How Dare They?

Can a city-funded museum afford to explore the riskier edges of contemporary art? The West's Most Western Town is about to find out.

Arizonans have been joking about their cultural desert for years now. But recently Dr. Robert Knight, director of the soon-to-open Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMOCA), has been putting a slightly different spin on the phrase. Ticking off the list of new or enlarged museums, theaters, sports halls and public-art projects that have bloomed here in the past decade, he pushes himself back in his office chair, crosses his lizard-skin boots on the desktop and says the Valley is becoming a more cultured desert than anyone previously imagined.

"When we open," he says, "I think you're going to see people recognizing just how much activity there is here now." He allows that the Valley hasn't seen lines around the block yet, like the ones waiting to get into the Jackson Pollock show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "But when you think of the Phoenix Art Museum bringing in the Egyptian and Monet shows, or what's going on at ASU, and what we'll be bringing with this new museum, you'd have to say that that kind of thing is just a matter of time."

Knight isn't the only one touting the significance of SMOCA--formally called the Gerard L. Cafesjian Pavillion, for the man who donated the lion's share of the building's $2.7 million construction tab. Many Scottsdale city and cultural officials and advocates are cooing about the February 14 premiere of what press advances are calling a "world-class museum."

Part of that hype stems from the frustrated life the visual arts have lived at SMOCA's parent institution, the Scottsdale Center for the Arts (SCA), for the past 23 years. Forced to carve its existence out of a building meant to show Winnebagos, cabin cruisers and other convention-hall favorites, the SCA has never provided the visual arts with a comfortable home or cause. Its community-center range of shows--from Remington and Russell bronzes to quilts, photography and abstract painting or sculptures made out of found objects--confined the program to being only as good as its previous show. And its permanent city-owned collection--about 1300 artworks--has, until fairly recently, been an insignificant hodge-podge of donated works.

"I think, in this attempt to be everything to everybody, we really were nothing to anyone in particular," says Knight. "There was a real disconnect in the continuity of our collection and programs." SMOCA promises to change that in a big way. Designed by New River architect William Bruder--known for the copper-clad Phoenix Central Library--it will be the first area museum dedicated exclusively to exhibiting and collecting contemporary art, architecture and design. Its five main galleries--about 14,400 square feet that are being built on the shell of an old dollar theater next to the SCA--equal the total exhibition space currently available at the center.

Like the SCA, the new museum and its collection will be owned by the city and managed by the Scottsdale Cultural Council (SCC), the non profit agency that the city established in 1987 to handle its cultural affairs.

The city purchased the museum site for about $1.2 million. The SCC, in its first major capital campaign, has been raising the rest. In addition to funding the $2.7 million construction cost, it aims to provide a $5 million endowment to cover the museum's basic annual operating expenses. Knight and others see the museum's domain extending beyond the objects typically found in museum collections to include the nearly 50 public-art projects that the city's percent-for-art program has initiated in the past decade. The vision--borrowed from Andre Malraux--is of "a museum without walls,"--an institution that Knight and others say will blur traditional museum boundaries by turning the indoors outdoors, and connecting objects that traditionally hang on a museum wall with ideas and designs that activate public facilities and spaces.It isn't the only vision at play.

Like all museums in the making, SMOCA has become something of a cultural Rorschach for its supporters. Some imagine it attracting an edgier brand of contemporary art than the SCA's limited space and artistic freedom have allowed. Others envision it as a magical foundation garment, bolstering the intellectual sag of Scottsdale's gallery scene.

Yet SMOCA raises as many questions as it does hopes. Aside from the usual start-up queries about what the cultural identity and focus of this new museum will become, SMOCA also begs whether the West's Most Western Town can handle the turmoil of contemporary art, and, whether an institution with such extensive city links will have the freedom to curate an area of art that's filled with political land mines.

The estimated $50 million that Scottsdale's art scene rakes in annually has kept city officials well-informed about the good business of art. Scottsdale's Mayor, Sam Campana, has headed Arizonans for Cultural Development, a statewide arts advocacy group, since 1983. And the city's $7.7 million spending on annual cultural programming is the highest per capita municipal art tab of any Valley community. However, Scottsdale's gallery scene has never been viewed by the world at large as anything more than a tourist art trade, reflecting little of the experimentation found in other American art centers, and almost none of the diversity.

Frank Jacobson, president of the SCC, says that the decision to develop a museum for contemporary art, architecture and design grew from a sense in the early 1990s that the SCA's art program needed to be expanded.

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