Arizona State University's Future Arts Research is Shortsighted in Failing to Focus on Phoenix

Let's get this straight: Millions of dollars are being hacked from Arizona university and college budgets. Entire university programs are being eliminated. There's talk of actually closing down some of ASU's satellite campuses. ASU employees are forced to take furloughs. The downtown Phoenix arts community is tenaciously hanging on by its fingernails. And Michael Crow's latest brainchild is underwriting residencies for out-of-state artists/writers/thinkers to research potential projects, whether they come up with something or not?

This might have been an almost plausible idea 31/2 years ago, when Future Arts Research was created by ASU's president and Bruce Ferguson, F.A.R.'s present director (who, not coincidentally, is a pal of Crow's from his days at Columbia University, where Ferguson was dean of Columbia's School of Arts graduate school). Then, we at least labored under the delusion that the economy was flush. Given the economic dive of recent months and the fact that Arizona's university and educational program budgets (including that of ASU Art Museum) are being slashed to the bone, such an undertaking seems more like an obscene luxury at this point.

Not that it's ever seemed like such a terrific idea. Even in the best economic times, there are clearly better ways to foster and support the arts in Phoenix. Like, for instance, underwriting projects by local artists, even though Ferguson and F.A.R. associate director/head of research Marilu Knode (a former curator at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art) say other organizations are already doing this. What about underwriting collaborative projects between outside artists and Arizona-based ones, whether connected to ASU or not? Or, at the very least, requiring that artists doing a residency on F.A.R.'s dime come up with not just a lecture but a tangible object, product, written thesis, or result, rather than just letting them wander aimlessly in the conceptual wilderness of Phoenix.

Jamie Peachey
Is building a 12-foot adobe “sleeping Mexican” on the border really the best that Future Arts Research can do?
Is building a 12-foot adobe “sleeping Mexican” on the border really the best that Future Arts Research can do?

That has to be much more productive and less random than F.A.R.'s commissioning actress/author Anna Deveare Smith, of West Wing fame, to interview Arizonans related to the law or the state's justice system in some way or other and then to read her interviews onstage. Or engaging the creation of a 12-foot adobe sculpture patterned after a cheesy "sleeping Mexican" souvenir on a tribal reservation adjacent to the Mexican border.

F.A.R. was hatched in 2005, when Crow phoned Bruce Ferguson, whom he had known and worked with at Columbia University when Crow was executive vice provost there. Because Crow was admittedly clueless when it came to the arts, he enlisted Ferguson to come to Phoenix and take stock of art and culture here, both at the university level and Valley-wide. Ferguson prepared a hush-hush, confidential, for-your-eyes-only report for Crow (New Times still can't get hold of a copy). From that report and a series of discussions, Crow and Ferguson concocted the idea of "an arts institute that could be a bridge between all parts of the university and the community itself."

According to Ferguson, his written report was fairly brutal in parts: "I say things in there — now that I live in the community — I never want made public." He feels the report has played a significant role in changing Crow's thinking about the university as it relates to the arts. And he believes it's had some impact, including the hiring of Kwang-Wu Kim as dean of ASU's Herberger College of the Arts.

The jury is still out as to whether that appointment will be visionary or a total bust, guaranteed to negatively affect ASU's arts programs in the long run. Kwang-Wu Kim is the former president of the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a concert pianist, and not a specialist in the visual arts, contemporary or otherwise.

His appointment is an odd, untested choice. Just recently, because of budgetary constraints, he's been appointed the interim dean of ASU's College of Design. It's downright scary to think of someone with basically no visual arts experience, or even a feel for it, at the helm of a fine arts department that is to merge soon with a design department under the proposed rubric of the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts (just from the name, you can tell where the fine arts fall in this new scheme).

So far, Kwang-Wu has been unimpressive. His wheel-spinning search to find a permanent director for ASU Art Museum for over a year and a half stands out as particularly egregious. But then again, ASU's proposing that the art museum directorship be almost entirely an administrative position hardly ensures attracting a curator or director even remotely interested in discovering and presenting new art talent. (Full disclosure: I have a vested interest in the museum as an associate of former director Marilyn Zeitlin and some current museum staff.)

Back to F.A.R.'s backstory. Armed with Ferguson's report and their art institute idea, Crow and Ferguson approached local philanthropist, arts collector, and supporter Diane Halle for funding. Halle, together with her husband, Bruce (their very fine collection of contemporary Latin American art was exhibited in 2007 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston), has always been interested in raising the level of aesthetic discourse in the Valley to at least one on a par with sports, antique-car auctions, and Arabian horse shows. Halle offered a generous founding grant for F.A.R., the exact amount of which Ferguson and the ASU Foundation decline to divulge.

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While the critiques of the actual work done by FAR in this article, the author of this article appears to have no intimate familiarity with the purpose of the ASU Foundation which is to orchestrate partnerships between public and private funds. The funds being used to sponsor FAR could not be used for any other purpose by the University besides the purpose for which they were donated and consequently have no effect on the budget for the school itself. If they did, that information would be publicly available because the funds would be state tax dollars. Crow sees "art" as beneficial to all aspects of the community but, admittedly, knows nothing about it. Problematic though that may be, the Phoenix art community is fortunate on some level to have a University President who is actually interested in a relationship. It seems that the Phoenix arts scene, which needs higher levels of community and financial support to remain viable, would be far better served by attempting a level of integration then by running and hiding from a collection of well-funded, connected individuals who would ultimately like to see the Phoenix art scene succeed.

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