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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

That's one of the reasons SRP has supported the SCA and the development of SMOCA.

Several years ago, it withdrew its funding from the Phoenix Art Museum as a result of the "flag show." Hayslip wasn't involved in that decision. Museum sources say SRP has not resumed its funding.

Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana attributes the trust that Jacobson, Knight and other SCC staff have earned for the new museum to their willingness in the past to warn officials when tough shows were coming along. She doesn't think the new museum will be showing anything like Mapplethorpe any time soon, if ever. Jacobson is less committal. But he thinks that when the inevitable art ruckus occurs, as it surely will, SMOCA will manage to do what the Phoenix Art Museum did after the "flag show."

"Could we weather something like that? Sure. Would it take a toll on us? Sure, just like it took a toll on the Phoenix Art Museum, but, boy, did they bounce back. That's part of what I'm sure we'll probably face in the years to come."

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: elebow@newtimes.com

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