Edifice Complex

Building new cultural facilities is a risky business for Valley cities.

Community leaders didn't always have cause to say such things. But the evidence that culture -- in all of its forms -- is good for business is scattered all over the region's map.

"My guess is that the arts in the state of Arizona are probably a billion-dollar business annually," says James Ballinger, director of the Phoenix Art Museum. "And my guess is nobody knows that."

The arts constitute an array of professions, hobbies and institutions that extend from easy-to-identify museums and theaters to stores, galleries, symphonies, theaters and design and architectural firms.

Rusty Foley, director of community affairs at Salt River Project, says changes in the corporate world threaten to stagnate the Valley's cultural growth.
Paolo Vescia
Rusty Foley, director of community affairs at Salt River Project, says changes in the corporate world threaten to stagnate the Valley's cultural growth.
David Hempfill, director of the Phoenix-based Black Theatre Troupe.
Paolo Vescia
David Hempfill, director of the Phoenix-based Black Theatre Troupe.

"The perception of cultural groups is that we're nice things to have but we may not be an important part of the community," says Ballinger.

This was especially true in the 1980s, before the cultural boom here began.

In those days before Phoenix had a downtown to go to, Scottsdale was about the only locale that gave culture a choice seat at the municipal table.

The rest of the cities squeezed their culture into an assortment of dreary confines.

Phoenix was the only one of the nation's top 20 metropolitan areas without a substantial science center or museum of natural history. Its downtown Science Center was housed in a dark storefront along Adams Street, with little room for specialized exhibitions or storage.

Phoenix Art Museum had its own building. But its tallest galleries were only 11 feet -- too short to accommodate many major touring exhibitions, which often need 15 to 30 feet of head room.

ASU's art museum was similarly shoehorned into the school's old library at Matthews Center.

Urban theorist and writer Neil Pierce surveyed the depressing scene at the time and characterized the region's evident scorn for high arts as a rejection of "what Western Civilization for centuries has found to be one of the great frontiers of the human spirit."

Without a substantial investment in culture, he wrote, Phoenix was "turning its back on its chance to become a world class city."

Pierce's indictment contributed to a growing sense that Phoenix was losing cultural -- and business -- ground to other cities. It also helped fuel efforts by then-mayor Terry Goddard and other leaders to pass what still stands as one of the most ambitious, and successful, cultural bond campaigns in the nation.

"Without that, we just wouldn't have the downtown we now do," says Henry Sargent, an executive vice president of Pinnacle West, the parent company of Arizona Public Service, who chaired the cultural steering committee of the bonds.

The $1 billion package included police and fire operations, storm sewers, streets and community centers.

But it was the $200 million worth of new and improved cultural institutions, parks and libraries that became the most visible evidence of what the voters had done. They bought a new Central Library, a new Science Center and a new Phoenix Museum of History. They expanded the Art Museum, Pueblo Grande and Phoenix Theatre, and helped to bring the old Orpheum Theatre out of mothballs.

In 1988, the bond campaign theme was "Making Phoenix Great."

These new edifices brought more than simply civic wow. They provided essential upgrades that enabled such institutions as the Art Museum and Science Center to undertake exhibitions that were previously impossible.

"The fact is business wouldn't operate if its factory equipment were allowed to erode," says Myra Millinger. "That's the equation in this. These bonds provide vital improvements that would be difficult to fund in any other way."

This year's bond package -- the campaign slogan is "No New Taxes" -- would continue to upgrade the equipment.

Its $18.5 million for Symphony Hall would sharpen the technical edge that modern symphony spaces need to produce sound well.

The $18.2 million for PAM would complete the expansion begun with the $17.5 million in 1988 bond money, giving it a sculpture garden in the museum's courtyard and the necessary interior space to exhibit its collection of modern art, half of which sits in storage.

An additional $4.9 million would give the Science Center the space to run special and permanent exhibitions simultaneously. At the moment, it has to partially remove displays that schools rely on as part of their science curriculum whenever special exhibitions arrive.

These infusions of public money can be extraordinary boons for public institutions, and not only for the new digs they help fund.

They can act as a civic stamp of approval, assuring corporate and private donors that they won't be the only ones supporting the institution's growth.

The 1988 bond money required the institutions to pony up an amount of matching funds. The Science Center and Art Museum were able to make the most of that, generating close to $20 million each in private money, which was poured back into the buildings and programs.

The Art Museum's big new galleries have given it the flexibility to bring in blockbuster exhibitions, which in turn have generated a widening stream of revenue for marketing and other business basics.

"I'd like to think that our success in the arts and in culture floats all of the boats higher," says James Ballinger. But the reality, he says, is that "smaller arts organizations, which are most of the arts groups, don't have the opportunity to do these things."

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