Off the Reservation

If you think the Heard Museum is all about dusty old pots and Indian blankets, you haven't been there lately

According to History and Collections, the museum's self-published guidebook, the Heards were Phoenix establishment at a time when the city was hardly big enough to have one. After moving west in 1895, Dwight Heard became president of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, a major force behind the Salt River Water Users' Association, and, by 1912, owner of the Arizona Republican.

(That paper, the precursor to today's Republic, became the state's largest-circulation newspaper within three years of Dwight Heard's purchase.)

By all accounts, Maie Heard had wonderful taste and a genuine interest in other cultures. In the couple's travels around the world, she bought what she liked, and bought a lot of it.

Joe Baker, a curator at the Heard Museum, at the opening of his newest show, "Holy Land."
Martha Strachan
Joe Baker, a curator at the Heard Museum, at the opening of his newest show, "Holy Land."
A piece from "Holy Land": Brian Jungen's Void.
courtesy of the Heard Museum
A piece from "Holy Land": Brian Jungen's Void.

Location Info

Map

Heard Museum

2301 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

Category: Museums

Region: Central Phoenix

A big part of what she liked was American Indian artifacts, but she also purchased pieces from Egypt, Hawaii, and the Oceanic islands.

Indeed, it wasn't until much later that the Heard narrowed its focus, says Martin Sullivan, director of the Heard from 1990 to 1999. (Sullivan is now director of Historic St. Mary's City, which he describes as "the Jamestown of Maryland.")

When that happened, in the 1960s, it was part of a conscious effort to re-brand the museum. The Heard's finances were shaky, and the board of trustees went so far as to consider turning over the collection to Arizona State University to operate as an anthropology museum.

But that idea was scrapped, replaced with one that, in hindsight, seems infinitely wiser.

"The trustees decided that there was a great opportunity not only in the region, but with tourists coming to the region, to build on this area's appeal," Sullivan says.

Mindful of Middle America's love affair with Native American culture -- if not with actual Native Americans -- that meant focusing on the original inhabitants of the Southwest.

From that point on, the Heard was first and foremost an "Indian" museum.

It was around the same time, in 1960, that the Heard made another crucial decision. An outside consultant recommended that the museum not limit itself to artifacts.

Thanks to the consultant's vision, Sullivan says, the Heard became one of the first museums to collect fine art by contemporary Native American artists: sculpture, textiles, paintings, even multimedia pieces.

For the most part, those pieces fit neatly with Maie Heard's aesthetic.

The museum's permanent collection displays plenty of pots, circa 1880, right next to similar-looking pots made in, say, 1970. To the untrained eye, textiles from the 1990s don't look much different from those of 100 years earlier.

And so even as it presents living Native American culture, the Heard retains a comfortable, old-fashioned Arizona feel.

The Phoenix Art Museum, SMoCA, and the ASU Art Museum look sleek and urban; they wouldn't seem out of place next to the Tate Modern in London, or on a block in New York City's Meatpacking District. But the Heard looks exactly like what it once was: part of Maie Heard's home, a tree-lined Southwestern showcase with a gracious courtyard and the treasured memorabilia of a world traveler.

It's no wonder that, as Phoenix grew, and as its tourism industry took off, so did the Heard's popularity.

Today, the idea of just handing the place over to ASU is laughable. By 1999, the Heard's annual receipts, which include both ticket sales and gift shop purchases, reached $7.35 million.

The Heard averages about 200,000 visitors a year. And despite being almost entirely funded by private donations, the museum was able to spring for an $18 million expansion, opening up another 50,000 square feet in 1999; last June, trustees unveiled a new exhibit space valued at $14 million.

The museum opened a branch in north Scottsdale in 1996. Within the next year, another is expected to open in Surprise. There are also plans to open a new, 1,000-square-foot contemporary gallery at the mother-ship museum, with fine art by current Native American artists.

It's a real success story, which is one reason the museum's foray into cutting-edge fare is so interesting.

This is not, by any measure, a desperate institution. Revenues dipped after 9/11, and the place's most recent tax returns, from 2003, show its lowest receipts since 1998.

But that happened to almost every museum in the country in 2002 and 2003. This year's attendance and sales should be back to previous levels, says Frank Goodyear, the museum's director.

That has nothing to do with its shows of postmodern art, Goodyear adds. The museum doesn't sell tickets for the Crossroads Gallery apart from regular admission; it does not track who stops by to see what.

Indeed, it's clear from talking to Joe Baker that the curator's concerns are not commercial.

"I'm very organic in my approach," he explains. "I listen. And I try to travel as much as possible, even if I have to do it electronically. I try to keep informed, and my goal is for a quick response to current issues."

Take diaspora -- originally a term used to refer to the Jews being exiled to Babylon and eventually scattered throughout the world. Today it's come to mean the dispersal of any people group, and their culture.

Baker was intrigued by the idea, and liked how it related to Native Americans. But no one could call it a great marketing gimmick; how many people even know what the word diaspora means?

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