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.

Janssen says that when the museum was selecting works to include in its 1995 exhibition of his photography collection, the museum's staff eliminated part of a diptych by an artist "because there was the word 'fuck' in it," he says. They also chose to delete works by photographer Joel Peter Witkin, whose tableaus often feature living and dead nudes and parts thereof.

Yet his most vivid recollection of the weeding occurred while he and Robert Knight were considering several photographs showing a monkey with a man, a woman and a child: "Robert said, 'we can't put the child in because it could be seen as child pornography.' I said, 'the child is 3-years-old, and he's standing on the belly of a monkey.' He said, 'but the monkey is playing with himself.'"

So the two of them, says Janssen, pulled out a magnifying glass and leaned over the picture. "And what we see is that it's a woman monkey. He's not playing with himself because there's no him."

Knight says that the museum did edit works from its show of Janssen's photography, but citing the predicament of the SCA's galleries, he characterizes the decision as one of curation rather than censorship. "There are two different things at work here. We--the staff--love the pieces that he talked about. We would love to show them. But at the time we just didn't have an appropriate gallery for them."

He points out that the show was slated for the middle of the atrium, where school children are constantly roaming.

Knight says the museum is considering taking a traveling exhibition of work by Joel Peter Witkin.

The point is, "We're here to make selections," he adds. "But it's not our own personal standards. Our decisions have to reflect community standards."

Knight says that having the new museum will allow for more adventurous work, even work that might test the limits of those standards. But in talking with city officials and corporate sponsors, it's apparent that the powers and funders that be are trusting that SMOCA will continue to weigh those values carefully.

"We're going to have to continue to make choices," says Frank Jacobson. "Will he do tough things? I think he'll do tougher things with this new building."

Right now, Childsplay, the children's theater, is moving in its sets for Velveteen Rabbit, and over the next few weeks, hundreds if not thousands of first graders will be roaming through SCA, bumping up against the art.

That's one of the reasons Dial Corporation is contributing to the new museum, says Nancy Stern, a vice president in charge of managing the company's giving.

"Our customers are usually younger families with kids," she adds. So, what are we going to focus on: kids and education. What ties kids and education together? The arts."

Like many other corporate contributors to SMOCA, Dial contributes to the Phoenix Art Museum and the Arizona Science Center for the same reasons.

But corporations, like politicians, have found that contributions to the arts, especially contemporary art, are not risk-free.

"There's no question that corporations are increasingly timid and wary in terms of what they want to be associated with," says Hugh Davies.

Several years ago, Davies' San Diego museum sponsored a project called "Art Rebate," in which three artists distributed a large quantity of $10 bills to undocumented workers, a theatrical gesture that shared some foundation and corporate wealth.

"We once calculated that we lost $250,000 in a foundation grant and a corporate gift as a result of the project. But most of it has since come back. Some people respected us for not backing down," says Davies.

But in a municipal government, the pressures tend to have a way of working themselves to a conclusion. "I was always willing to take the heat for any of my shows," says Armstrong. "Problem with that is the people who complained never came to me. They went to the mayor, the city council members, or the guy who was acting director. And they were ill-equipped, at best, to handle it. So they always felt uncomfortable." Armstrong resigned from SCA in 1980 after the city council reversed several recommendations from art juries.

But that was in the 1970s, before the SCC came along to insulate the art from the politics.

Since then, Scottsdale's arts administrators have gained the trust of corporate and city supporters. SMOCA has raised about $7.45 million of its $9.6 million goal. And it hasn't had the kinds of cultural flare-ups that contemporary art has brought to other communities. Councilman Richard Thomas says that he trusts that the city's arts administrators would not "bring things into our community that would harm the values that our residents put on this sort of thing."

Richard Hayslip, a Salt River Project executive who sits on the SCC's board and has been a longtime supporter of the SCA, says that there's no question that some contemporary art may not be for every audience. But he says that SCC administrators have always been sensitive to the community's sensibiities about art.

"From the corporate point of view, the fact that the city plays such a substantial role in the museum is also reassuring," he adds.

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