Off the Reservation

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

Because the Heard is a business, though, it's only natural that others try to mesh Baker's vision with every museum's ultimate goal: building a bigger audience, and attracting new donors.

Goodyear says that contemporary art shows are part of a conscious strategy to attract a younger audience.

"It's definitely mission driven," he says.

Another "Holy Land" installation: From the I Need a Hero series, by Ambreen Butt.
courtesy of the Heard Museum
Another "Holy Land" installation: From the I Need a Hero series, by Ambreen Butt.
Hector Ruiz went from exhibiting on First Friday to a solo show at the Heard.
Martha Strachan
Hector Ruiz went from exhibiting on First Friday to a solo show at the Heard.

He admits, too, that shows like "Holy Land" are a great way to attract donors outside the Phelps Dodge/Salt River Project circuit -- the smaller businesses or collectors who might be persuaded to get involved.

"Holy Land," for example, is being subsidized by entities removed from Phoenix's normal philanthropic circuit.

One is a Scottsdale gallery that specializes in contemporary Indian works, King Galleries. Another is a wealthy couple, Mikki and Stanley Weithorn, known for their social consciousness and contemporary art collection.

The third is Treg Bradley, a hometown boy who owns a successful hydroponics company in Tempe -- and who's recently been on a spending spree at downtown Phoenix art galleries.

Bradley, for one, has never done anything like sponsor a museum show before. But when Baker and Taubman pitched him the idea, he decided to ante up.

"It looks like the Heard has stepped it up with artwork," he says. "Bringing in local, regional artists -- not a lot of museums are doing that. When Joe and Lara approached me to support the show, I knew it would be a worthy project to contribute to."

That's music to any museum director's ears. But the key for Heard, going forward, will have to be not just reeling in modern art fans, but doing it without alienating the tourist constituency that's made the place so successful.

Hipsters might stop by, once, to see a show of contemporary art. They're not likely to stop back every Tuesday thereafter -- or drop a few hundred bucks at the gift shop.

Sullivan, the former director, says the Heard's board is mindful of who's buttering the museum's bread. "Pragmatically, a lot of decisions are influenced by the question of, 'What does the audience want to see?,' and, 'What do they want to buy at the gift shop?'"

In his time, Sullivan is quick to add, the trustees certainly never rejected a show as being bad for the bottom line.

"But, there was an implied understanding," he says, "that we had a core mission, and, while there are ways to connect to other times and places, you didn't want to overwhelm your core."

Outsiders praise the museum's interest in the contemporary and controversial as a big step for the Heard. They use words like "brave," and "important."

It's high praise, but the museum's director seems intent on minimizing it. Instead, Goodyear insists that "Holy Land" is not anything new or unusual.

"Our core experience is the permanent collection," he stresses. "Your perception is, 'We're branching out.' But that's not a correct perception."

Sullivan, the former director, has a different view.

"This is not the sort of show we regularly went after during the time frame I'm familiar with, or the time preceding it," he says.

"I have to applaud it."


It was last spring that Joe Baker walked into the Chocolate Factory.

He was just one visitor in the hundreds that spill onto Grand Avenue for the First Friday art walk, checking out the galleries that have turned the place into a genuine scene, if not yet a place where people actually buy art.

But while many First Friday visitors discover no more than good people-watchings and paintings that, at $300, still manage to be overpriced, Joe Baker made a genuine find: Hector Ruiz.

At the time, Ruiz was teaching at Tempe's New School for the Arts -- like Fame, he says, only in Arizona -- and making art, when he had time, for the gallery he'd opened in an old radiator factory on Grand Avenue.

Other curators might have looked at Ruiz's work, dubbed it promising, and kept walking.

Not Joe Baker.

Almost immediately, Ruiz recalls, the curator pressed him about doing a solo show at the Heard.

On July 1, 2005, Ruiz's immigration-themed "La Realidad" opened to a big crowd, many of them First Friday regulars. Half the pieces had been at the Chocolate Factory when Baker came by; the other half, Ruiz says, he made at Baker's urging.

Slender, with a ponytail and boyish nonchalance, Ruiz has agreed to meet for coffee and talk about the Heard. Naturally, he chooses Lux, the Central Avenue coffee shop/mingle market.

He doesn't play the Big Artist, schmoozing the patrons or waiting for their attention. He sits in the corner, focused on the conversation. He's mostly interested in praising Joe Baker, whose vision he credits with changing his life.

Ruiz sold every piece in the show, and then kept fielding calls from collectors who wanted more. He also signed with downtown Phoenix's premier art gallery, Bentley Projects, west-side cousin to the prestigious Bentley Gallery in Scottsdale.

"Getting a museum show any time is great," Ruiz says. "Getting it when you're 33, 34 -- it's incredible."

Ruiz has since quit his day job. A few of his pieces are now booked for appearances at the National Museum for the American Indian, a New York branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Others are headed to Bucharest, where a Romanian museum will exhibit them.

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