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.

Over the past decade, the SCC's spending for visual art has jumped from about $50,000 and 2.5 employees to $1.7 million and a staff of 14. Most of the increase has gone into the SCC's percent-for-art program, which, since its adoption in 1985, has completed 22 projects and has another 27 under way. In 1988, the city also approved an art-in-private-development program, requiring developers to add art to large-scale projects in the downtown area.

Many people attribute the growth of those and other SCC-managed visual arts programs to the agency's success in knowing how to avoid exhibiting works that might offend "community values."

In fact, the agency was established by the city in 1987 to do precisely that. And to spare the city council from having to legislate and curate art.

"The feeling among some council people at that time," says Frank Jacobson, "was who are we to be qualified to decide the merits of a work of art?"

That doesn't mean there haven't been a few skirmishes. In 1991, New Mexico sculptor Luis Jimenez was recommended by an SCC jury as a finalist to produce a sculpture at Main Street and Marshall Way. A contingent of Scottsdale gallery owners opposed the recommendation. A local artist eventually received the commission.

Knight and other staffers say the most difficult juggling they've faced in the old facility was determining what kind of art was appropriate for visitors of all ages and outlooks.

"The problem is that you've got people who come to the center to be entertained at one of the performances, and they wind up being confronted by art that makes them uncomfortable," says Valerie Vadala-Homer. The addition of the Louchheim mezzanine and lower galleries in 1987, gave the SCA's visual art programs a place to sequester the scarier art. However, the New Directions Gallery, which showcases contemporary art--often the most difficult work--has been in a hallway leading to the public restrooms and small lecture hall. Shows have also been mounted on gallery panels in the center of the atrium.

"Whenever we've had anything we've considered graphic or potentially controversial, says Vadala-Homer, we generally post it with the kinds of warning signs you see in a lot of institutions--enter at your own risk."

However, the SCA's layout makes it impossible to prevent every intermission-bound chamber-music patron or wandering school child from becoming an accidental art viewer.

SCC officials say they lost a significant donor who, on her way to the restroom, happened upon Guillermo Gómez Pena sitting on a toilet during his 1994 installation/performance "Temple of Confessions."

The donor hasn't come back.
Vadala-Homer and other officials stress that having a stand-alone space devoted to contemporary art will reduce those kinds of unpleasant surprises.

But it won't eliminate them.
Debra Hopkins, curator at the museum, says that SMOCA's concentration on contemporary art may inevitably leave some people feeling left out. "As we become stronger in our mission and are better able to define what that is, people may get upset. They may want us to be the same place. But we're changing."

Some collectors say they want to see where that change will lead the museum before they donate works of art.

One of them is Carefree resident Stephane Janssen. Over the past decade, the SCA has devoted 14 exhibitions to his 4000-work collection of contemporary American, post-war European and Native American art along with photography and crafts, which art magazines frequently list among the world's top 100 private art collections. The expectant titles of the shows, "Museum in the Making: The Janssen Collection of Fine Art," did more than hint that the future museum was going to be built around his collection. But in the past few years that changed.

Janssen says he's willing to help SMOCA in any way he can. However, he has expanded his interest in Valley institutions to Arizona State University's museum, where in recent years he has donated more than $1 million in art.

"To tell the truth, I don't know where the philosophy of the Scottsdale museum is going to be yet," says Janssen. "Will it be glass art or something else?"

Robert Knight says that while Gerard Cafesjian donated more than $1 million to get the museum started and is likely to offer the museum his substantial collection of glass, the museum hasn't decided whether that will be a major emphasis. He says up to this point Cafesjian has donated only money to the museum. Cafesjian won't discuss his collection or involvement with the museum. SMOCA staffers say it's simply a matter of time before his collection comes to the museum.

As far as future exhibitions go, the museum is organizing a major show of sculptor Howard Ben Tre, who works extensively with glass. It is also planning a major exhibition of work by James Turrell, whose perceptual works with light have distinguished him as one of the finest American artists working today. The show will coincide with the completion in 2000 of the first phase of Turrell's "Roden Crater" project, in which he's transforming a volcano northeast of Flagstaff into a celestial observatory.

The issue that seems to concern Janssen and a number of other art followers is whether the new museum will have the independence to curate without having to censor.

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