Balancing Act

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Wynne, Richert, Chisman and Mangold all have a place in Colorado's art history, as well as being players on the contemporary scene. Last season, Wynne was the subject of a solo at Ron Judish Fine Arts. Richert and Chisman got the same treatment at the Rule Gallery, and Mangold was part of a group show at Artyard. (Rosen no longer paints or exhibits.)

While this retrospective trend certainly made itself known last season, an opposite trend was also seen in spades. More so than in recent years, emerging artists seemed to show up everywhere -- and not just in the alternative spaces, as you'd expect, but at any one of the 'big five' (Judish, Rule, Robischon, Carson-Masuoka and Havu), and at newer venues like Andenken, Fresh Art, and especially the up-and-coming Cordell Taylor.

Among the rookies that broke into the big leagues were abstract painters Karen McClanahan and John Morrison, as well as newcomers to town (and thus to the scene) Amy Sloan-Kirchoff and Chad Colby. Debuting wet-behind-the-ears modernist sculptors included Zach Smith, Jonathan Stiles, Todd Oliver and David Mazza. Interesting newish photographers such as Kelly Shroads and Jason Patz also premiered. There were lots of others youngsters busy making art around town and, even more remarkable, getting the opportunity to show it.

Overall, the 2001-2002 season was a glittering one, but it may also have marked the end of an era, and that's the setup for the bad news.

As noted earlier, last season unfolded after the tragic events of last September 11, but the shows had already been lined up. Therefore, they reflected not the post-9/11 world, but the happy days of the months before. In fact, nothing could have represented last season worse than its healthy appearance. Unfortunately, the effects of the era-changing calamity will be more keenly felt in the upcoming 2002-2003 season.

One indicator of a future direction is what could be called the increasing appeal of "comfort contemporary": art that is credibly contemporary but simultaneously comforting in these uncomfortable times.

This direction is best exemplified by one of this season's big shows, Sandy Skoglund, which opens this weekend at Rule and is devoted to the famous photographer and installation artist.

The urgent search for comfort originated with the 9/11 disaster. One common reaction was that people turned inward, and they stopped doing things like going shopping or going out to dinner, or, for our purposes, going to galleries. This consumer ennui lasted all through the fall and winter, leading to a national slump in retail sales.

The retail rollback could have dire consequences for the art world that I'm loath to consider. The galleries, including the bigger ones, have had to deal with sluggish sales all year, and that ain't good. People just aren't spending like they used to, and expenses keep rising. Something's got to give.

I know the ugly details of this sorry story not because the dealers are complaining to me -- they never would -- but because the artists have. Artists who make their living on the sale of their art are wailing to the high heavens about the ruinous situation.

The retail slump, though, means more than tough financial roads for galleries and artists. It also means that the government entities that fund public art venues have less money.

The first indication of how bad it was going to get came a couple months ago, when Republican governor Bill Owens, no friend of the arts, exercised a line item veto in order to cut 40 percent of the money available for distribution by the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities, the state agency charged with funding public art. The cuts were pointedly aimed at those Denver-area institutions, commissions and groups that receive funding from another public source, the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

But, like the state, the SCFD has less money to distribute this year than was estimated last year, which means more bad news for local art institutions. One prominent victim of such funding cuts is the Denver Art Museum. In part because of a loss of almost half a million dollars in SCFD money, the DAM recently announced cost-cutting moves that include layoffs and intermittent floor closures.

Still, the biggest economic story of the last twelve months has to be the free fall of the stock market. Not only were tens of billions of dollars lost on Wall Street following 9/11, but unbelievable displays of corporate corruption, such as those at Enron and likely at Qwest, have caused mayhem on the trading floor.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia