Sculpt Friction

Modern-art patron envisions 500-acre desert sculpture garden -- in McDowell Mountain Regional Park

Frank Crerie loves modern art. He loves the Sonoran Desert. And at 80, the retired venture capitalist has cash to spend and not a lot of time to spend it.

So Crerie figured he'd combine his passions by commissioning artists to create a sculpture garden in the middle of the desert.

A problem quickly arose: Just where in the middle of the desert would Crerie build his garden? Crerie, who lives in Scottsdale near Pinnacle Peak, wants the sculpture garden close to home. He spent 18 months shopping for land, but couldn't find any, so now he wants some of ours.

Joseph Forkan

Specifically, he'd like a 500-acre chunk of Maricopa County's McDowell Mountain Regional Park. And not just any chunk. From Crerie's proposal:

"The ideal parcel must have an unobstructed view and be situated beyond the path of urban encroachment while being reasonably accessible to the local and international audiences it will attract. Furthermore, the proper rolling terrain is mandatory. Its undulation will support and enhance the artistic interplay between the sculptures and the boulders' vegetation and other features that surround, separate and support them."

In other words, Frank Crerie wants a pristine, lush, hilly piece of desert. A large piece. I had trouble imagining how a 500-acre tract would look, until someone pointed out that there are 640 acres in a square mile. Picture the space between Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street and McDowell and Van Buren streets in Phoenix. That's a square mile. Shrink it down a bit. That's what Crerie wants.

Crerie wouldn't actually take ownership of the land, or build little pink houses on it. He would simply create a nonprofit organization that would operate the sculpture garden. There would be a visitors' center; the sculptures would appear randomly across the 500 acres. Private funds would pay for the sculptures and upkeep; admission fees would go to the county. And the Valley would get an international tourist attraction.

It's what politicians like to call a win-win.

The only loser would be the desert.

The inspiration for the Sonoran Desert Sculpture Park comes from the Storm King Art Center in New York's Hudson Valley. The 400-acre sculpture garden features the work of acclaimed modern artists like Alexander Calder and Richard Serra. And Frank Crerie points out that the tradition of placing art in natural surroundings dates back much further -- think of Versailles, he says, or Stonehenge.

But the prehistoric inhabitants of England's Salisbury Plain didn't have to worry about growth management. Maricopa County does. So, by association, does Crerie. And his proposal raises some interesting questions about the definition of desert preservation -- and even the definition of art.

For the past few years, Arizonans have repeatedly voted to preserve the desert, particularly the desert in the northeastern reaches of Maricopa County. But just what does desert preservation mean?

Do we fence the protected areas, making them inaccessible and untouched by humankind?

Or do we allow people to hike and bike and enjoy the land, while trying our best not to mar it?

Or do we build roads and ramadas and shooting ranges -- and sculpture gardens?

Before he approached Maricopa County, Crerie had his eye on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, Scottsdale's protected land, which is adjacent to the county park. (And, by the way, very similar in terrain to the area of the McDowell Mountain Regional Park Crerie hopes to appropriate.) He was shut down immediately.

Art DeCabooter, chairman of the McDowell Sonoran Preservation Commission, says there was no reason to even ask his fellow commissioners what they thought.

"I can't read minds, but I can tell you that it would not have been something the preservation commission would have endorsed in the preserve," says DeCabooter, who is also president of Scottsdale Community College. The reaction, he predicts, "would be somewhere between opposed and violently opposed."

The sculpture garden may not include freeways and high-rises, but, DeCabooter says, "It's just another form of development. It really is."

Carla, director of the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust (the sister organization to the preserve commission), agrees. She says the desert needs no artistic complement.

"The attraction is what nature gives us. Not what man adds."

Not every Scottsdalian is opposed to the sculpture garden. Mayor Sam Campana, a longtime arts booster, loves the idea and would like to see it built on the county land. She and others argue that what may not be appropriate for Scottsdale's preserve is perfectly acceptable for Maricopa County's park.

That's semantics. The preserve is lush and serene and undisturbed, and so is the park land Crerie wants. He's not interested in a crappy hunk off the side of the highway.

I asked Crerie if he'd be willing to build his sculpture garden in the area of the McDowell Mountain Regional Park that was ravaged a few years ago by fires.

He says he hasn't ruled it out, but admits it's not quite what he's looking for.

"It's very flat," he says. "I've got to have undulating land that's more interesting."

Crerie insists that his sculpture garden would help the environment, rather than hurt it. He says he would commission environmentally sensitive artists to build some of the sculptures.

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