Queen of Arts

Kax Herberger's generation knew the importance of perpetuating the arts. Will a younger generation be as giving?

Hirsch and his wife, Lori, have been working together on the project. They want to double those numbers this year.

"I get the feeling sometimes that people see patronage as an Eastern thing," he says. "I think people would like to help more but they don't know how. So we've got to train people to pick up this responsibility."

The training isn't as tough as one might think. The first "class" took place in late March, in an art-filled home just north of the Paradise Valley Country Club. The lure was mezzo-soprano Isola Jones, a Valley resident who's performed hundreds of times with New York's Metropolitan Opera, and with many other orchestras throughout the world.

Lori and Howard Hirsch organized the Five Arts Circle to cultivate new arts patrons in the Valley.
Lori and Howard Hirsch organized the Five Arts Circle to cultivate new arts patrons in the Valley.
Lori and Howard Hirsch organized the Five Arts Circle to cultivate new arts patrons in the Valley.
Paolo Vescia
Lori and Howard Hirsch organized the Five Arts Circle to cultivate new arts patrons in the Valley.

Waiting for the cocktail-hour audience of 70 or so prospective patrons to gather around her, she stood before a gleaming black grand piano, smiling and gently rolling a napkin between her palms.

Then, with barely a nod, her piano accompanist stroked the opening chords of the Habañera from Bizet's opera Carmen. She tossed her mane of black hair to one side and inhaled a cavern of air. Her voice, powerful and pure, buzzed the panes of the immense wall of windows behind her and stirred a dog in a far-off room to wail.

Jones kept on singing. Eyes wide, nostrils flaring, mists of spit pluming from booming consonants, she was every inch the unflappable diva -- a mermaid enticing budding patrons toward the philanthropic deep.

"You wouldn't get this for a thousand-dollar donation to the symphony in Chicago," Sheldon Berman, a retired business owner, said afterward. "You make a contribution there, and maybe you get a thank-you card. Here you get Isola Jones."

In the years that Berman and his wife, Lynne, who are in the process of relocating here from Chicago, contributed to Windy City cultural institutions, they never tipped glasses with any of the muck-a-mucks.

"Here, I have," he says. "You can mix with these people."

Circle members are invited to cocktail parties and dinners at the Scottsdale Cultural Council and the Phoenix Art Museum.

"The Ballet, the Opera and the Symphony have also been very kind to us," adds Berman. "That gives you the feeling that you're much more meaningful to them."

Hirsch came up with the plan while riding around in a golf cart. He was playing the links with a fellow collector who owns a sizable collection of works by the late American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Hirsch asked the man what he had planned for the work after his death:

"He said it was going to the Guggenheim, in New York. So I said, 'Don't you think some of it should come here?'"

Hirsch says his golfing pal didn't appreciate the criticism.

"He got pretty incensed at me," says Hirsch. "But that got me thinking about how to change this lack of commitment to the institutions we've got here."

He asked several other golf buddies if they'd be willing to pay $5,000 to an organization that connected them to the arts in Arizona. Two wrote him a check.

He and his friends began scouring the putting greens and poring over recent high-end home sales for likely prospects.

Hirsch's route to Phoenix is similar to that of other transplants. He and his first wife, Judy, who died several years ago, began coming here for the winter around 1990.

At first they stayed at the ritzy north end of Scottsdale. They eventually gravitated south, buying a house near downtown Scottsdale, to be closer to the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

Sitting at a glass-topped table just beyond his kitchen, Hirsch momentarily ponders a large, colorful abstract painting on a nearby wall.

"I used to buy inexpensive art," he says. "In fact, I used to be part of a collector's group in Chicago. And there was a gal there who had the only wooden Calder in the world. All that means is you can afford a very expensive piece. It had nothing to do with anything else. I told her that and she said, 'Well, that might be true, but you should try it sometime.'"

The comment nagged Hirsch into doing that. He finally bought an abstract metal sculpture -- he still has it -- by Mark DiSuvero.

"But I found out that that doesn't do it for me."

Hirsch says he got to the point where he nearly stopped collecting.

"I found that owning the object wasn't the important part," he says. "The process of art was more important, how things are done, why they're done."

He taps his head and raises his brows.

"This is where the experience of art is."

The realization led him to develop a summer art program at his rural Wisconsin farm.

At first he considered using the farm as a site for a series of monumental outdoor sculptures.

"He thought about that," says Russell Panczenko, director of the Elvehjem Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where Hirsch sponsored a forum on sculpture. "But then he went in the direction of making it a think tank. He was really looking to it as a way to go somewhere himself. He didn't want to bring things to a close. He wanted to keep things open. That's really very unusual for a patron."

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