Artistic Differences

Is this any way to run a museum?

Weddings and funerals rarely share the same spotlight. Yet when Frank Jacobson, president of the Scottsdale Cultural Council, emerged from the darkened wings of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts' Virginia G. Piper Theater one evening last month, to introduce a lecture by Timemagazine's renowned art critic Robert Hughes, he was playing the nervous groom as well as the consoling undertaker.

The theater was filled with the fine crust of patrons that Jacobson and the cultural council have been wanting to walk down the center's aisle for many years. Most of the Valley's pedigreed collectors and art cognoscenti were there. Other luminaries had flown in from as far away as London, New York, Germany and Japan. But before Jacobson could say "I do," he had to lay to rest the man who had arranged the elaborate match.

That man, seated about midway up in the arc of hundreds of blue seats, was Robert Knight, who had abruptly resigned -- some say he was forced out -- just a few weeks before.

Paolo Vescia
Robert Knight, former director of SMoCA, was instrumental in developing the museum’s widely acclaimed exhibition of work by James Turrell.
Paolo Vescia
Robert Knight, former director of SMoCA, was instrumental in developing the museum’s widely acclaimed exhibition of work by James Turrell.

For 14 years, Knight had been the center's chief enthusiast of visual arts. He had helped to organize its exhibitions, and promoted the development of a full-fledged museum: the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. When SMoCA opened as the SCA's main visual arts venue two years ago, Knight became its director. And it was Knight who pushed for the exhibition that Jacobson, Hughes and the audience of about 700 -- some having paid as much as $175 a seat -- were there to celebrate: "James Turrell: Infinite Light." Turrell even named one of the works at SMoCA Knight Rise 2001, a tribute to the former director.

So when Jacobson glanced up from the podium that evening to praise Knight, the irony of the moment was not lost on a select few in attendance.

"It was very prophetic," says Will Bruder, the architect who designed SMoCA and is an advisory member on the SMoCA subcommittee of the SCC. "Here were all of us Munchkins in the expensive seats down front, and there was the man who'd made it all happen up there in the cheap seats. When Robert stood up and waved, it was really very bittersweet."

More important, it underscored the behind-the-scenes forces that have become a new and damaging reality at the SCC.

In recent months, it's become clear that the council's high expectations for the success of SMoCA and its desire to expand cultural programming have begun to squeeze the young museum.

Those pressures have been compounded by criticism from a small but influential contingent of council members who view SMoCA, the Turrell show notwithstanding, as lacking direction.

Over the past year and a half, the most vocal group of unhappy council members has included art collectors Sara Lieberman, Gail Rineberg and Jonathan Read, ASU art historian Betsy Fahlman and Karen Wittmer, publisher and CEO of Tribune Newspapers.

"You have a contingent of people here who don't realize that they're playing museum," says a former board member who requested anonymity. "They travel. They have lots of money. They think they know best. But they don't have a grasp -- a real understanding -- of the very difficult limitations of running a real museum."

Formed as a nonprofit agency in 1987 to manage the city's cultural affairs, the council has been the region's model for a grassroots institution that successfully mixes -- in one grand, civic sweep -- the performing, visual and public arts.

Jacobson, as president, is paid to oversee the council's day-to-day operations and supervise 55 staffers. The council consists of about 30 volunteer members, many of them civic leaders, arts patrons and artists. The council -- which also is commonly referred to as "the board" -- is broken into an executive committee and numerous other subcommittees.

The City of Scottsdale pays for 28 percent of the council's annual $10 million operation. About $2 million of that goes to SMoCA.

SMoCA got off to a happy and well-attended start on Valentine's Day 1999. Its daunting mission was to bring the best in contemporary art, architecture and design to a region that has never really paid much attention to that sort of thing. Just how difficult that undertaking was became apparent as the novelty of the new Bruder façade wore off.

After drawing more than 19,000 people in its first four and a half months, SMoCA's attendance fell to less than 17,000 for the entire following year. That was well below original projections that put total attendance as high as 100,000 per year.

Council members say the low turnout came as a shock.

"It's a major issue with the board," says Sara Lieberman. "People are just terribly concerned that we don't have huge numbers."

Knight says he left to pursue other opportunities and wouldn't discuss any of the events surrounding his departure.

But now, with Knight gone, other longtime staffers are being scrutinized.

Despite the national attention that the Turrell show has garnered, some council members think that the museum is taking too narrow a view of contemporary art.

Karen Wittmer says the museum has focused "on really avant-garde, what I would call 'shock art.' And that's wonderful if that's just one part of the whole program. But you can't fill a whole museum with that stuff."

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