Real World

Contemporary realism is on display at Robischon, while get-realism takes over at RMCAD.

In addition to JAMES COLBERT and STEPHEN BATURA, Robischon has assembled a good-looking mini-survey back in the Viewing Room, Brad Miller, that includes examples of the regionally famous artist's ceramics, wood sculptures and burnt-paper pieces.


The week before last, the powers-that-be at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design announced that president Stephen Sumner's two-year reign was over. "There was no sense of mourning," said a faculty member who attended the meeting. That's an understatement.

"I Died 1000 Times," by James Colbert, oil on canvas.
"I Died 1000 Times," by James Colbert, oil on canvas.
"only out of habit," by Stephen Batura, acrylic and 
casein on panel.
"only out of habit," by Stephen Batura, acrylic and casein on panel.

I taught one class a semester at RMCAD between the fall term of 1999 and the spring term of 2003, and I got to know a lot of people there. This was when Steven Steele, son of the school's founder, Philip Steele, was the president, and he treated the place as the beloved family heirloom that it is to him. When he stepped down, I knew he'd left some big shoes to fill; I just didn't know his successor would fail so emphatically to fill them.

In the summer of 2003, the list of candidates for the presidency was whittled down to two finalists: Sumner, who was then president of the New World School of the Arts in Florida, and Neal King, RMCAD's provost. During the selection process, I got a call from RMCAD faculty member and sculptor Charles Parson, who was plugging a show he had somewhere. I knew that Parson was on the presidential selection committee, so I told him I thought King was clearly the best choice for the job. "We have two great candidates," he said. "You're wrong, Chuck," I replied. But as I hung up the phone, I knew that RMCAD was poised to make a very bad hiring call.

This was at the same time the school was embarking on a move from the ugly buildings on Evans Avenue in east Denver to the gorgeous campus on Pierce Street in Lakewood. One might expect a new president to have made at least a glad-handing appearance during the monumental relocation, but Sumner didn't.

Maybe his absence was a blessing, because once he got there, he sent most of the people at RMCAD reeling. In Sumner's initial meeting with the faculty, he began to shoot himself in the foot with a machine gun. For example, he wanted to be addressed as "Mr. President" -- no kidding -- and he wanted the male faculty to wear ties.

These quirky moves had a somewhat negative effect on morale, but they were nothing compared to the reaction to Sumner's firing of his former rival for the presidency, provost King. With the King firing, all hell broke loose, and Sumner had no chance of regaining the faculty's support -- even after promoting some of his harshest critics.

I covered King's firing ("Promises and Threats," January 22, 2004) and wrote stridently about it, because I wanted to do all I could to circumvent a secret plan Sumner had to get rid of others at RMCAD. I had inside information that Sumner was compiling formal complaint files on two of the school's most beloved teachers, Clark Richert (who was on the presidential search committee and had been in King's corner) and Ania Gola-Komar, with the presumed goal of ultimately firing them. I wanted to scare Sumner off, because I couldn't stand that some guy from out of town (who I knew was going to be gone in a year or two anyway) would swoop in and ruin the lives of two great people I've long admired for their dedication.

I think I can say that my plan worked, because after my piece appeared, Richert and Gola-Komar were off the hook as Sumner became increasingly circumspect about his behavior. There is no formal explanation for Sumner's departure, but the word is that RMCAD's board of trustees reacted to a second year of overwhelmingly negative appraisals of the president by the faculty.

There's a postscript to this story: Parson, Sumner's tireless cheerleader, has also left RMCAD. He wasn't forced out like his pal, but went under his own power to become head of the art department at the Community College of Denver.

Former president Steele is taking the helm as interim president at RMCAD, and a search for a permanent replacement will get under way soon. I wonder if King, who is now at Antioch College in New Hampshire, could be persuaded to come back? It's worth a try.

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