O Children, Where Art Thou?

Museum peace unlikely as a proposed family center in Phoenix fights critics over right to life.

They weren't alone in such tactics, but they were the most adept. At the library public hearing, 62 attendees filled out cards in support of the Phoenix Family Museum. The next greatest show of support was for Valley Youth Theatre, whose backers filled out 40 note cards. Some groups had only one or two cards filled out.

Some presentations were not as polished.

Don Jackson, president of the Phoenix Union High School alumni association, had 5,000 former students behind him. Some wrote letters and e-mails to city officials asking that the school's remaining four buildings at Seventh Street and Van Buren be saved from demolition. Some people suggested the buildings could be used to serve the needs of groups requesting bond money, by providing museum, practice or rehearsal or performance space. Jackson made impassioned pleas to the subcommittee and helped organize a group of alumni to wear the school colors (red and black) to another public hearing at the Phoenix Civic Plaza.

Mitch O'Connell
Barbara Meyerson, head of the Arizona Museum for Youth, shows plans for a $2.7 million expansion to the facility. She and other Mesa officials worry that the Valley won't be able to sustain two children's museums.
Paolo Vescia
Barbara Meyerson, head of the Arizona Museum for Youth, shows plans for a $2.7 million expansion to the facility. She and other Mesa officials worry that the Valley won't be able to sustain two children's museums.

He also had a promise from a well-placed PUHS alumnus -- Herma Hightower, director of national programs for the Smithsonian Institution -- that the historic buildings might be used to showcase some of the national collection. Jackson says Hightower has told him that one of the top priorities for the Institution is to move more of the museum's large collection into communities. Of 60 programs nationwide, Jackson says, only one -- the Bisbee Mining Museum -- is in Arizona.

But the subcommittee wasn't swayed. The PUHS $10 million request -- even though it was backed by the city -- didn't make it through the initial round of cuts.

A despondent Jackson told the subcommittee: "We have no staff to develop fancy presentations, no secretaries to help prepare documents to impress you. We just have volunteers, like me, who care about our city's history and see this as a defining moment in that history."

Jackson later said the alumni were mostly working folks who couldn't pack the public hearings or attend all the subcommittee meetings.

Lisa Irwin, an avid proponent of preserving historic parts of Phoenix, says she was appointed to the Cultural and Historic Preservation Subcommittee but couldn't attend a single meeting -- most of which were held during daytime hours. "I have to work," she says.

Last year, when the city began recruiting citizen volunteers for the subcommittees, Phoenix Family Museum supporters recognized an opportunity. In a May letter to councilman Greg Stanton, Gretchen Freeman thanked him for meeting with her and two others about the museum, thanked him for his advice on the bond election and asked that four people be appointed to the bond committee, including museum advisory board member Alan Silverman, a Phoenix attorney. The note doesn't mention that he is Freeman's husband (something he did disclose to other subcommittee members).

Other documents regarding the bond committee appointment process, obtained by New Times through a public records request, contain various e-mails, résumés and memos suggesting possible committee candidates.

In the end, the Phoenix Family Museum was well-represented on the Cultural and Historic Preservation Subcommittee, with seven of the subcommittee's 30 members affiliated with the museum project. They were board of directors or advisory board members Freeman, her husband Silverman, Rita Carrillo and Ginger Ward; two donors, Richard Goldsmith and Amy Clague; and Lois Savage, whose appointment was suggested by Van der Veen.

Later, when subcommittee recommendations went before the executive committee for final approval before the bond projects went before the city council, museum backers saw even more friendly faces. Chairman Dick Snell and member Denise Meredith are listed as donors in museum documents. And Diamondbacks president Rich Dozer also sat on the board. His team is listed as a "major sponsor" of the museum.

Only two other groups -- the Phoenix Art Museum (with 11) and the Arizona Science Center (with nine) had more affiliates on the subcommittee. Both received funding. Of the groups with no representatives on the panel -- the Carver Museum and Cultural Center, the Herrera Center for the Cultural and Performing Arts and the Arizona Ballet School -- only the Carver proposal was approved.

Subcommittee members were required to disclose their affiliations but were not prohibited from voting on projects in which they had an other-than-financial interest.

At the subcommittee's last meeting, after the group had decided which proposals to recommend to the bond executive committee, member Chaunci Aeed told the panel she was worried about one allocation -- the Phoenix Family Museum.

The museum had requested $17 million in bond funds to purchase, renovate and furnish the new facility and pay for a main exhibit. The $10.5 million would be used to buy the historic school and renovate it, with furniture and exhibits coming out of the museum's own funds.

"The Phoenix Family Museum, I think, has a wonderful and loyal following. But they don't have a proven track record at this point," she said.

She proposed allocating $6 million -- the asking price for the purchase of the Monroe School -- then withholding the remaining $4.5 million until the museum could match that amount with its own fund-raising.

The committee took no action on her suggestion.

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