End of an Era

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.

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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