Go West, Young Women

Colorado's Women of the West Museum packs its virtual bags for California.

Colorado's Ocean Journey made headlines this week when the aquarium revealed that it plans to close on April 2 after being unable to find a way to pay off millions of dollars in debt.

A more modest announcement earlier this month barely rated a mention in the city's news media, however. The Women of the West Museum, which has its headquarters in LoDo, stated that it is merging with the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles and will henceforth be based in California.

Ocean Journey and Women of the West shared a similar timeline: Both were launched in the early 1990s with bold plans for flashy new buildings that would add to Colorado's lineup of cultural attractions. The aquarium's aim was to explore the natural aspects of the Colorado River and the Kampar River in Indonesia. The idea behind the museum was much closer to home: Its founders wanted to bring to life the often overlooked role that women played in settling the West.

Women of the West Museum director Marsha Semmel won't be going to California.
James Bludworth
Women of the West Museum director Marsha Semmel won't be going to California.

Ocean Journey built a prominent site in the South Platte Valley, raised several million dollars in corporate donations and won a $5.7 million loan from the City of Denver. However, most of the costs were paid through a private bond issue, and the aquarium now has $63 million in debt, which it can't pay.

The Women of the West Museum, on the other hand, kept a lower profile. Originally based in Boulder, its board of directors set a fundraising goal of $50 million, found a site on the University of Colorado at Boulder campus and hired an architect to design a 100,000-square-foot building. But without a major financial backer, WOW never came close to breaking ground.

"It's a very difficult thing to start a cultural institution," says museum director Marsha Semmel. "The issue facing nonprofits is, how do you create an infrastructure that will sustain you over time? A lot of what Ocean Journey did was to resort to bond financing, and we didn't want to do that."

Two years ago, the museum relocated its office to Denver and decided to concentrate on organizing online and traveling exhibitions rather than put up its own building. Or, as the museum described it, the board decided to "redirect the organization's focus from 'bricks and mortar' and toward educational and community programs that incorporate an accessible use of technology."

Despite the lack of a physical facility, WOW was included last year in the Denver Business Journal's list of "Top 25 Largest Denver-Area Cultural Attractions." Semmel says the ranking was partially based on the fact that the museum's Web site, womenofthewest.com, logs about 30,000 page views per month.

Examples of virtual exhibits are Expanded Visions: Four Women Artists Print the American West, featuring work by contemporary artists, and There Are No Renters Here: Women's Lives on the Sod House Frontier, which tells the story of a woman and her family who homesteaded in Nebraska. The museum also features online pictures, biographies and classroom activities surrounding 26 women who "contributed to the development of the American West," including artist Georgia O'Keeffe, public-health advocate Florence Sabin and Olympic skier Picabo Street.

The collaboration with the Autry museum will allow the group to create wide-ranging new shows that will travel the country. The move is a good one, Semmel says, and "will give us a national platform." Under the merger agreement, Women of the West, which has an annual budget of $90,000, and the Autry Museum will each contribute $1 million to support an endowment that will be used to pay for a curator for Western women's history in Los Angeles.

"We felt that getting the exhibits into other venues was our mission," says Tish Winsor, chairwoman of WOW's board of directors, adding that the Autry Museum, which was founded in 1988 by "Singing Cowboy" Gene Autry, has earned a reputation for exhibits that highlight the role of ethnic minorities in Western history. "The board felt it was a good fit with a museum devoted to women's history," she adds. "They have the same kind of mission. It's a nice partnership."

Winsor is one of several museum trustees who will now serve on the Autry board. However, Semmel and other employees won't be moving to Los Angeles.

Denver political consultant Floyd Ciruli, who has been involved with several local cultural institutions, suggests that the museum's initial decision to be in Boulder may have doomed it. "Boulder has much less fundraising potential than the metro area. You need to tap into Arapahoe County and the south metro area."

Ocean Journey, in the meantime, became the toast of Denver, attracting financial support from such movers and shakers as philanthropist Sharon Magness, attorney Steve Farber and dairyman Dick Robinson. "It was something new and exciting that grabbed people," Ciruli says. "That overwhelmed the question of whether it made sense to have millions in debt. The grand opening was stellar, and for a while, it was the place to be seen."

The Women of the West Museum never garnered the same excitement, but at least the story of women in Colorado will still be told -- even if it is from Los Angeles.

"It's bittersweet," Semmel says. "But the spirit of Colorado will remain."

 
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