End of an Era

Big changes are afoot at Foothills Art Center.

Foothills Art Center, which was founded in 1968, is located in the charming old part of Golden, next to the Colorado School of Mines campus. The center is so quaint, it looks like it came right off a postcard.

Ensconced in a nineteenth-century church and a pair of red-brick Victorian houses, Foothills sits on a steep hill, high above the street, nestled among mature trees. There's even a view of the mountains in the background. I'm sure it's this picturesque setting that makes me feel like I'm a world away from the hubbub of metro Denver when I'm up there -- even if the suburban sprawl encircling the town is already choking Golden's unique character.

Lovely as it is, this locale presents a problem that, as I see it, makes running Foothills no easy task. The conservative town of Golden is not all that far from the sophisticated big city of Denver, meaning there are two distinct potential audiences for Foothills: those interested in traditional art, and those whose taste runs toward the contemporary. Yet Carol Dickinson, director of Foothills since 1992, has put together more than a decade of programs that played to both crowds. Some shows have been strictly traditional, others contemporary, and many have spanned the gap. Dickinson's formula has very obviously worked, as evidenced by the steady attendance her offerings invariably attract; I've never been out there when there weren't a lot of other visitors coming and going.

"Metropolis," by Scott Fraser, painting.
"Metropolis," by Scott Fraser, painting.
"Beast of Burden," by Virginia Folkestad, sculptures.
"Beast of Burden," by Virginia Folkestad, sculptures.

Details

Through March 16
Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden
303-279-3922

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No one wants to mess with success, but sometimes fate takes a hand. After much soul-searching, Dickinson, who is dealing with chronic health problems, announced last month that she will retire in May. The board of directors at Foothills has already formed a search committee to look for her replacement. Boy, do they have their work cut out for them.

Dickinson brought a remarkable set of experiences to Foothills. Though born and raised in small-town Iowa (where she met her husband, Don), she attended Columbia University in New York and earned her master's degree in Asian art history at the University of Hawaii, where she studied with Jean Charlot. She taught at the U. of H., and later, when Don got a job as an English professor at the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia, Carol was also hired by the school to teach English -- the first female college level instructor in that country's history.

"We'd been around the world four times, and we were ready to settle down," Dickinson says of their next move. "In those days, teaching jobs were so easy to come by, Don could pick and choose. He was a fourth-generation Coloradan and he wanted to come back. His brother had gone to Mines, his uncle had taught at Mines, and so he wrote to Mines and said he was looking for a job, and they immediately hired him. I went to the chairman of the department, and I got a job teaching at Mines, too."

Ten years later, Dickinson went to work in the education and public-relations departments of the Denver Art Museum. At about the same time, she began to write reviews and articles that appeared in national publications, including Art News, Art Talk and Southwest Art. Her writings also appeared in the Denver Post and, more significantly, the Rocky Mountain News, where she was the art critic from 1990 to 1992. "I would have stayed at the Rocky forever," Dickinson says. "I had always wanted to be a critic at one of the big papers. I loved it, but I was asked to be the director here, and so I reluctantly gave it up."

Despite all of her art experience, she says she had a lot to learn once she took the job: "I had to figure out how to raise funds, which is a big part of it." As was orchestrating an exhibition schedule that would generate donors and visitors.

When Dickinson was hired, Foothills was pretty irrelevant to the Denver art scene, especially since its shows were dominated by traditional art. The North American Sculpture Exhibition, a biennial, was a good example. It was an old-fashioned display of bronze soldiers on horseback and little girls made of marble until Dickinson recast the juried show into a relevant display simply by choosing the right jurors. Among those she handpicked were Alison Saar and Donald Lipski, and they and others like them passed up the soldiers and girls in favor of contemporary sculpture. Presto change-o, NASE suddenly became something worth seeing. Dickinson did the same thing with Colorado Clay, an important annual, and with the other juried shows.

She also organized many exhibits by using the connections she already had and by constantly making new ones. Dickinson did many photography shows, often with the cooperation of her dear friend Hal Gould of Denver's Camera Obscura Gallery. She had a special interest in the art of Taos, Santa Fe and the West in general, including both historical and contemporary Western work, and she would borrow pieces from collectors such as Dorothy and Bill Harmsen (before they gave their collection to the DAM) and Hugh Grant.

This taste for the art of the West is Dickinson's signature, and it's the one she used to sign her farewell note, the 35th Anniversary Exhibition, which is midway through its two-month run. The show is mammoth, with multiple works by nearly thirty artists. "I like to put things together so that shows make sense and tell stories," Dickinson says. "Because of the layout [at Foothills], you can really develop a theme here. I have the hope that I can move people along gradually so that they will look at things they might not look at otherwise. That's why I often start with the realistic pieces and go on to the more avant-garde."

That's exactly what she's done in the 35th Anniversary Show. Dickinson displays works by the realists in the Rondel Gallery, to the right of the entrance, and in the Metsopoulos Gallery, to the left, and in the intimate Kiln Room just beyond. In the Bartunek Gallery, it's impressionism. Finally, in the Waelchli Gallery and the adjacent Quaintance Gallery, Dickinson highlights expressionism and abstraction. Nearly all of the artists in the show have had their work featured previously at Foothills during Dickinson's tenure. "I especially wanted to have artists for this show who had long relationships with Foothills, and with me," she explains.

None of the artists in the show have been connected to Foothills longer than Hal Shelton, whose landscapes are displayed in the Rondel Gallery, at the very start of the show. The cartographer and neo-traditional painter was among the original founders of the institution back in the 1960s.

Across the entryway, in the Metsopoulos Gallery, Dickinson moves from Shelton's neo-traditional into the contemporary realism of Daniel Sprick of Glenwood Springs and Longmont's Scott Fraser, among others. Both are nationally famous, and though both employ realistic painting styles that could have been done centuries ago, they make their paintings look fresh by focusing on contemporary subjects. A good example of this is Fraser's "Metropolis," which depicts, in fanatical detail, a tabletop set with Styrofoam cups and goldfish crackers.

In the Kiln Room are a group of moody, romantic and somewhat abstracted landscapes by Boulder painter William Napier. "Sunset at Grave Lake," in which the dark silhouette of the mountains is set against a pink and orange sunset, is a real standout.

The show continues into the Bartunek Gallery with impressionism. Dickinson has taken an inclusive approach to impressionism; I would have labeled some of her chosen artists differently. For example, I think that Quang Ho is actually more of an expressionist, and Judith Lightfield could more aptly be called a contemporary representational painter. Ho and Lightfield aside, the impressionist part of the show is by far the weakest link in Dickinson's chain of styles.

The strongest are in the free-for-all she's put in the Waelchli and Quaintance galleries, which open to one another. Here Dickinson paired the overlapping stylistic tendencies of expressionism and abstraction. This part of the show is messy, crowded and confusing, but what it misses in cogency, it more than makes up for in visual stimulation. Dickinson lined the walls with paintings and covered the floors with sculptures done by respected artists whose names will be familiar to most. Some of the most famous are three modern Western masters, the late Vance Kirkland from Colorado, New Mexico's Earl Stroh, and Utah's V. Douglas Snow -- all of whom began creating abstractions fifty years ago.

Most of the rest of the artists in the show represent a younger generation, but they are by no means newcomers. Among the painters are David Yust from Fort Collins and Stan Meyer from Indian Hills -- if you can call an artist who weaves tar paper, as Meyer does, a painter (which I think you can).

Among the sculptors is Virginia Folkestad, whose straightforward "Beast of Burden" sculptures suggest an aesthetic and conceptual connection to the even more straightforward "Burdens," an installation by her mentor, Carley Warren. Seeing their work together -- with the related titles and similar materials -- made me think how good they would be paired up in a duo show.

That's not what I'd say about two other sculptors, Peter Durst and Chuck Parson, whose work needs more space than it's got here. As different as their pieces are from each other, they are not unrelated. Both artists work in monumental sizes and employ ordinary materials: Durst uses wood and ceramics to make his funky primitive constructions, while Parson prefers concrete and steel to carry out his stunning constructivist assemblages.

Carol Dickinson just may have bitten off more than she could chew in her everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the 35th Anniversary Show. But who cares? Because with all the riches she's brought together here, there's something for everyone to love -- and, it goes without saying, something for everyone to hate. That's always been Dickinson's genius: her diverse taste and the consequent appeal of her selections to a wide variety of viewers. It's this rare talent that is going to be hard for the Foothills board of directors to find in any potential successor.

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