An Artistic Challenge

Can the Phoenix Art Museum upgrade its mediocre permanent collection to match a newly expanded and renovated exhibition space?

Jacobson and others say that Hinkhouse also went off to Europe each summer with about $1,000 from each of the trustees to bring back art for the collection.

His summertime purchases made up only a fraction of the museum's growing collection. With few exceptions, gifts of art arrived a piece or two or four at a time, says Ballinger. That pattern has continued to the present.

The same is true of contributions that reach the museum's annual operating fund ($4.1 million this year) and growing endowments (roughly $10 million). Ballinger says--and figures from the American Association of Museum Directors confirm--that money comes to PAM in smaller increments than you would find in the pie-charted budgets of most other large American museums. The advantage to this grassroots pattern of giving, says Ballinger, is that it has tended to broaden public involvement in the institution, which over its 37 years has received voter-approved city bond funds for two major expansions.

The disadvantage: Piecemeal giving leads to a collection of bits and fragments, with few areas among the museum's holdings that could be considered either comprehensive or cohesive.

The exceptions are the Wong collection of Chinese ceramics, the Clague collection of Chinese cloisonne--which some authorities believe to be among the finest in the United States--and the Elliott collection of modern Chinese painting.

Museum administrators around the nation say PAM's collection outside of Asian art is not well-known. Michael Komanecky, PAM's curator of European art, speculates that that obscurity might spring from simple lack of familiarity; relatively few examples from the collection have appeared in publications, and the collection hasn't yet attracted scholars from outside Arizona.

Lucinda Gedeon, who was senior curator at the Arizona State University Art Museum for five years and now directs the Neuberger Museum at the University of New York at Purchase, suggests that the collection's anonymity might be attributed to the museum's lack of space to exhibit its works thoroughly.

Still others say that the collection's anonymity is earned--that it is based on the spotty quality of the museum's art.

"On the whole," says Roger Ward, who, as curator of European art at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, is assisting PAM with the development of a 1998 exhibition of old master paintings on copper, "the collection has what I would refer to as isolated masterpieces--things that do not particularly have a context, but on their own stand out and are rather wonderful. But, to be honest, they're very few and far between."

He, like many other curators willing to discuss the museum's collection, says that its strongest suit is in Asian art. It also has some notable examples of what Ward characterizes as "regionalist American paintings" from the likes of Midwesterner Thomas Hart Benton, the Santa Fe painters and others who were painting in the West earlier in this century.

Betsy Fahlman, a professor of art history at ASU, generally echoes Ward's assessment that there are occasional individual highlights--Gerome's "Pollice Verso," for example, or Labille-Guiard's "Madame Adelaide de France," Frida Kahlo's "Suicide of Dorothy Hale" and John Mix Stanley's odd little painting "Chain of Spires Along the Gila."

She also says the collection contains "surprisingly good holdings of 19th-century small bronzes, mainly from France."

"It is really one of the quirkiest collections I know of," says a respected American curator who asked not to be identified. "You have to cross vast areas of really ho-hum stuff before you get to anything substantial. But when you come across something worthwhile, you think to yourself, 'My God, how did this get here?'"

Other curators characterize the collection as having some important names, but not the work that made them so. Albert Stewart, who served 13 months as the museum's first curator of 20th-century art in the early 1980s before being asked to leave (he says the museum was right to ask him to leave, and he bears no animosity toward museum officials), points to a number of examples in the museum's current show, "Building a Museum."

"If you look at some of those acquisitions, you hit familiar names but not really their best pieces. It's as if the museum simply took the market's advice to get a Janis Provisor, a Cindy Sherman, a Bob Arneson or a Helen Frankenthaler. What's missing is the experience that the finest works by these artists can give you. That Frankenthaler is awful. The other pieces are very mediocre. And that Odilon Redon still life in the show is just dead. It has none of the luminosity that you find in his better still lifes."

Bud Jacobson, who has heard all of this before, says the question of the collection's quality reveals a basic truth about how PAM has evolved: "When you start out, you obviously can't afford and don't even know how to get the stars. Yet, in the long run, you need them for the simple reason that they command respect and they encourage people to take you seriously. But your first duty is to show people what art is all about, and the fact is if you're going to restrict your ability to teach by waiting until you can get worldwide masters and masterpieces, you can forget it. Your museum will never get off the ground."

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