In 1919, Colorado was still a fledgling state struggling to establish its identity in both culture and industry. While a lot can change in the course of a century, one of the institutions built to help foster the arts in Colorado has remained remarkably consistent: the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which this year celebrates a century worth of arts education and development.
Colorado was a destination for artists starting in the 1880s, and the Springs in particular was home to two prominent art colonies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When those two colonies merged in 1919, they became the Broadmoor Art Academy (BAA), the institution that today is known as the Fine Arts Center.
Located in the former home of Julie and Spencer Penrose, the BAA focused on life drawing and easel painting en plein air, and the institution was perfectly situated for landscape painting: across from Memorial Park, with picture-perfect views of Pikes Peak and a short jaunt away from scenic areas like Garden of the Gods.
The BAA’s first instructors, John Carlson and Robert Reid, were the ideal candidates to take advantage of Colorado’s great outdoors. Both were classically trained painters well-known back east for their impressionistic landscapes. Carlson was particularly famous for his winter scenes, while Reid’s work combined the loose brushstrokes and pastel colors of impressionism with the stylized patterning of art nouveau, leading one critic to call his paintings “decorative impressionism.”
Carlson and Reid only taught at the BAA briefly, but their appointments and those of other early instructors like Birger Sandzén (sometimes called the American Van Gogh) and Willard Nash, a founding member of the modernist group Los Cinco Pintores, underscored the BAA’s ambitions to be a nationally renowned art school.
Not only did the instructors bring their techniques and vision to Southern Colorado, they were influenced by the landscape, light, and color in our area. Sandzén in particular left the BAA with a marked difference in his painting style, employing a more colorful and brighter palette than before. In his home country of Sweden, friends reportedly disbelieved that Sandzén’s Colorado landscapes were “accurate” because of his vivid pigments and dramatic lighting.
In the 1930s, with the Great Depression in full swing, the BAA wanted to diversify its arts education and programming even further. The best way to do this, they felt, was to formalize their position as the cultural center of the Springs by bringing together various arts under one roof. Thus the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, a home to not only art education, but art exhibitions, theater, and music, was born. Such community art centers may seem commonplace today, but at the time the FAC was one of the first of its kind in the country.
A new institution called for a new building, and the current FAC–built on the location of the old Palmer house and listed on the National Register of Historic Places–was an innovative design created by John Gaw Meem that blended traditional Pueblo architecture with Art Deco style.
Architecture wasn’t the only cutting-edge element of the FAC; the new institution was determined to be as modern as possible. With that in mind, visitors to the grand opening were treated to a performance by avant-garde dancer Martha Graham; music composed by Eric Satie; singing by “the High Priestess of Modern Song,” Éva Gauthier; a violin concerto by Albert Spaulding, arguably one of the greatest American violinists of all time; and set design and hanging mobiles by Alexander Calder. For its premier art exhibition, the FAC featured French modern painters like Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne. Just imagine what a blockbuster exhibition that would be today!
The art school, too, remained steadfastly modern, even while maintaining its focus on life drawing and landscape painting. In the 1930s and ‘40s, many of the instructors and students worked in social realist and regional styles, and were employed in creating murals across the US for the WPA (instructor George Biddle was a childhood friend of President Roosevelt’s, perhaps not coincidentally).
The FAC was also nationally known as a center for lithography, thanks to a series of instructors who were talented printmakers, starting with Sandzén and continuing with Ward Lockwood, Tabor Utley, Charles Locke, and his pupil, Lawrence Barrett.
After World War II, abstraction became the “it” thing in art. FAC instructors like Jean Charlot and Mary Chenoweth embraced varying degrees of abstraction, from the pure abstraction of Chenoweth’s paintings to the abstracted forms of Charlot’s Mesoamerican-inspired figures. But the structure of the school, which still focused on life drawing and landscape, struggled to remain relevant in this new era. That, along with other emerging concerns (the demand for accreditation, for example) led to the separation of the FAC from the art school, which was incorporated into Colorado College. The FAC still maintains its art school roots, however, with the Bemis School of Art and community outreach programs.
Meanwhile, the FAC’s reputation as a museum grew thanks to the building of its permanent collection. Under the direction of James B. Byrnes, the FAC acquired a solid selection of work by modern painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley. And thanks to an acquisition fund established by the annual Debutante Ball, the FAC brought in some of the most famous works in its collection by Laura Gilpin, Ansel Adams, and John Singer Sargent.
Today the FAC is still working to balance its traditional, classical background with contemporary sensibilities and the need to remain relevant. Its blockbuster exhibitions focusing on artists like Dale Chihuly and Peter Max are classic examples, while recent exhibitions by Virgil Ortiz and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith demonstrate a growing commitment to diversity.
You can view work by all the BAA artists mentioned here, plus many others, in the exhibit O Beautiful! Shifting Landscapes of the Pikes Peak Region, housed in the permanent collection gallery through 2019.
The FAC’s year-long celebration of its 100th anniversary will kick off on January 26th, 2019, and continue throughout the year with special exhibitions and events. For more information, please visit www.csfineartscenter.org/100-years/.