Keeper of the keys: Cordalis runs FLC gallery, Durango Herald, Aug. 26, 2008

Rita Cordalis, director of the Fort Lewis College Art Gallery, stands in her exhibition space Thursday. Cordalis organizes exhibit shows on a very limited budget.

Rita Cordalis likes her job. Designing exhibits is satisfying and fulfills her desire to take raw materials and turn them into something else.

“The way you place it and light it, everything else around it can make that piece shine,” Cordalis said from her office at Fort Lewis College.

Cordalis has been the director of the FLC Art Gallery since 1999. In 2006-2007, she also worked half-time at the Center of Southwest Studies to help them through a busyexhibition year. And she was instrumental in helping to coordinate the traveling exhibit of “The Jewelry of Ben Nighthorse” in 2005.

With an undergraduate degree from Fort Lewis and master’s in museum studies from University of Colorado-Boulder and her own creative aesthetic as a jewelry designer, Cordalis wears many hats. She manages the art office, coordinates gallery exhibits and works with students to teach them the basics of conservation, preservation, art handling and exhibition design. She does it all without a staff, and with a budget that would make even artists cringe – $2,000 a year.

“Our purpose primarily is education for the students. They are our primary user,” Cordalis said. “We reach out to the community as much as we can, but there are a few things that make it difficult for the community to come and visit us, and part of that is the hours that we’re open.”

Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The gallery is not open evenings and weekends. Without funding for a staff, there is no one to keep the doors open. Student interns still require staff oversight and Cordalis is the only staff person available. For Cordalis, running the gallery is a public service.

Unlike larger college galleries that host touring exhibitions and bring in outside work as part of the educational programming, Fort Lewis College doesn’t have the budget to pay for shipping or the rental fees for touring exhibits that average $2,000-$5,000 for even small shows. The size of the gallery also will not accommodate many of the touring exhibitions.

In the past, Cordalis has been able to work with CU-Boulder, and it has funded touring exhibits to Durango. She also will find artists and faculty from other nearby colleges to launch exhibits. She receives five or six proposals a year from all over the country, but often focuses on framed pieces that are easily transported and cost less to ship. Her budget allows only one exhibit of that nature each year.

“I’d love to have a sculpture show,” she said.

Shipping costs are prohibitive for larger works.

“Fortunately, artists like to show their work and we do have plenty of local artists to select from,” Cordalis said.

The gallery will host a sculpture exhibit this year featuring artists from Pagosa Springs.

Since its mission is primarily to focus on students, the gallery hosts several student shows each year including a Senior Art Majors Exhibition, an Annual Juried Student Exhibition and the FLC Art Scholarship Exhibition. A faculty show will open the exhibition season September 5.

When asked why she didn’t pursue more grant funding to help boost her budget, Cordalis explained that grant writing is time consuming.

“I have looked into them, but there are not many available to pay for exhibitions, and most require matching funds,” she said.

She is hopeful that with Hillary Raab, a part-time staff person coming on board two days a week this year, she will have time to do grant writing. But first, she needs to raise money to replace the entire lighting system in the gallery, which is obsolete. She estimates the cost will be more than $10,000.

“It would be great to have a budget,” Cordalis said. “There are great shows out there. It would be great to bring them to Durango. But you need staff, gallery sitters. There is quite a lot of work that goes along. You don’t just hang it up and it’s there. You have to commit someone’s time, full time, to work on it.”

artsjournalist@mac.comLeanne Goebel is a freelance writer specializing in the visual arts.

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