One woman’s passion for the arts sparked a cultural landmark that will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year.
Julie Penrose, wife to The Broadmoor hotelier Spencer Penrose, was the driving force behind the Broadmoor Art Academy, now known as the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.
“Mrs. Penrose was determined there would be a school,” said muralist Eric Bransby, one of the academy’s many famous students and teachers. “She was behind the arts 100 percent.”
A century later, the FAC is still home to galleries, a theater and the Bemis School of Art. The institution will celebrate its centennial throughout the year, with a free day-long kick-off celebration Saturday and other events including a birthday party Oct. 12.
It was 1919, and Spencer had opened The Broadmoor the year before. The Penroses left their mansion at 30 W. Dale St., site of the FAC, and moved into the Penrose House near the hotel. Julie decided to turn their former digs into the BAA, inviting important artists from across the country to teach at the school and exhibit center.
Robert Reid, John F. Carlson, Ernest Lawson, William Potter, Francis Drexel Smith and Birger Sandzén strutted the halls in BAA’s early years, as droves of students came from across the country, seeking instruction from the accomplished artists during summer.
“It was a small world of art colonies that were sharing their mentors and ideas, and Broadmoor Art Academy and later the Fine Arts Center were in the thick of it,” said Blake Wilson, owner of The Art Bank and an authority on the Academy. “It was the most important time in American art, and we were instrumental in some of the ideas and changes.”
In 1930, acclaimed artist Boardman Robinson arrived to head the school, which was quite a coup. His students called him “Uncle Mike” and his wife “Aunt Sally,” according to Bransby.
“Mrs. Penrose practically loved the guy,” said Bransby, 102, who also has fond memories of Robinson. The famous artist was generous to Eric, his wife and artist, Mary Ann Bransby, and their young daughter, who moved to the Springs after World War II for the school.
“He took us down to the bursar and said, ‘If the Bransbys run out of money, you are to give them a check for what they need.’”
The academy thrived and soon outgrew its space. Julie and two other wealthy philanthropists, Alice Bemis Taylor and Betty Sage Hare, dreamed big, imagining one complex that housed an art school, galleries, a theater, art studios, music rooms and a Southwestern museum.
The BAA was razed, and in its place sprung up the John Gaw Meem-designed FAC, which opened to great fanfare in 1936.
It was a staid institution, though its students never fit that description, said Eve Tilley, whose famous artist father, Lewis Tilley, studied under Robinson and lithographer Adolf Dehn and later taught at the school.
“The Fine Arts Center used to let students party in the little patio in the enclosure,” said Tilley. “It was a beautiful lily pond, and the parties were so drunken, they’d throw each other in the pond. The FAC had to ban them. They were brilliant people, and when you’re around beautiful, creative juices, your juices flow along with them.”
BAA ended when its name changed, though similar art classes continued through the late 1940s, said Wilson. Robinson left in 1947, which is considered the official end of the BAA era, though famous lithographer Lawrence Barrett continued to work at the FAC School, along with other nationally known artists.
At least 150 artists studied and exhibited at the BAA and FAC through the ’40s, said Wilson.
“Many of them go on to become well-known professional artists,” he said. “The quality of work is extremely good. We may see, during the 100th anniversary year, some of those lesser-known artists come to light.”