An Artistic Challenge

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

When the Phoenix Art Museum's sprawling new $25 million expansion/renovation hatches next month, it is expected to be one of the premier museum spaces in the Southwest.

Two new wings, designed by New Yorkers Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, will double PAM's exhibition area, to 65,000 square feet. The new galleries will house special shows, graphic arts and the museum's growing collections of modern and Latin American art. And the upgraded, old building will create breathing room for the museum's displays of fashion design and Asian, European and decorative art.

Together, these improvements will enable the museum to bring more of its roughly 13,000 works out of storage and accommodate exhibitions that the cramped, old digs simply could not.

Better storage, better lighting, better security, better studios for children's classes and easier access to the museum's library are also part of the package. There will be a new lobby and an expanded museum store (both already open), a 300-seat theatre for lectures and films, a restaurant run by Eddie's Grill and a "great hall," which the museum hopes will become a moneymaking party room.

What isn't yet clear about these impressive improvements in the museum's physical plant is whether or how they will be matched by the permanent collection to be displayed within. For historical, financial and cultural reasons, PAM's permanent collection is, even under charitable analysis, spotty. With the exception of Chinese art, the museum's collection has few areas that demonstrate comprehensive excellence, and many in which the occasional striking work is surrounded by mediocrity.

What cultural identity and purpose will emerge, then, behind PAM's new facade?

How will the museum fulfill its self-defined public mission to educate, enlighten and entertain? Will it be able to balance a growing trend among museums--making high culture more attractive to unsophisticated viewers--with deeper obligations to sponsor exhibitions of original, scholarly and artistic merit? And how will it focus its varied collections: What will it buy, and what will it sell?

In short, can the Phoenix Art Museum build a collection as well as it has built buildings?

Questions about collecting are hardly new or foreign to the museum. James Ballinger, PAM's director, says that as far back as the early 1980s, when expansion was still a glimmer in the institutional eye, the museum began evaluating what kind of institution it was and wanted to become.

The collection was the first and most obvious focus, he says, "for the simple reason that before you can expand, you need to know what galleries to build. And to do that, you first have to determine what sort of collection you have."

"When we began to evaluate ours, we realized that almost everything here, whether it's in costumes, Asian, American, European and Latin American art, fell somewhere between the 18th century and the present. We predate that by a little bit with some earlier European things. We do have a few Renaissance and Baroque things that are quite nice, but it's not an arena we can afford to leap into. Likewise, in the Asian area, we have earlier material. But our mark has really been made in what's called recent Asian art."

One of the more reliable cliches in the museum business is that collections are their community. Whether the result of conquest, settlement or serendipity, collections tend to mirror the taste, money and influence of the people who gather, give or bequeath them.

This has particular relevance at PAM, where, according to Ballinger, the museum has never had much money to purchase works and roughly 90 percent of the collection has come via donations of art.

The museum's story deviates from the norm in one significant way: Most museums are founded and built around distinct collections. But PAM was built in 1959 as an outgrowth of a general feeling among well-heeled Phoenicians that their young city deserved a museum.

"You can trace that idea directly back to the artist Phil Curtis, who came here in the 1930s and started the WPA art center," says Edward "Bud" Jacobson, a prominent Phoenix attorney and longtime trustee and benefactor of the museum.

"When Curtis came back here after the war, he was able to coalesce enough people who had money and really did love art. He sort of attracted them as a pied piper would. Of course, once you have a group like that, the next thing you know they want to have a place to meet and then a place to view pictures. So a museum was just the logical next step."

The first such step was taken by the Heard family, which donated most of the block the museum now occupies. A fund drive among potential patrons and trustees netted the money to purchase the rest of the land. And the original building, constructed in 1959, also was built with private donations.

To assemble a collection, Jacobson recalls, the museum's first director, Forest M. Hinkhouse, "ventured into what some people call little-old-lady land. What that really meant was he befriended the old, cultured Eastern families who had made Phoenix their permanent home. These were fourth- and fifth-generation people from major cultural centers in the U.S. Hinkhouse traveled in those circles. And they kept giving him paintings."

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."

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.

"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.

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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