We May Be Losing Cultural Cornerstones Like ASU’s “Duke” Reiter and SMoCA’s Susan Krane, but Just As Much Talent Is Coming to the Valley As Leaving It

I'm sort of befuddled about the recent requiems for Phoenix arts community members who've left town for greener pastures — just as they always have and just as they always will.

Okay, so it does seem like there's an arts diaspora going on here, which some scene watchers view as a brain drain sucking vitality from the local arts scene. But I see just as much talent coming to the Valley as I see leaving it.

Trust me, I know this incestuous little world — and understand the reasons someone might want to flee this burg, like seven-month summers of almost-unbearable heat. When I moved here in 1992 from Orange County (home of Disneyland, Little Saigon, moderate temperatures, ubiquitous boob jobs, credibility-testing face lifts, the John Birch Society and, most recently, The Real Housewives of Orange County), my mantra was that I would not die in Arizona.

An image from Carrie Marill's show at Jen Bekman Gallery in New York City.
An image from Carrie Marill's show at Jen Bekman Gallery in New York City.

But though the summers seem to have gotten hotter here, my ardor for Southern California has definitely cooled. People I've met in the Valley, like Marilyn Zeitlin, John Spiak (actually, I knew him back in SoCal when he was a mere pup) and Lisa Sette, not to mention a gaggle of wonderful local artists and art professionals, are a huge part of why I'm now in Phoenix for the duration.

So, instead of being buried under a pepper tree in San Diego's Balboa Park, I suspect I'll be resting for eternity in the Bisbee graveyard where my dad's parents and a number of other paternal relatives are buried. But I digress.

Recent art-related departures include Susan Krane, director of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, who just announced she's leaving SMoCA to become director at northern California's San Jose Museum of Art, leaving SMoCA to seek a new leader.

And Marilyn Zeitlin, the longtime director of Arizona State University Art Museum, "retired" almost a year ago. Zeitlin put the once-sleepy museum on the international arts map by being chosen U.S. commissioner for the 100th anniversary of the Venice Biennale in 1995 ("Venice, Anyone?" June 1, 1994). It seems Kwang-Wu Kim, dean of ASU's Herberger College of Fine Arts and a concert pianist, owes his primary allegiance and attention more to music than the visual arts, about which he has publicly admitted to knowing very little. Kim apparently has been lethally slow in beginning the search for a permanent ASUAM director. Heather Lineberry, the museum's interim director and senior curator, has made it very clear that she doesn't want the position permanently, though, as always, Lineberry is pure grace under fire.

Yes, we're forced to bid bon voyage to Wellington "Duke" Reiter, ASU's dean of the College of Design and architecture professor, who's packed up and headed to Chicago, where he's taken the not-too-shabby position of president of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A major force in the shaping of ASU's new downtown campus — which, at this point, is basically completed — Reiter previously was a principal in Urban Instruments, an environmental arts firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an associate prof of design at M.I.T. "That [downtown campus] project is under way and, frankly, doesn't need my supervision," Reiter unapologetically told Chicago Tribune reporter Charles Storch, in reference to ASU. "I am not leaving anyone in the lurch."

No dummy, Reiter is taking with him Sherrie Medina, the College of Design's assistant director of the Master of Real Estate Development program, a position that oversees a collaborative degree between the schools of law, design, construction, and business. She'll assume the even weightier mantle of the Chicago school's associate vice president of research and strategic initiatives. Medina has curated several memorable local exhibitions here, like "You Still Draw Like a Girl" and, in conjunction with ex-SMoCA curator Erin Kane, the peripatetic Ghost Gallery. But Medina earned her BFA in painting and sculpture from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so her defection seems to be a case of getting back to where she once belonged.

And, woe unto us that Phoenician Liz Cohen is off to prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit to teach photography. The multi-media/performance artist is currently consumed with making art about muscle and lowrider cars, as well as "pimping her own ride" by reconfiguring herself as a car model. Cranbrook seems a logical career choice since Cohen is an experienced photographer and Detroit is the Motor City (where better to snag cherry car parts?). She'll be in the same place as superhero-costume-knitting artist and former ASU fibers prof Mark Newport, who was appointed artist-in-residence and head of Cranbrook's fiber department in 2007 — another no-brainer. Funny that there was no similar eulogy with the departure of edgy African-American painter and ASU painting professor Beverly McIver after she left town about a year ago to go back to North Carolina, the place she was raised and got her undergrad degree. And word on the street is that Hector Ruiz is waffling about whether he will continue to mount exhibitions at The Chocolate Factory, located on Grand Avenue.

What art-scene mourners have overlooked, however, is the influx of major talent that is filling the voids left by departing artists, museum curators, and gallerists.

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