Edifice Complex

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

However, Gerry Gerber, Mesa's arts and cultural director, says budget cuts could hurt plans to expand programs to fit the new facility.

Arts industry observers say privately that Mesa is overbuilding to put its downtown on the map. The new art center will be joining a $23 million aquatics center downtown.

But supporters of the art facility aren't about to second-guess their dream. Flatt thinks the complex will attract about a million people a year.

Joanie Flatt, Mesa's Woman of the Year, is a leading supporter of the city's proposed new $92 million art center.
Paolo Vescia
Joanie Flatt, Mesa's Woman of the Year, is a leading supporter of the city's proposed new $92 million art center.
Income from blockbusters like the Norman Rockwell exhibition has given Phoenix Art Museum's director, James Ballinger, plenty to smile about in recent years.
Paolo Vescia
Income from blockbusters like the Norman Rockwell exhibition has given Phoenix Art Museum's director, James Ballinger, plenty to smile about in recent years.

"Even if cities do overbuild," says Mesa Vice Mayor Jim Davidson, "why not have some optimism that when we build it, they truly will come?"

The weathered bronze bust of banker Walter Bimson in the sandy courtyard of the Phoenix Art Museum has always had the unfortunate appearance of a man half-stuck in concrete. Yet lately it seems to be more a man stuck in time -- a model of the lifelong community leader and benefactor that's becoming increasingly rare in today's corporate world.

Once the head of Valley National Bank, and chair of the museum's board, he was the kind of business stalwart that artists and cultural institutions could count on in a pinch.

"He had the power to make things happen," says Ken Husband, "because he had been building relationships in the community for 30 or 40 years.

"That's all changed. When you've got the CEO of the year and he comes into town with the primary responsibility of getting earnings up well enough that in three years he can go on to Los Angeles, it's very hard to develop those relationships."

Nearly everyone in the nonprofit world agrees that the corporate churning of recent years has complicated the already tough job of cultural fund raising and lobbying. The dimensions of the problem are still uncertain.

"It's a moving target," says Tom Browning, who heads Greater Phoenix Leadership (formerly the Phoenix 40), a collection of top business leaders. What's clear, he says, is "Phoenix is really becoming a whistle stop on the way to the top."

The recent departure of Bank One president Mike Wellborn for Chicago and upcoming transfer of Wells Fargo/Norwest president John Campbell to Minneapolis are removing leaders who have been essential supporters of a broad range of cultural and other community programs.

"When we have a Mike Wellborn or a Jon Campbell leave a community, it takes a while for their replacement to get settled into their position," Browning says. "So there's a lull in the company's presence. And their replacement may not be as committed to the same causes."

That commitment has been an essential part of the region's cultural boom.

Mark DeMichele, then head of Arizona Public Service Company, championed the passage of the state's ArtShare endowment at the state legislature in 1996. He and numerous other business leaders also threw their substantial civic weight behind the 1988 Phoenix bond campaign.

Millinger points out that the arts stabilization program might never have succeeded without backing from Howard McCready, former chairman of Valley National Bank, and Gordon Murphy, the executive director of the Arizona Bankers Association.

"Howard was very selective about the projects he took on," Millinger says. "So when people saw him talking about stabilization, something that was complex and not easy to fit into a sound bite, they paid attention. His presence brought many other business leaders to the table.

"There are people here who have come after Howard who could do the same thing, but right now, with the tremendous churning, mergers and retirements, there are very few people I'd know to call."

Recent consolidations may have produced larger companies, but not larger pots of philanthropic money.

When Wells Fargo and Norwest banks merged, for example, the Scottsdale Cultural Council, and many other nonprofits that received bank support, lost one corporate donor.

"There's only one check now," says Randy Schilling, development director at the SCC. "And it's not any bigger than it was from just one of those organizations before. So basically, we lost a contribution of between $5,000 and $10,000."

That's not a particularly large chunk of the $500,000 that corporations contribute to the center's overall budget of about $9 million. But for smaller organizations, such hits can be significant.

Corporate contributions to Actors Theatre of Phoenix, whose overall budget is $1.2 million, dropped by $50,000 to $100,000 this year.

The overall tone of corporate giving has also changed.

"You don't hear much about the greater good anymore," says Dave Howell, former head of corporate giving at Bank of America, and now vice president of marketing at the American Graduate School of International Management. "A lot of the giving now comes from a pool of money that's dedicated to marketing."

This emphasis poses problems for smaller organizations, programs or exhibitions without mass appeal. The arts cash flow is also much more vulnerable to what Howell characterizes as the "whims of business change."

That can make it especially tough for organizations to get money for contemporary art, he says. "To fund that, you really need a champion, someone who shares the passion and can see a vision beyond the corporation's bottom line."

Ballinger says the commotion about corporate leadership is nothing new. It erupted seven or eight years ago when big companies reshuffled their upper decks and the museum board lost some key players.

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