The beauty of Pikes Peak has inspired artists since the 19th century, yet only in the past few years has a diverse, truly exciting arts community blossomed in Colorado Springs, the city that lies in Pikes Peak's shadow. With major museum expansions, new galleries, and a wide range of community efforts to bring fine arts to the fore, the Springs has seen a burst of artistic energy that's drawing art lovers from all across the state.
You can explore many of Colorado Springs' best art spaces in a day trip from Denver, but start early—there's a lot to see. Plan to arrive at the Fine Arts Center (FAC), the Springs' premier art museum, when the doors open at 10 a.m. Exit I-25 on Uintah Street, then turn south on Cascade Avenue to reach the FAC, which traces its roots to the Broadmoor Art Academy, established in 1919 with instructors from the Art Students League of New York. In August 2007, the FAC unveiled a beautiful 48,000-square-foot expansion to its 1936 art deco building, with extensive new gallery space.
Exhibits at the FAC include a splendid collection of American paintings, whimsical Mexican ceramics, and a fascinating pairing of Dale Chihuly glass and Native American baskets. New exhibitions of contemporary and 20th century landscape painting open in September, and a traveling Smithsonian exhibit of NASA art opens December 19.
Across Cascade Avenue is the one-year-old Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center of Colorado College, which includes a gallery for the school's interdisciplinary I.D.E.A. Space arts program. Stroll over for a look (the gallery opens at 12:30 p.m.), and then, just across Cache la Poudre Street, check out Creature Comforts, a 2008 outdoor installation of towering, hutlike structures by "stick artist" Patrick Dougherty.
When lunch beckons your best bet on weekends is Café 36 inside the FAC (open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), with a tasty—albeit pricey—lunch menu and views of the mountains. During the workweek, head downtown for lunch. Follow Cascade south to Colorado Avenue, turn left, cross Tejon Street, and park underground on the right, below the orange-brick Plaza of the Rockies buildings. Nosh, a two-year-old casual eatery, caters to local business folks, families, and tourists alike, with a huge outdoor patio away from busy streets. The varied, reasonably priced menu ranges from creative salads and sandwiches to small entrées like a barbacoa tostada or an udon noodle bowl. (Nosh validates garage parking, so don't forget to get your ticket stamped before leaving.)
Refreshed, turn left in the Plaza of the Rockies lobby to find the three-room gallery of the FAC Modern, the Fine Arts Center's free exhibit space for contemporary work. You can breeze through in 30 seconds, or you might linger 30 minutes over a challenging work like conceptual artist Atomic Elroy's multimedia piece Scam, which asks viewers to consider whether the ultimate goal of all art is to make a buck.
Outside on Tejon Street, turn left across a small greenway to find the tower-topped old El Paso County courthouse, home of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. In addition to a fun collection of Native American and historical artifacts—don't miss riding to the upper level in the 1913 Otis birdcage elevator—the Pioneers Museum hosts two important galleries of artwork. First is the world's largest public collection of Van Briggle art pottery, a well-known style of Art Nouveau matte-glaze ceramics crafted in Colorado Springs beginning in 1899. Although the designs have evolved, Van Briggle pottery is still made in the Springs; you can visit the company's brand-new workshop and showroom about eight blocks south of downtown on Tejon Street.