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.

He says that the lack of a sound permanent collection prevented the council from creating an encyclopedic museum along the lines of the Phoenix Art Museum (PAM). "When it came down to discussions with the board, we knew that the community would support probably two kinds of museums here, a western one or a contemporary one."

He says board members briefly entertained the idea of developing a plan, similar to the one built by the Palm Springs Desert Museum in California, that included a western wing and a contemporary wing. But they quickly realized the futility of trying to duplicate the kind of western collection that PAM already has.

Jacobson and Knight say the decision to focus on contemporary art, architecture and design stemmed from a desire to capitalize on the strength of the SCA's past programs. In the past five years, the SCA has mounted at least three architectural exhibitions. Outside of an exhibition of Gerard Cafesjian's glass collection, it hasn't done much recently in the area of design. But in its early days, it hosted a number of ceramic exhibitions. And it always has exhibited contemporary art.

Like PAM and many other western art institutions, the SCA wasn't built around a distinct collection. It grew from a sense that the town deserved to have a community cultural center.

Patricia Hartwell is credited with having planted the SCA's seed in the 1960s, when she began installing small art exhibitions on the second floor of the library.

Hartwell, a former war correspondent, and her husband, who owned The Arizonian newspaper, settled here in the 1950s. Her years of living in New York and traveling in Europe had brought her in touch with works by many renowned 20th-century artists. She says she didn't have money to purchase large paintings. But she could afford prints and some small works by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse and others.

"I'm not sure why I decided to put on those shows," she says, "I guess I just thought it was an important thing for the community to do--something to help move us from being just a cow town to something else."

Friends say she brought an informality to showing and sharing the arts that became a hallmark of the SCA's early programs. Once, when her son's class was studying modern art, Hartwell sent him to school with two small oil paintings by Marc Chagall in a brown paper bag. Aside from exhibiting works from her own collection at the library, she borrowed from just about anyone who had anything of cultural note--paintings by Lon Megargee, santos from New Mexico, batiks, photographs or sculptures by such area artists as Philips Sanderson and Don Bassett.

Her exhibitions weren't the first or only ones in Scottsdale, but they were the first to make the arts a part of the city's municipal business. Many people credit Hartwell's political connections (she wrote speeches for former Scottsdale mayor Bud Tims who served from 1966 to 1974) and savvy with convincing city officials to develop the SCA.

John Armstrong, who became the SCA's art curator shortly after it opened in 1975, was the one who set the eclectic course for its exhibitions. He and an assistant ran 36 shows a year on a budget of $32,000. He recalls that they hung three shows a month. And they never had any doors to close, so visitors often got a behind-the-scenes view of shows being hung and unhung.

Armstrong's exhibitions ranged from Korean folk art, American quilts, Native American art, Jacob Epstein bronzes and touring exhibitions from the Smithsonian Institution to sculptures by Fritz Wotruba, naive art from Yugoslavia and ceramics by Rudy Autio or Gertrud and Otto Natzler. "We did a large show of Louise Nevelson," Armstrong recalls, "and a bunch of national competitive shows. Once a year we tried to do a really big show--with a catalogue. We did ones for Lew Davis, then Phil Curtis and Dorothy Fratt."

While other local museums leaned toward scholarly uplift, the SCA played to rank and file cultural enthusiasts--particularly artists. Before art centers sprouted in other Valley cities, Scottsdale was the first to give contemporary artists a home--an identity that lies at the core of SMOCA.

Armstrong's zeal for filling the SCA with art didn't extend to developing a collection. He felt the SCA ought to be a place for temporary exhibitions and art education. Part of his rationale was that it wasn't possible to develop a good collection with the city council acting as curator. Up until the SCC was formed in 1987, the Scottsdale City Council was making all of the city's decisions about art. Armstrong and others recall that the city council had no curatorial focus, no sense of what would strengthen or weaken the collection. It was constantly accepting donations of things that were of little merit or use. Once, when the city council had accepted a donation of cut glass and passed it along to Armstrong, he loaned it in perpetuity to the Arizona State University museum.

"What was I going to do with it?" says Armstrong. "There was no place to put it. Whenever I got something, it would go in an office. Then there would be this whole thing. Where is the art collection? Is it being taken care of? Things would be behind file cabinets. Or somebody would get fired and maybe take the art with them. There was no way to accept good things, because when you accept good things you have a responsibility to take care of them."

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