An Artistic Challenge

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

The cowboy sale aside, PAM almost certainly will continue to feel pressure to balance its public popularity with the kind of "difficult shows" and original scholarship that have won the museum worldwide attention for its Asian program.

It is not an easy task, especially here, where the average novice visitor to the museum, says Jan Krulick, PAM's curator of education, "comes expecting a pleasant experience." Citing several national studies on museum audiences, she says, "We know that novice audiences don't want the experience to be hard or heavy duty, or like school. They often come with somebody else, and, usually, with someone they think knows more than they do."

They want the art "to be realistic and pretty," she says, "and to show artistic talent, which in their mind means high levels of detail."

These studies suggest that novices take a quick fix, are quick to judge. They look for something they recognize, or something that appeals to them. They are attracted to objects that fit their definition of art, or remind them of something they saw at grandmother's house. And since they don't know much about art, they are even surer that their answers are the right ones.

Which explains why people like zoos, and why making them like art museums is a difficult task, says Ballinger.

"If you go there with your family, and your children point to an animal and ask, 'What is that?' you can say, 'It's a giraffe' and feel pretty sure that you'll be right.

"You don't have to know when the giraffe was born, what he was influenced by, or whether he changed his dots from stripes. For some reason, people feel that when they come to museums they're supposed to be able to answer those questions. Our job is to try to break that down, to make people realize that with art, in most cases, there is no correct answer."

In Phoenix, however, both the zoo and the museum have to attract and keep a broad audience that will ensure continued governmental support. Some $20 million in city bond funds have gone into PAM's expansion, and the museum annually receives about $700,000 in city grants and services, in addition to some state funding.

But if a broad audience is essential to the museum's public mission and viability, so are scholarship and the willingness of the novice to learn.

Krulick, Ballinger and others say that the museum plans to encourage novice visitors by displaying friendlier, non-jargon-filled labels alongside the art. None of those labels, for instance, will refer to works or artists or periods that aren't in view, says Krulick, or mention anything else "that might make them feel more intimidated."

There will be more of the transport-me-through-time displays--a Victorian room--that greeted entries to the recent show of John Ruskin and his colleagues.

And there will be more theme presentations of the permanent collection and shows like the recent one that featured the flag.

"Forgetting the controversy of the show," says Ballinger, "and embracing the concept, what we're saying is that in looking at art of the 20th century, if we can provide a theme that relates to most people's lives, they're going to feel more comfortable in coming." He says this effort to relate to the audience will be seen again in the upcoming rock 'n' roll show that was organized by David Rubin, PAM's curator of 20th-century art.

"The point is that a broad audience will feel comfortable looking at that," Ballinger says. "They may come looking for the '80s, but they're going to find something they'll like from the '50s, and vice versa. It makes it more accessible. And that's what we need to do. If we did a show like the roots of minimal sculpture, my guess is we wouldn't have people storming the Bastille trying to get in to see it."

That isn't to say the museum is throwing in the towel on what the museum world used to consider "serious" shows. Michael Komanecky is organizing a coming exhibition of master paintings on copper from 1525 to 1775. And next year, the museum's schedule includes significant shows of Spanish colonial works from the Brooklyn museum and an intriguing exhibition of Western photographs from the Amon Carter Museum.

Still, the larger question, as one curator asked recently, is whether the museum will be able to attract and keep an audience that's willing to learn how to see and support the caliber of art that Phoenix's new art showcase deserves.

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