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.

The first donations, two paintings, came in 1967. Until 1987, when the SCC was formed in an effort to remove politics from the city's cultural programs, the city's policy, says Valerie Vadala-Homer, manager of the SCC's public art program and collections, "was to take anything that was offered. First week on the job, I got a call from somebody saying, 'I have this great beaver hat, would you like to have it?'"

Vadala-Homer says that the prospect of building a new museum gave the SCC the added incentive to focus its collection on contemporary art. In 1991, it began purchasing works from the SCA's series of New Directions exhibitions, featuring many of the region's more prominent contemporary artists. Two years ago, it purchased the print archives from Segura Publishing Company, a Tempe fine-art press that has produced prints for such artists as William Wegman, Luis Jimenez, Enrique Chagoya, Claudia Bernardi, Dominique Blain, Mark Klett and Frances Whitehead.

More recently, it received donations from many artists who have shown at the SCA in the past, and the gift of a sculptural "Glass House" by Therman Statom. These contributions come at a time when the museum hasn't yet decided what kind of collection it wants to build.

Museum experts say developing that vision will be key to SMOCA's success. Yet fulfilling it is one of the pricklier tasks of creating a museum of contemporary art.

Traditionalists warn of the speculative dangers of buying contemporary works, the reason being that curatorial perspective is more like a pulse check--skewed by fashion, personalities and the fear of missing the next Jackson Pollock before the prices rise.

Many contemporary art museums opt for the flexibility of not collecting, devoting all of their money and efforts instead to programming temporary exhibitions.

The Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center does not collect, and it has been exhibiting works since the late 1930s. "Part of the basic tenets of our institution is that to collect is to not stay contemporary," says Charles Desmarais, its director.

Opinions vary about when "contemporary" begins and ends. SMOCA and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, see it as 1945 to the present. Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, says his museum includes works from 1950 to the present. Some auction houses consider 1970 the beginning of the new. The era before that is simply modern. But even that is subject to change. The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently gave four prized drawings by Van Gogh and Seurat to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago because their original donor, a co-founder of MoMA, had imagined--wrongly--a day when the works would be too old to still be considered fresh or new. The donor's 1947 will specified the transfer of the works after 50 years to the other institutions, which at the time handled only old art. Both institutions now have extensive collections of modern art. In the past decade, the Art Institute of Chicago has become an aggressive collector of contemporary art.

Advocates of collecting contemporary art say that whatever the costs and inconveniences of collecting--acquisition funds, the need for storage, registration and conservation--they are usually outweighed by their value to institutions.

"One of the disadvantages of not collecting," says Lynn Herbert, curator at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, which does not collect, "is that people don't come in our doors to see their favorite things. Any time they come in, chances are they're going to see something they haven't seen before. So it puts a whole different burden on us to get people interested.

Hugh Davies, whose Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego has been collecting contemporary works since the 1950s, cites the benefits of collecting by comparing the case of New York's MoMA and Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Both institutions were founded in the 1920s, MoMA as a collecting museum, the ICA as one devoted strictly to temporary exhibitions. "I don't have to tell you about the success of MoMA," says Davies. "But if the ICA, which is a wonderful, scrappy institution that scrambles every month to pay its phone bill and keep its door open, had bought one piece from every show they've had there--or if they had bought even one piece a year, they'd have a collection worth millions."

Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, points out that another rationale for developing good collections is to provide young artists with access to original works of art.

One of the things that's likely to help draw donors and benefactors to SMOCA, he adds, was the selection of architect William Bruder. "He's respected throughout the profession and among museum people. And that first step sends a signal to the community and collectors that this new museum values creativity."

Another lure, says SMOCA donor Sara Lieberman, is that it's easier to have an impact on the future of an institution like SMOCA than it would be to affect an older institution "where collections policies have been established for generations and generations." She and her husband, David, relocated here from Minneapolis several years ago and are prominent collectors of American crafts.

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