An Artistic Challenge

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

Worries about the quality of PAM's collection may not matter much to the art novices who, the museum estimates, make up about 70 percent of its visitors. But experts concur with Jacobson that quality is a key factor in determining an institution's national and international standing. That standing, they say, is crucial to a museum's ability to attract significant collectors, willing donors and vital shows from other respected museums.

"There's no doubt about it," says Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. "Great works attract more great works."

That's why in 1994, instead of waiting for the collections to come, MOCA went out and bought 80 works--by Robert Rauschenburg, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Claus Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and other key artists from the 1940s, '50s and '60s--from Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, one of the world's best-known collectors. It cost the museum roughly $11 million over six years.

Yet, Koshalek insists, the Panza acquisition brought considerably more than a good collection. "It set the standard for other collectors who wanted to be part of a museum that had the commitment to quality that Count Panza had in his collection. And it made it possible for MOCA to attract other important collections."

MOCA's is hardly a lead that PAM can afford to follow. Like those in other underfunded museums, PAM's acquisitions are largely based on bequeathals from the dead, gift-tax advantages for the living or the simple generosity of devoted patrons.

The museum has never had much largess to spend. Recent annual acquisition budgets have hovered around a minuscule $225,000, ranking it 42nd out of 117 national museums, behind the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska, according to a 1994 study.

Also, Phoenix has not historically been home to large numbers of collectors of consequence, and the tendency among the snowbird class of art buyers has been to send their valuables to institutions back home when they die.

"What we've tried to do over the years," says Ballinger, "and I think we're much more successful at this than we used to be, is to convince those collectors that if they happened to have objects to donate, their donations would be appreciated more and be given a better viewing here than they would in a museum that already has 15 works just like it."

The rarefied talk of quality and the world of collectors, donors and muckamucks is a long way from the thoughts of the average museum crowd. That discussion, however, underscores which audience, in reality, means the most to a museum. It is a fact that few active museum directors--and certainly none in charge of a publicly funded museum--can admit, but small numbers of patrons or trustees who understand the importance of donating make up the group that will eventually determine the quality of a museum's core collection.

It is invariably a group as exclusive and elite as the Dream Team.
And there's no question that such players hold the cards in regard to improving the stature of PAM's collection and programs. Nor is there much debate about how the museum should proceed.

The formula, say Ballinger and many others, is to carefully deaccession, or sell off, the parts of the collection that are weakest or no longer appropriate to the museum's mission, and to use the money from those sales (roughly $1 million in the past five years) and other sources to build on the museum's strengths, or to extend those strengths into affordable areas of the art market.

Headlines about $30 million and $40 million European paintings and $3 million or $4 million modern American works leave the impression that only the Gettys can afford to collect worthy art. But experts say those prices are the exception, not the art-market rule.

"The truth is, you can get great things and at least very good things for not vast sums of money if you know what you're doing," says Charles Millard, former senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. "A museum first has to decide what it wants to be. Then it has to go out and be that."

Take the Asian collection that Claudia Brown, PAM's curator of Asian art, has assembled since her arrival in 1979.

"Instead of attempting to put together a comprehensive body of Chinese art similar to what you'd find at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, which--if you could find the material--would cost millions of dollars," says Robert Mowry, curator of Asian art at the Harvard University Museums, "Claudia has worked with local collectors to buy and develop in areas that have largely been ignored by scholars and other museums."

As a result, Mowry says, the museum has become a major center for special exhibitions and scholarly research on Chinese art, especially Chinese paintings from recent centuries.

In the past seven years, Brown, assisted by Dr. Ju-hsi Chou, a professor of art history at ASU, has drawn two key exhibitions in that area--"Heritage of the Brush" (1989) and "Scent of Ink" (1994)--from the collection of Marilyn and Roy Papp.

The Papps' decision to focus on Chinese paintings spanning the years 1500-1900 was strategic.

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