Western Culture

The CSFAC examines the Old West while its new director shakes up the place.

Taken together, these offerings constitute a major blockbuster, if an ad hoc one. The Western art is not as popular as the European subject matter shown in the spectacular Phillips show at the DAM, but the exhibits at the CSFAC are as good -- and in many ways, better -- than the more popular one at the DAM.

Though Michael De Marsche, the new president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, had nothing to do with what's currently on display at the institution, he's still been busy. Although he's held his post for only three months, but he's already making his presence felt. The most obvious change is the ongoing repainting of the interior walls in desert-inspired shades such as dusty yellow and sage green.

"Estes Park, Colorado," by Albert Bierstadt, oil on 
"Estes Park, Colorado," by Albert Bierstadt, oil on canvas.
"River and Rapids," by F. J. Haynes, albumen print.
"River and Rapids," by F. J. Haynes, albumen print.


A Moment in Time: Photographs of the Early American West
Through February 1

Discovering America: Art of the Early American West
Through January 4

The Way West: Tourism and the Marketing of the West
Through December 31
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs

For as long as I can remember, the walls have been white, and it really looked great, even though it had gotten a little dingy. But I understand why De Marsche did what he did: With a minimum amount of expense, he's made a big difference in the look of the place.

De Marsche is planning a renovation of the 1936 landmark art moderne-style building, the greatest accomplishment of New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. These changes include opening up the closed skylights, removing the walls in front of the Garden Gallery windows and restoring other changed features.

Such moves are encouraging, and the guy talks a good game, but I'd feel a lot better if De Marsche hired a historic-preservation consultant. The CSFAC's board has been working informally with Denver's David Owen Tryba, an architect who has lots of experience in dealing with historic buildings, but that's not the same as having a professional who's solely devoted to protecting the original building. The facility, one of the very finest in the time zone, deserves to be treated with kid gloves, and the need for a preservationist is made all the more urgent with the specter of expansion plans on the horizon, though they are on hold.

De Marsche is not only looking at changing the physical plant, but he's radically changing the CSFAC's organization and programming, as well. The biggest change so far is the new definition being given to the Taylor Museum.

Formerly, the Taylor Museum was dedicated to the collection of American Indian and Hispanic art started by CSFAC founder Alice Bemis Taylor and, appropriately enough, has occupied the galleries at the southwest corner of the building for nearly three-quarters of a century. But not for much longer, because De Marsche has merged the Taylor collection with the rest of the CSFAC's holdings and is evicting it from those spaces.

In addition to the Taylor Museum, which has its own curator, the CSFAC has a separate fine-art collection, which at one time also had a curator. But that job was empty for over a year, and it has now been eliminated in a cost-cutting move. De Marsche is using this staff cut as a rationale for redefining the Taylor Museum. Now, not only will the Taylor hold its own collection of southwestern art, but it also will have domain over the fine-art collection. Hopefully the traditional role of the Taylor won't be diluted, because the Navajo rugs and the Penitente Santos housed in it are among the CSFAC's greatest masterpieces.

In programming, De Marsche wants to take what he calls a "less is more" approach. There will be fewer separate shows, but the ones that are presented will be more significant. The slack is to be taken up by periodically rotating presentations from the permanent collection, which will occupy fully half of the galleries all the time. "We're going to display our permanent collection," De Marsche says, "like a real museum does."

De Marsche would like to see the CSFAC behave more like a museum and less like a community center. To this end, the annual festival of Christmas trees has been canceled, as have upcoming shows devoted to art by schoolchildren. I have nothing against Christmas trees or students, but I think De Marsche was right, though I also think he's going to get a lot of flak about both decisions.

Time will tell if De Marsche will be successful in his many plans to spruce up, expand and redirect the CSFAC. I just hope that, whatever happens, the fabulous building and collections will come out of it unscathed.

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