An Artistic Challenge

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

"Obviously, you want to have the best works," says Roy Papp, who is a PAM trustee and former board president, "but to do that in the current market, you've got to find areas where you can develop your own expertise." When the Papps began buying, in 1984--they now have about 135 paintings--the works weren't necessarily less expensive than other Chinese painting. But Chinese paintings as a group, Papp says, were far less expensive ($400,000, tops) than significant American or European paintings, which can range anywhere from $2 million to $40 million.

Papp says that he and his wife have never purchased anything for their collection without first checking the authenticity and importance of it with Brown and Chou. And word of available works often comes directly from Brown or Chou.

Portions of the Papps' collection are on long-term loan to the museum, and will be featured when the Asian galleries reopen next month.

Although PAM hasn't had a curator of Latin American art since Clayton Kirking departed in 1995, efforts to build on Kirking's success seem to be following the Asian collection's model of focusing money and expertise on a relatively inexpensive and unexplored market.

In the absence of a curator, trustee and former president of the museum board Diane Cummings Halle has been working for a year and a half with a consultant in New York to purchase Latin American art made from about 1970 to the present.

This is an area, says Kirking, where works can be had for anywhere from $2,500 to $100,000.

He and Halle also point out that developing a Latin American collection--given Phoenix's location and demographics--enables the museum to build a politically correct bridge south.

Lowry Sims, curator of 20th-century art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, says that few other museums in the country have made this kind of commitment to this new area, and it remains to be seen how successful the effort will be.

Unfortunately, other areas of the museum haven't received the funding or careful planning bestowed on the Asian and Latin American collections. And one of the more successful methods of obtaining funds for the museum--an annual cowboy-art sale--has raised questions about the institution's dedication to art and scholarship.

Several auxiliary groups--the Western Art Associates, Contemporary Forum and Asian Art Council, among others--do what they can to increase PAM art-acquisition revenue. But compared with other cities the size of Phoenix, the sums they are able to raise are small.

An exception is the Men's Art Council. Since the early 1970s, it has raised and contributed about $2.3 million to PAM's annual operating fund and roughly $456,000 to the Western Art Endowment. Another $220,000 is going this year into a new sculpture endowment.

Most of the money has come from the museum's annual show and sale of works by the Cowboy Artists of America. MAC runs the event for the cowboys each year and receives 15 percent of the annual sales, which last year totaled $2 million.

Ballinger, a majority of the trustees and others associated with the sale see it as a good way to raise funds and fulfill part of the museum's mission to bring people art of the region.

But critics say that PAM's affiliation with the cowboys hurts more than it helps the museum and its reputation.

"It's an enormous problem for the curators, though none of them can say so publicly," says Kirking.

"The crux of that problem," says an out-of-state museum administrator who asked not to be named, "is not that it's a fund raiser. Every museum has fund raisers. The problem is that the museum provides its seal of approval for a kind of work that has no scholarly or curatorial merit. It simply has a market value. And that value bears no relation whatsoever to the genuine works of Western painting that are, and I think should be, the Phoenix Art Museum's real focus."

Marilyn Zeitlin, director of the art museum at ASU, also sees it as a legitimate issue: "It's very easy to look around and find that you've sold yourself out completely. Not that I'm suggesting that that's what this is. But I do think we have to be careful that the financial pressures and cultural shifts don't lead us by the nose."

"It doesn't concern me," says Ballinger. "It's a situation that has occurred for a long time. It was a very controversial thing in the late 1970s, and other museums around the country said, 'How can you do this?' But now we have museums saying we were at the forefront of creative fund raising."

Whether you call it creative or "shameless," as one curator did, critics insist that the annual cowboy-art sale underscores the way in which PAM's limited finances have pitted fund raising against the museum's deeper obligation to promote programs that the American Association of Museums' code of ethics says should be "founded on scholarship and marked by intellectual integrity" and "promote the public good rather than individual financial gain."

By all accounts, the cowboys are likely to remain. So long as they do, critics say, the museum should start insisting on the 50 percent commission that most galleries take on sales.

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