People go to the Heard Museum to see woven blankets, turquoise jewelry, and ancient pots. Joe Baker tried to change that.
Although he left late last year (part of the near-constant game of musical chairs the local art world likes to play), Baker may just have a lasting impact on the venerable but somewhat stodgy, internationally acclaimed Heard. Consider the "Young Jewelers" show (see "Gold Standard"). Baker didn't curate it, but his fingerprints are there. It's a show that features young artists with new ideas, and the Heard is better for it.
In almost five years at the museum, Baker, the Lloyd Kiva new curator of fine art, had the unenviable task of turning a dinosaur into a contemporary creature. The Heard was not known for cutting-edge, modern work, until Baker arrived. And, at what some might argue was barely the beginning of his task, he left for Arizona State University, for a community liaison job that takes him out of a museum and away from Native American art.
Baker gets credit for drawing the downtown Phoenix arts crowd a few blocks north, from Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row, to the Heard. Steve Yazzie's recent show "Draw Me a Picture" may not have been entirely successful from an art perspective ("Losing Momentum," March 8, 2007), but it generated buzz among the locals, and Hector Ruiz's terrific show "La Realidad" drew praise nationally.
So why give up a job with such potential, such a broad platform? The move comes as a surprise to many artists Baker worked with over the years. "I was shocked to hear that Joe left. I thought he was doing a fantastic job at the Heard," says artist Lorenzo Clayton who worked with Baker when he exhibited his "Inner Equations" collaboration at the Heard ("Color Theory," July 6, 2006).
Clayton adds, "There must have been some blow-up to instigate him to leave."
If there was a blow-up, no one's saying. Baker's mum and talks instead of his enthusiasm for his new position as the director of community engagement in the ASU Herberger College of the Arts.
For years, it had been whispered that some of the Heard's more conservative donors weren't so happy with shows like "Holy Land," which Baker co-curated last year, and which included some risky installations. A video by Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie kicked up quite a controversy. In it, the artist interviews members of the Jahalin Bedouin, who describe how the Israeli urbanization on their land has infringed upon their way of life.
Bill Straus, director of the Arizona region of the Anti-Defamation League, received angry phone calls from Jewish families whose teenagers saw the exhibit while in town for the JCC Maccabi Games in August 2006. The out-of-state visitors weren't the only people who expressed concern.
"I talked to Heard donors. Nobody called to compliment the show," Straus says. "They ranged from totally puzzled to extremely angry."
None of the complaints were specific to Joe Baker, although he was the co-curator and chief envelope-pusher. The Heard responded to the objections by adding what Straus calls a "disclaimer plaque" next to the video. More than a year later, ADL and Heard board members were still meeting to patch things up.
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Despite that public controversy and quiet talk of more private ones, Wayne Mitchell, chair of the Heard's American Indian advisory committee, insists there was no bad blood. "We hated to see Joe leave," Mitchell says. "Joe left reluctantly because he liked his job, but he found a chance to grow in a different direction." Baker will continue to sit as a member of the advisory committee with Mitchell.
Frank Goodyear, director of the Heard, says he's looking to hire a replacement for Baker and feels confident that they will find the right person. "Joe Baker is not unique. He was good at what he did, but there are other people out there. I was disappointed when he said he was leaving, but I'm also a realist and I know people move on."
Goodyear plans to keep showing "challenging contemporary works" and says, "This is an institutional strategy, not simply something originating at the curatorial level. It is part of our fabric and will remain so."
If the "Young Jewelers" show is an indication, the future looks bright. Time will tell.