GOCA: Cultivating Colorado Springs’ Diverse Arts & Culture Legacy

Words: Kate Perdoni

Photos: Becca Simonds

Nudging its audience to lead more imaginative lives through sensory experiences, sparking dialogue and affecting positive change in communities through art - here lies the trifecta of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs’ Galleries of Contemporary Art. Commonly referred to as GOCA, the name populates two fully-realized, multi-media gallery spaces within the city: One on the UCCS campus, the other in the heart of downtown.

Leading up to the formation of GOCA in 1981, current GOCA Director and Curator Daisy McGowan stated there were a number of art exhibits on the UCCS campus, mainly housed in the library. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, a group of private citizens rallied around the funding and building of a new contemporary art space - a feat Daisy labels “quite remarkable.” GOCA1420, named for its address on Austin Bluffs Parkway, was then built within the newly constructed UCCS science building. The 2,600 square foot, central campus space includes classrooms and space to accommodate “a wide range of exhibits that could be envisioned in 1981,” Daisy said. Daisy acknowledged that the unexpected location has lent itself to the interdisciplinary slant of GOCA’s exhibitions over the years.

Attracting artists that can fulfill the large scale, Daisy says exhibits in GOCA1420 have ranged from a survey of works to a single project taking over with a massive installation. “You ask artists, ‘What can you do with this?’ and their eyes just light up,” Daisy said.

Shows ultimately take root in bringing artists as a resource for students and faculty. Exhibits frequently connect with a faculty member - such as coursework, or a special program created around a connecting exhibit, or a symposia organized to build off a show. The classroom atmosphere supports UCCS’ interdisciplinary Visual and Performance Arts major, involving theater, dance, music, film, visual art, art history and museum studies.

“Academic art museums and galleries have a very interesting role,” Daisy said. “They serve the campus, but they really need to serve the community as well. We started to bring internationally and nationally known professional artists to the campus from day one as a resource for the faculty and students and also for the community.”

As part of a curriculum of immersion, students take classes within GOCA’s walls, learn about gallery management and operations through staffing the space and work alongside global artists to install shows. “We have at our core education,” Daisy said. “Everything we do, whether it’s targeted specifically at UCCS students - such as a students-only exhibit preview - or if it’s lifelong learning outside of the school, is really that core belief that the arts can teach just about anything.”

This philosophy includes experimentation and release from more common forms of academic knowledge, allowing the space to be overtaken by unique experiences. Exercises in analysis and truth-seeking in the college venue encourage dialogue and connect the audience with organic emotion, allowing the community to broach difficult topics with an air of interactivity and introspection. It’s an educational model that has followed GOCA to its downtown location and beyond.

“If you tell people, ‘We want to have a conversation about the nuclear legacy of Japan and we’re going to have a lecture,’ a lot of people will just shut down,” Daisy said, referencing Eiko Otake and William Johnston’s “A Body in Fukushima,” which opened in 2014. Much of the artists’ work centered around the grief of natural disasters and historical legacies, including a post-nuclear world, told through movement and performance as well as elements of video and photography. Otake worked with students for the entirety of the semester. The exhibit itself “engaged with the community in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen,” Daisy described.

Underscoring the importance of a call-and-response from the community to determine gallery trajectory included the acquisition of a secondary gallery space, GOCA121. The downtown gallery, also named for its address (121 S. Tejon Street), began in 2010 as a partnership between Nor’wood (the landlord for Plaza of the Rockies) and UCCS.

Daisy said the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center built out the downtown space now inhabited by GOCA 121 during a campus remodel. When the art center’s renovation completed, the space was offered to UCCS, who seized the opportunity to offer a centrally located, satellite gallery. “The downtown space over the last five years has been incredibly dynamic for us to build audience and connect in different ways,” Daisy said, noting GOCA now runs the majority of its public programs from this metropolitan center.

Creating and cultivating a meaningful visitor experience at either location includes working with artists to decide which physical space their work will inhabit. Dais said by encompassing several separate rooms at GOCA 121 they’ve really pushed the limits of what the space can do. “We’ve had everything from a 500-pound drawing machine suspended from the ceiling, to a ceramic car installation with hundreds of hood ornaments in the front space, cramming it so full,” Daisy said. “We've had a sand installation on the floor. We once collected styrofoam for a year.” Artist Michael Salter’s iconic Styrobot installation, which GOCA literature depicts as a ceiling-grazing robot in lotus position, was one of these.

“It takes hundreds of hours to realize these projects,” Daisy said. “But ultimately with both spaces, the exhibit design is as much an art form as the art itself. We really try to balance the desire to have something that visually just wows you when you walk in with finding a way to engage you and bring you deeper and deeper into the work.” The minds bringing cutting-edge culture to Colorado Springs must draw from some reputable forces themselves. “We’re culture vultures!” Daisy laughed.

Her inspirations come from traveling and casting a wide net to infiltrate and connect with artists’ networks statewide and beyond. “There’s such an attitude of sharing in the arts - of being mutually excited and wanting to help other artists and support them,” she said. “It’s so wonderful to be doing that for a living.”

Asked if there’s a certain feeling she gets with the knowledge that something is going to resound with the community, Daisy answers to the affirmative. “Yes,” she said. “It’s hard to anticipate completely. When I’m researching an artist or a topic, there’s so much delight in me, and I just want to share that.” 

“And that’s really infectious,” added Nicole Anthony, the GOCA Community Cultivation Director. “If you’re genuinely excited about something, and you’re your most authentic self when promoting, designing, curating and presenting it, I feel like that’s very transparent, and people gravitate toward that.”

GOCA’s love of community and connectivity has led to creating space for a number of local emerging artists. Ultimately, the spaces are best activated when programs surrounding other local culture are involved: Dance, poetry, spoken word, performance, food, wine, an array of speakers and lots of music are go-to forces known to grace the halls of both GOCA spaces. Pairing arts programs with local makers and crafters, including food movements, breweries and coffee roasters, enhance the gallery-goer’s experience and leads to what Nicole says is a lot of nerding out. “Take BRILLIANT, for example,” Nicole described. “Light installations by Colorado Springs artists, dance performance by dancers living in Colorado Springs, whiskey and gin tastings by Colorado Springs distilleries - it’s one night that celebrates our local community's exceptional creative capacities. We really strive to connect with as many aspects of our creative community making in Colorado Springs as possible.”

Exhibitor and Gallery Assistant Caitlin Goebel, labeled a “Bright Young Thing” in GOCA121’s 2015 exhibit celebrating homegrown Colorado talent, has been involved with GOCA since 2012. As a student at UCCS, Daisy sought Caitlin out for a student position. “People often speak about how hard it is to get noticed in the Arts or to move into a larger city with a more serious audience,” Caitlin said. “Exhibiting at GOCA has allowed me to meet so many intelligent and well-respected artists and curators in the region … Now I'm looking forward to collaborations and exhibits that I don't know would have happened otherwise, or at least not in the same way.”

Emphasizing city-wide collaborations, bringing artists in residence for longer stretches and continuing to welcome artists from around the world to engage meaningfully remain at the forefront of upcoming events.

“It’s about quality, not quantity,” Anthony noted.

Daisy said that there is less of an emphasis on statistics and how many students are involved and instead they focus on a deeper engagement.

“It’s not just about doubling our programs or tripling our numbers,” Daisy said. “Instead, we talk about building our tribe.”

When asked what it is about Colorado Springs’ arts community that makes this approach work, Daisy said it is the diversity.

“I grew up on the west coast, and we all sort of agreed that we thought the same things,” she said. “Our audience here is diverse, and it’s a challenging audience. But there’s a very old history here of arts and culture, and a lot of people don’t know about that history. There is a very strong core community of people who want these experiences, who seek them out.”

Nicole also added that the arts community in Colorado Springs is very open and supportive and wants more from them.

“That’s a wonderful place to be in,” Nicole said, “because it gives us a space to create and explore and see how the community responds.” There are also challenges in a diverse audience, requiring dexterity. Daisy pointed out that for our community specifically, it’s important to try to connect to the community in many different ways. “Ultimately, if they have those great experiences with what you’re bringing to them, they’ll come back and take risks; and that’s what we want to support,” she said.

Daisy also sees an opportunity in inclusiveness - in stripping the elitism from the world of fine art.

“Museums are trying more and more to be public spaces. Audiences don’t want an ivory tower experience, such as, ‘Here’s this knowledge, and we’ll bestow it down to you from up on high,’” she explained. “Audiences want to bring their kids to things. They want experiences they can share with their community and to have that feeling of genuine community.” By giving patrons a chance to sample and survey local offerings through programs including pot politics, fermented foods, pop culture, comic books and even goat cheese, Daisy says the point is to honor knowledge that’s not just coming out of an academic source or coming from a sanctified museum.

In 2016, GOCA will collaborate with eight local organizations for POLLIN8ATE, including Idea Space, Pikes Peak Community College, Manitou Arts Center, Mountain Fold Books, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, the Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs Dance Theater and the City of Pueblo. This city-wide arts collaboration will focus on various aspects of the theme “energy”.

“I’m really looking forward to some stellar experiences born from so many creative minds working together,” Nicole said.

Meanwhile, in 2018, GOCA 1421 will relocate to the new Ent Center for the Arts, alongside TheatreWorks. This new center will include a 750-seat performance space, a 225-seat concert recital hall, a large ensemble rehearsal space, educational spaces and an outdoor sculpture garden with grounds meant to be used for events - all tucked into a hillside under Pulpit Rock with stunning visual scenery.



University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

1420 Austin Bluffs Pkwy

Colorado Springs, CO 80918


Plaza of the Rockies

121 S. Tejon, Suite 100

Colorado Springs, CO 80903