead of the Office of Institutional Advancement, like the other one, but on the letterhead of The Campaign for The Metropolitan State College of Denver, a fundraising group. (I guess those grant-givers were right: The CVA was being compromised by being part of the college's marketing department.) Another difference in this second correspondence was that an official copy was not sent to Kaplan.

According to the letter, Perisho's every move would now be monitored by Wollard or one of her underlings. In fact, Perisho couldn't even meet with her advisory council, a group she herself put together, unless Wollard was there.

If the first letter sounds like George Orwell, the second is downright Kafkaesque. Wollard writes that Perisho, in defending herself, has "denied any problems," which suggests to Wollard that Perisho is "not open to being a part of the solution." Then she writes that Perisho's "job requires much more than quality art exhibitions" and that she needs to "reach out and serve the community." Gee, I thought the way an art center reached out and served the community was to put on quality art exhibitions. Not to mention the numerous art-education programs Perisho has developed and sponsored for the region's children.

I think there's more here than meets the eye. I don't believe Klok's personnel complaint or the other trivial things Wollard raises in her letters were any more than excuses to push Perisho out. If Metro's ultimate goal was to get rid of the CVA -- and that's what I think is really going on -- they would need to first remove Perisho. This is a much more believable scenario than one in which Perisho is canned in deference to the feelings of a receptionist.

Maybe Metro sees the CVA as a source of free money. Perisho has it in very good shape. There's a schedule in place through 2003 and a $250,000 endowment that Perisho raised. Perhaps the college's administration hopes to redirect that money to fund the on-campus Emmanuel Gallery, or even use it for a non-art-related activity.

Perisho is emotionally shaken but says she firmly believes the CVA will remain open. "The center is Metro's jewel in the crown. They will never close it down," she tells me. "At least, I hope not. I'd hate to see all my work of the last ten years go down the drain." But I have a doubting mind, and I know shows can be canceled, and cancellation fees are less expensive than operating expenses -- especially since rent for similar buildings in LoDo can cost $7,000 to $10,000 a month.

In doing what it did, however, Metro is playing with fire. Every bit as important as the CVA's place in the art world is the who's who cast from the city's art and cultural establishment that Perisho has put together as advisors in various capacities, including gallery owner Bill Havu, Denver Art Museum associate curator Nancy Tieken, and collectors Fred and Jan Mayer, among many others. Now, I would never presume to speak for anyone in this august group, but I'm pretty sure that since Metro has dismissed Perisho, many of these movers and shakers will move and shake right out of the CVA; at least one, Havu, has already done so.

It's heartbreaking that after a decade of distinguished work, Perisho isn't getting a gold watch, but is instead being kicked to the curb. By its actions, Metro, in the persons of Kaplan and Wollard, has cast a shadow over the CVA that's going to last for a while. A lot of people feel the way I do -- that Metro's treatment of Perisho is abominable -- and it has left a bad taste in their mouths where the CVA is concerned. And that's going to last a long time, too.

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