Thursday, April 15, 2010

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Isn’t for Everyone Anymore

Gee, what a shock. The catering company that has for two years provided delectable food at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is not renewing their contract.

Join the Nonrenewing Club.

Garden of the Gods Gourmet has worked their arts off to provide Fine Arts Center patrons with a multicultural menu at FAC restaurant Café 36, but the proposed contract, prepared, I suspect, by the relatively new FAC management, will not allow the caterer to make a profit—the probable financial direction for the center itself. How democratic.

The Fine Arts Center was led from 2003 to 2007 by risk taker Michael De Marsche, who visioned a spectacular center in Colorado Springs and instituted a fund-raising campaign to build the FAC’s new wing. The drive included our entire community and beyond and attracted a lot of new blood. Annual attendance grew from approximately 20,000 to more than 120,000, an ever-expanding audience that I’ll bet has ever decreased during the current CEO’s tenure.

Under De Marsche’s innovative management, the Fine Arts Center had monthly wine tastings called First Thursdays, tempting hors d’oeuvres, and two groups playing live music that drew hundreds to purchase memberships who otherwise wouldn’t have joined. Through these soirées, people became more aware of other programs—plays, musicals, gallery openings, guest artists, and classes—by being in the galleries and via periodic FAC communications. Subsequently, members attended these events, bringing friends and family. Too quickly, however, De Marsche left the FAC to accept the challenge of becoming executive director of the Yerevan, Armenia, Gerard L. Cafesjian Center for the Arts and Museum of Art.

October 2008 when new permanent management stepped in, word leaked out that CEO Mark Samuel Gappmayer might end the wine tastings because previous leadership had spent too much money on the new wing, and the wine tastings weren’t making the FAC any money. The Fine Arts Center is a nonprofit organization. Apparently advertising and public relations—spending money to make money—were new concepts, which could be a blessing because FAC communications lack consistency anyway.

During Gappmayer’s decision-making period soon after his arrival, I had a lovely chat with him during First Thursdays, imploring him to continue the more-than-20-year tradition of attracting people to the FAC via wine tastings. I’d even served at the gatherings 24 years earlier.

With a genuine smile and obvious concern for the FAC’s financial well-being, he said, and I paraphrase, “But look at who these wine tastings attract: middle-class people who otherwise wouldn’t be here. They’re not interested in art,” he declared, as smiling patrons socialized, gazing at and discussing the exhibit.

Middle class. What is wrong with middle class? Who, specifically, does he want supporting his Fine Arts Center? “Welcome to my center…unless you’re middle class.”

Let’s mention some of the middle-class patrons. One friend paid cash for his $1.3 million home. Many own their homes. This CEO himself purchased his house for $505,000, financing $404,000 of it. The house I built with my ex would now sell for more than $600,000. We have careers and places in society that would connote other than middle class. But why should it matter who pays to be a part of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center?

Some things should not be spoken. I’ve always advised those new in their positions to observe for a time to learn the mechanics of an environment before making consequential decisions.

Contributing to his lack of decorum, Gappmayer had uncharitably stuck the only live music in the small gift shop’s northeast corner—three or four musicians trying to gift us with their songs in a 36-square-feet area. There was no dancing that night.

A very wealthy friend was one of Gappmayer’s few invited guests to a special midmorning presentation to discuss Gappmayer’s plans, the future, and how important their donations to the FAC would be, if they would simply write a check of four or five figures before they leave and place it right here, he suggested with his coat opened just a bit.

Yes, rather than asking everyone to contribute to our community arts center, Gappmayer chooses to eschew the middle class and confront those who are hammered by almost every nonprofit organization already.

Like the Garden of the Gods Gourmet, I suspect many former FAC’ers have not renewed their “contracts” to maintain membership. While it used to be a venue to socialize, discover, and be entertained, it now appears the community center’s culture is open only to a select club.

I see a lack of vision, a view that had started within. But don’t take it from me, take it from someone who works near him: “He’s an idiot.”

And now he could be getting hungry.

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