Foothills Art Center explores its past in XL: Forty Years on the Frontier of Art and Foothills.

Foothills Art Center marked its fortieth anniversary last Friday, and to honor that milestone, the institution is presenting XL: Forty Years on the Frontier of Art, which runs through the end of the month. The main exhibit features a quartet of contemporary artists, while an ancillary show, Foothills Founders: A Retrospective, documents the center's history through the work of some of the first artists to exhibit there.

Because the year was 1968, and because Foothills is in an old church — just like Alice's Restaurant — plus, it's in a college town, you might assume the place traces its birth to the counterculture of the time (not unlike Drop City, the Trinidad art commune). But that conclusion would be wrong; the artists who founded Foothills were a conservative lot — establishment types who were interested in promoting traditional representational imagery, typically with a romanticized view of the West as the backdrop.

Foothills's earliest roots go back to 1963, when Irma Wyhs moved to Golden. Wyhs had studied watercolors with Joseph Wrobel in South Bend, Indiana, and she invited him to conduct a workshop in town the next summer. At the same time, flamboyant store owner F. "Heinie" Foss came up the idea of presenting a sidewalk art show, and he got many of the town's businesspeople to sponsor it. The event took off — and, with the financial support of the local chamber of commerce, it became an annual tradition. By 1967, people associated with the sidewalk show began to talk about establishing a Golden Art Museum, and to that end, a board was assembled.

"Ceci n'est pas une église," installation, by Marc Berghaus.
"Ceci n'est pas une église," installation, by Marc Berghaus.

The idea eventually moved away from a museum model with a permanent collection and toward an art center that would focus on exhibitions and instruction. One of the volunteer board members, Denman Galbraith, suggested the moniker "Foothills Art Center," and true to this name, the facility would eventually perch on a steep hill, right in the foothills against the Front Range — though not quite yet.

In the spring of 1968, Vi Hader, a juror for the sidewalk show, discovered that Golden Unitarian Church was moving out of its nineteenth-century building (originally constructed by the Presbyterians) and suggested converting the church into the art center. That May, with no funding secured, the board signed a lease for the church with the goal of opening in time for the Buffalo Bill Days celebration in August. And the board met that ambitious goal, quickly giving the interior a facelift — the first of many to come.

Wyhs became the founding director, and the first show featured important Western paintings collected by Bill and Dorothy Harmsen. The couple owned Jolly Rancher Candy Company and had lined the walls of their Arvada office and factory with significant works of art. (Both Harmsens are deceased; many of their pieces are currently on view on level two of the Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum, which now owns the Harmsen Collection.)

Curator Michael Chavez told me a story he learned while gathering information for the fortieth anniversary. This first show, he said, turned into a disaster for the nascent art center, and it's amazing it survived. At that time, Foothills had neither a security system nor insurance. So, of course, the unthinkable happened: Thieves broke in when the place was closed and stole twelve of the Harmsens' paintings. Old-fashioned police work — and a lucky tip — led to the recovery of the paintings. But I bet the Harmsens were reluctant to loan anything to Foothills again.

Foothills Founders provides a snapshot of this era and includes the work of such founders as Wyhs, Hal Shelton, Ronald Waelchli, Tom Berger and others. Most are strictly representational in their depictions of the scenery, sentimental scenes and quaint buildings. An odd artist out in this company is Don Coen, who is clearly interested in more contemporary art, though his themes are also Western — in this case, a cattle drive. His work relates to both pop art and photorealism, but isn't categorized as either.

In the years between then and now, the institution has been shaped by its longtime directors: Marian Metsopoulos, who ran the place from 1973 to 1992, and Carol Dickinson, who was at the helm from 1992 to 2004. Metsopoulos established a number of shows, including the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Exhibition, The North American Sculpture Exhibition and Colorado Clay. Each spread the name of Foothills among artists throughout the state. Dickinson, who had been an art critic at the Rocky Mountain News, took over when Metsopoulos retired, bringing an interest in contemporary art. I never met Metsopoulos, but I know Dickinson, and during her time, she ran every aspect of Foothills, including the curation of shows.

It's different today, however, and Dickinson's successor, Jennifer Cook Ito, hired Chavez (then at the Arvada Center) to put together the exhibits. Reilly Sanborn replaced Cook Ito, who left in 2007 after less than three years. Instead of hunting up objects for XL: Forty Years on the Frontier of Art that had been included in Foothills exhibits over the decades and thus literally illustrating its history, Chavez chose to do a more modest — and therefore more manageable — presentation, inviting only four artists and asking them to create work inspired by Foothills.

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