Five questions for Daisy McConnell

Director of art galleries at UCCS generates creative excitement in exhibits, programs

Daisy McConnell (Photo: Aetherial Photography)

Daisy McConnell grew up in Italy, Canada and across the western United States with parents who were artists and seven brothers and sisters. She says her “bohemian upbringing” likely was influential to her decision to choose a career in visual arts. After earning an undergraduate degree at Colorado College, she worked in a variety of jobs: fine art printmaking studio manager, K-12 art educator, artist studio assistant, fine artist. But what excited her most were her experiences curating and managing a small academic art gallery at Colorado College.

When the position of co-director of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Galleries of Contemporary Art (GOCA) opened in 2010, her eclectic background was perfect for the job demands of a culture creator in the region. She became director of GOCA in August 2011.

The galleries produce eight to 10 curated exhibits each year in the two spaces and off-site venues, and run seven significant recurring programs. In 2012-2013, GOCA produced 79 individual programs, most related to exhibits on display.

The current exhibit, “Destiny Manifest,” features the work of two artists addressing the legacy of pollution in North America. French-Canadian artist Isabelle Hayeur's Underworlds and Excavations series of large-scale photographic digital assemblages capture polluted waterways and critically explore the impact of human sprawl on urban environments. Colorado-based Holly Parker Dearborn's Extreme Force and Roman Buses series and Destroyer of Worlds multimedia installation explore issues related to war, industrial weapons, climate change, pollution and resources.

The exhibit is on display at the downtown GOCA121 gallery through May 17. (Visit

McConnell still loves to travel, especially to visit her family living across the globe.

“I always incorporate art viewing into the trips. I was fortunate to visit a brother and sister living in Italy this past spring, and to spend a couple days at the opening of the Venice Biennale as part of that trip. I traveled with my mother and teenage daughter – it was a terrific experience. In a two-week span we went from viewing the ruins of Ancient Rome and Pompeii to immersing ourselves in an overwhelming contemporary art experience.”

1. What is the mission of GOCA and what does curating an exhibit entail?

GOCA’s mission is “to spark engaged dialogue about contemporary culture through visual art exhibitions, public programs and special events that articulate aesthetics, current issues and diverse perspectives.” Since 2010 we’ve grown our audience over 200 percent, thanks in large part to opening a satellite gallery in a donated space in downtown Colorado Springs that same year. Our student attendance has increased through working with faculty across all departments (not only Visual Art) to incorporate the gallery as a teaching resource, and through inviting students in for diverse programs that connect with them and their interests. Our community audience has grown tremendously through high-profile and award-winning exhibitions, inventive programs, and an incredible amount of energy spent on authentically marketing and engaging with our supporters. Ultimately, we’ve been able to raise the funding needed to bring experimental, engaging, often collaborative contemporary art projects through making a significant cultural impact on this community.

Our programs are playful, serious and experimental all at once – noontime dance parties in the gallery, a seven-evening series of talks on the central topic of water, collaborative dance and concerts connecting to the visual art on display, visual training combined with wine tasting, and mash-up lecture series featuring DIY and contemporary culture topics to name some – and they build on the exhibits in ways that a traditional gallery lecture cannot.

Directing and curating two contemporary academic gallery spaces is incredibly demanding and creatively exciting all at once. It’s much like running a stand-alone, nonprofit business – we fundraise to cover costs for 100 percent of our programs – but with support for two staff salaries and facilities from the university. I manage one full-time staff member, anywhere from three to 10 student employees and interns, and a volunteer Advisory Board comprised of university faculty and community members.

The process of curating an exhibit starts with an idea – some connect to faculty research, interdisciplinary programs or other campus initiatives, while others explore the leading edge of contemporary art practices, tackling current issues and addressing big and small concepts in our spaces. I work to stay current on contemporary art, connect with artists whose practice is evolving the boundaries of what we define as contemporary art, and whose craft is at superior levels through studio visits and research. Interdisciplinary, collaborative projects that stretch outside of our space both physically and conceptually (i.e. involving music, dance, performance, or all of the above) intersperse with more contemplative, quiet shows. It really runs the gamut.

I’m working ahead two to three years – this is fairly standard in the gallery and museum world – coordinating schedules with artists, galleries, collectors, faculty and classes. It can be tricky to be pulling together five to 15 exhibits at one time, all while working to design, install, light, market and create buzz to get people to the current exhibits on display. We are a small staff, so at the end of the night after the big opening, we are the ones cleaning up the floors and tables and changing the burnt-out bulbs in the gallery lights.

2. What is a favorite part of your job? What are some least favorite aspects of what you do?

I love the variety of this work and the people I am privileged to work with on this team at UCCS. My favorite experience on the job is probably when I’m conducting Visual Thinking Strategies sessions where I facilitate unpacking an artwork with a group of visitors. I’ve done this with everyone from elementary students to adults with wine glass in hand, and they always find aspects of the work that I had missed or hadn’t connected to fully.

In these sessions we slow time down and practice sustained viewing of an artwork for 1 minute, followed by open-ended questions that I never answer as facilitator but just rephrase. It’s so rare that we have the chance to slow down and look at anything for longer than mere seconds in our daily lives, so it’s a real treat. I also love the noontime dance parties we throw. They’re terrific community building wellness events and everyone always leaves with a big smile, including me.

My least favorite aspect is that we are always coming up short on resources to get it all done – staff time, funding and time in a day. We are constantly strategizing smarter ways to plan and execute our programs and we’ve streamlined a lot of our operations. Our programming is ambitious though and it really does take a lot of work to pull it all together. We are connecting with our audiences in meaningful ways and that is incredibly rewarding and keeps our team inspired and steaming ahead.

3. I assume everything doesn’t always go smoothly at the GOCA. Can you share with us a story about when things didn’t go perfectly?

In our recent exhibit PROTEST!, one of the artists had works traveling to us from the Istanbul Biennial. I tried contacting everyone and anyone possible to determine if the work would arrive on time, including deploying Google translate to get to the goal. I finally gave up on including these particular works and was redesigning the show a few weeks out when I got the call – the works were at customs and when could I take delivery? It could easily have gone the other direction, but we were fortunate and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The opening festivities for the PROTEST! exhibit this past January featured a performative collaboration between Ormao Dance Company, Ensemble Peak Frequency and Americana vocalist Tim Eriksen, set in the midst of the art on display by contemporary artists dealing with protest in their works. The marketing for this performance did not require tickets – admission was free and it was decided that ticketing would not work as many people often do not show up if they haven’t paid for their tickets. It was to be first-come, first-seated to capacity, but as it got closer to the date I was starting to worry. Numerous press articles were released, buzz on social media was high, and I just had the feeling that we were going to be overrun – a serious concern for my staff and the security of the art in the gallery.

The day of the event a big snowstorm hit and every other event in town canceled. We had 20 dancers and 14 musicians who had traveled distance and rehearsed for this night, so we chose not to cancel unless the university closed (which it did not). We had just over the number of seats show up to see the show – 110 – and about 20 more were able to squeeze in on the floor. It was an incredibly moving performance, and those who made it through the storm to be there still tell me it was one of the best art experiences in their memory. But I was so grateful for that snow!

Another fun story was maintaining the “Rain Machine” exhibit by artist Eric Tillinghast. The artist created a monumental water sculpture featuring 300-plus jets dripping water in a grid pattern into a 30-foot-by-30-foot pool. It was incredibly beautiful and we had it on extended display for three months, during which we maintained it with pool chemicals. The jets clogged though, and someone had to get on a ladder in an outfit made for floating on a river, water pouring all over, to manually replace the clogged jet. That someone was, on two occasions, me – and that water was cold!

4. Is there an exhibit for which you are especially proud? Have you ever purchased art from one of your exhibits?

I’m proud and amazed by every exhibit I pull together – it always seems a herculean task and I’m grateful for the support of my staff and the genius and dedication of the artists we partner with in our spaces. I was especially proud of the PROTEST! exhibit that closed last month – it reached heights of success on multiple points. It was connected to the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Rebellion and Massacre events of 1914, and the exhibit and related programs sparked discussion, reaction, thought and movement.

I have purchased art from several of our exhibits. My house is full of art! It’s hard to live with the artworks for weeks and then just let them go. I am getting to the point of needing to rotate the art in my home though, so I’m trying to restrain myself more. Art is such a joy to live with in your home. I’m lucky indeed to get to live with it at work most days, too.

5. Do you have a favorite item or object that you keep on your desk at work?

I’ve got a few sculpted hands – one was a gift from my mother, cast in resin from Marfa, Texas; another was one of my father’s drawing models and is carved out of wood; and a third was in gallery storage when I started working here in 2010. I love the symbolism of hands – they are the ultimate artist tool and express so much. Each one of these connects me to important histories for me personally.

Tagged with: