By Published: April 11, 2023

The King Awards and Exhibition have been celebrating CU Boulder students’ artwork for more than a decade

When asked what inspired her to create the King Awards, which honors the artwork of CU Boulder students, Gretchen King (English and fine arts, ‘59) points in an unexpected direction. 

“It was the government’s idea, in a way,” she says. “When I turned 70-and-a-half years old, I had to withdraw a certain amount of money from my IRA by Dec. 31 or else face a penalty.” 

A penalty didn’t sound like fun, so she did as she was told and withdrew the money. But then she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. 


At the top of the page: Shloka Dhar (MCDB and fine arts, ‘22) won second place in 2021 and first place in 2022. Above: Gretchen King (left) and Kevin King (right) at the 2014 King Awards and Exhibition, along with two student winners. Photo courtesy of Gretchen King.

She admits she could have bought something nice for herself, gone on a luxurious vacation, treated her friends and family to expensive dinners at Boulder’s swankiest restaurants. But those things didn’t feel right. She wanted the money to be useful, to make a difference in people’s lives. 

So she donated it to her alma mater and continued to do so regularly thereafter.

Then in 2012, art professor Yumi Janairo Roth, the interim chair of the Art and Art History Department at the time, had an idea.  

She remembered that her undergraduate institution, The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, held several competitions and exhibitions that brought in a lot of diverse student work. “External jurors were invited to select the winning works, and students felt extremely motivated to participate,” she says. 

She therefore suggested that King fund something similar at CU Boulder.

King thought this idea sounded superb. “As soon as I heard that, I said, ‘That’s it!’” she recalls.  

Thus, the following year, in 2013, the King Awards were born, and they’re still going strong today. 

“It came about so organically,” says Amber Story (art history, ‘99), director of development for the College of Arts and Sciences. “It just kind of happened, and now it’s this big thing, and it’s been going on for 10 years!”

Story adds that the King Awards and Exhibition “have become a cornerstone event for the Department of Art and Art History. Not only have they created a collaborative environment within the entire department … but they’ve also provided outward-facing, meaningful experiences for our students.”

The awards are divided into two categories, one for graduate students and one for undergraduate students. This year, each category will confer five honors: first place ($3,000), second place ($2,000), third place ($1,000) and two honorable mentions ($500 apiece).  

“The cash was nothing to sneeze at,” says Marcella Marsella, a graduate student in art and art history who won second place in 2022. “The money from the King Award meant that I could pay all of my bills and have a bit left over to buy art supplies.”

Shloka Dhar (MCDB and fine arts, ‘22), an undergraduate who won second place in 2021 and first place in 2022, agrees. “The financial assistance provided by the King Award encouraged me to continue my studies in art [and] allowed me to focus more on schoolwork [and] purchase necessary supplies for my projects,” she says.

But both Marsella and Dhar say that the impact of the King Awards goes beyond the money.  

“Winning the King Award … gave me a chance for more people to hear the story of me and my family,” says Dhar, whose work explores the complex history of her identity. “[It] encouraged me to do more and aim higher. I felt a great sense of inclusion and community.”  

“Winning the King Award was significant,” says Marsella. “Artwork is judged in so many nonsensical ways in an endless variety of contexts. I believe a fair approach in judging artwork is by its merit, which is what I believe the curators who selected my work did.” 

The jurors for the King Awards are carefully selected arts professionals, people with deep knowledge and years of experience. In 2022, for example, they were Miranda Lash, the Ellen Bruss Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, and Simone Krug, curator of the Aspen Art Museum. 

This year, they’re ceramic artist and curator Sam Harvey of Aspen; David Smith, owner of the David B. Smith Gallery in Denver; and Molly Bird Casey, chief curator of NINE dot ARTS, an art consulting and placemaking organization headquartered in Denver. 

Receiving recognition from such figures, Marsella says, was “emotionally validating.”

Once the jurors select the winning pieces, those pieces are then featured in an exhibition at the Visual Arts Complex, which this year will take place from April 12-20. 

For King, however, the most enjoyable aspect of the gift-giving is not the exhibition itself, gratifying as that is. It’s visiting the artists in their studios. “That for me is the really fun part.” 

Yet it was even more fun for another member of the King family—Kevin King (fine arts and philosophy, ’81), the second of King’s five children and a lifelong patron of the arts, whom King recruited to head up the awards beginning the second year. 

Kevin King relished the opportunity, his mother says. “He really mingled with the artists, and they loved it. I’d have to drag him out of the studios!” 

Dhar vividly remembers Kevin King’s keen interest in and observant eye for her and her fellow contestants’ work. “You could tell he was passionate about the arts and giving to students. He smiled the whole time.”

Kevin King unfortunately died in 2021 after a long battle with brain cancer. His obituary, written by his brother Neil King, longtime writer for The Wall Street Journal and author of the recently published book American Ramble, contains snapshots of a personality particularly well suited to the benefactor of an arts award. 

“He was a great giver of silent gifts,” his brother says of him, “ones you didn’t know you’d received until long after he’d given them.” 

“People loved him,” says King. “He was really a character.” 

Now 89, King is at the reins again and says she’s happy to remain involved with the arts program and to provide both financial and emotional support to its students.  

This year, the award ceremony, which Story calls “a celebration of the art department and the work that’s happening there,” will take place in the Visual Arts Complex on Friday, April 14, at 4 p.m. King herself plans to attend, to see the lit-up faces of the students whose lives she continues to change for the better—and not because the government has told her to.