Words by: Kelley Heider
Images by: Brett Andrus
On June 14, The Modbo is celebrating its fifth anniversary, which co-owner Lauren Andrus says is "like 132 in downtown Colorado Springs art gallery years." She isn’t wrong, especially when you consider the fact that The Modbo is a for-profit gallery. I was thinking about this very thing on the way to meet Brett and Lauren Andrus when I turned the corner on Bijou Street into the alleyway and suddenly felt lost. The dark, dingy alley I remembered had been paved over and the sides of the street and part of the adjacent building were painted blue, yellow, red, green. A vintage WALK sign illuminated the darkness ahead of me. I was in a real live arts district. What a pleasant surprise. Later, Lauren explained that the City had finally begun to address their concerns about accessibility and safety in the alleyway. The improvement is a perfect birthday gift, an endorsement, and perhaps an indication of continued success for this Colorado Springs art scene power couple.
Brett and Lauren Andrus. Where do I even begin with these two? I suppose I’ll start with our introduction. I arrived at S.P.Q.R. on the night of the preview to Brett’s show Hypothesis. I was looking for Lauren. It was just after hours, so the crowds had dissipated. All that remained was a small group talking in the gallery. I approached a woman I thought was Lauren. She corrected my assumption and informed me that Lauren was in The Modbo gallery playing the piano. Funny, I didn’t remember a piano in the gallery. I had visited before on several occasions and, while the art had left an impression, I had apparently overlooked the large musical instrument. When I entered The Modbo gallery, I found another small group lingering and Lauren. Her back was to me and she was playing the piano and singing—practicing for the show’s opening the following night. I’d never seen the gallery this way but apparently it isn’t rare, and though I missed the opening, I understand it was dynamic and entertaining. Not your typical stuffy exhibition. For anyone who knows Brett and Lauren, or been to The Modbo, you can tell that while they are discriminating, stuffy just isn’t their style—perhaps one of the secrets to their success in a cultural temperate zone like the Springs.
After a few songs (including an operatic performance from local soprano, Solveig Olson), Brett joins us and we sit down in the middle of the gallery to talk. I ask them my most pressing question, which I’m sure they’ve heard so many times before: why did you decided to open a gallery here instead of Denver, or other more obvious choices? “We see the opportunity to be one of the few galleries in downtown Colorado Springs that’s showing modern, newer, mostly narrative figurative painting,” Lauren explains. “We are a for-profit gallery, which is rare in a very non-profit oriented town. So we basically saw an ability to have a niche here.”
“The way I look at it,” Brett adds, “Colorado Springs is kind of like an ‘impact zone’ where you can make a difference if you’ve got the wherewithal and the kind of bull-headedness and somewhat stupidity and a little bit of masochism—masochistic tendencies—you can make an impact. The City is ready for change and it’s already moving in a different direction.” Brett speaks with a passion that is infectious and delves easily into big ideas, yet within his perspective dwells a sobering (perhaps steadying?) self-awareness. The cultural cocktail he just described sounds very familiar to me when I think about all of the community-oriented entrepreneurs I’ve met since moving to the area. And when Lauren starts to tell me how they came in and transformed a glorified storage unit into the gallery space in which we are sitting, I see glimmers of bull-headedness and sure, a little masochism.
“We didn’t know what it looked like. It was boarded up,” Lauren explains. “We had no idea if it would work. We just knew it was roughly the same size [as the Rubbish Gallery] and it was in the alley next to another gallery.” She looks around, describing the space as they had found it: raw, unfinished concrete floors, all white walls, florescent lighting, no bathroom. Yet they found a way to transform it into a warm and inviting gallery.
Five years into their venture, Brett explains that they work with at least three local artists who are able to make half their living from showing and selling their art at The Modbo—a meaningful concept to Brett and Lauren because they’ve both lived the life of artists, feeling unsupported and underappreciated by their communities. As business people, Brett and Lauren appreciate the sale, but for them, it’s more about fostering artists, collectors, in fact a whole arts culture, locally. “We’re not just an art gallery,” says Lauren. “We have various events here—music that can’t happen in any other venue happens here. We’re kind of part of a movement that way, that’s trying to bring life back to downtown Colorado Springs and have it be more urban.”
In addition to the galleries, Brett curates art at local spots like The Rabbit Hole, The Ivywild School, The Blue Star, and The Famous. They also operate the Modboco School of Art at the Ivywild School, where Brett teaches six classes a week. “When I first came back into town from college, I couldn’t buy a show out here for myself,” Brett explains. Now, he proudly has a hand in shaping the local arts scene through his teaching, but also through his continuing work as an artist. “You can really push yourself if you hold yourselves accountable as a community aesthetically, you know, things start to change.” Lauren adds, “It’s about making art with integrity, and actually…that’s what sells.” Brett and Lauren take turns explaining to me how they value witnessing the transformation from self-taught amateur artist to professional. This means understanding and practicing good techniques but also knowing how to present work that is polished, finished and ready to hang. Wall-ready art is especially important for exhibitions like the Small Works Show which last year brought in upwards of 430 pieces. Not only is the Small Works Show a good opportunity to invite the community to be part of the local art world, it provides Brett with a great opportunity to scope out new talent for future shows.
Throughout our conversation, there is a recurring theme that seems to be at the core of the Modbo mission—showing good art but also building good practices and participating in a process that holds emerging artists accountable and elevates the art scene in Colorado Springs as a whole. Brett explains that The Modbo started out as a collective of artists critiquing each other’s work and growing more comfortable with the process of producing regularly and accepting criticism of their work. “It’s always been our mission statement to show young artists and give them an opportunity to fail. I take that seriously…That’s kind of what we’ve built ourselves on is really allowing us to push ourselves and figure out what doesn’t work, and try something new.” Brett speaks to this mission as an artist whose creative process strikes me as being very similar to his approach to cultivating talent and supporting shows for emerging artists at The Modbo. In actuality, I get the sense that the couple has it down to a science. They’ve certainly found a rhythm in the work that they do, which makes it obvious why they’ve had staying-power in this community.
When I ask Brett and Lauren where they see Modbo in the next ten years, their answers blend to address the big-picture cultural shift they’ve been talking about and The Modbo’s part in that shift.
“I’d like to see people in their twenties and thirties collecting,” Brett says. “I think for a lot of folks the idea of collecting art is maybe seen as unattainable—the kind of thing you do when you are super wealthy and you’re buying Andy Warhols. Localized collecting is a very important thing.” He explains that he likes to tell his students, “You’ve got a better chance of being a point guard for the Denver Nuggets tomorrow than you do of being a world-famous artist.” And he explains it simply: “If you look at it as a local or regional thing, you can become collected in a region locally and then your region starts branching out. Then, if collectors attune themselves regionally, it makes a difference.”
What would Lauren like to see in the next ten years? Her answer surprised us both. “What I would like to do is to be able to philanthropize, like what would it be like to create philanthropy amongst millennials…What would it be like to create an army of arts philanthropists in Colorado Springs? How can we create a new wave of giving in that way?” As she describes a goal that seems to be materializing before us, I find myself hoping that she pulls together that cocktail of bull-headedness, stupidity, masochism, and of course, the magic that has helped The Modbo thrive over the past five years, and finds a way to make this happen. I can certainly think of one millennial who would be happy to join that army.
The Modbo 5th Anniversary Celebration - June 14, 2014
The Acacia Park Concert Series - 6 p.m.
The Modbo - 8 p.m. until...