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.
Future Arts Research
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.
According to Ferguson, Halle's money is augmented by the university and the President's Office. The result is a kind of partnership between a private philanthropist and a public university, Ferguson states, though there is no mention of Halle's funding grant or the university's financial commitment to the proposed institute in any of the ASU Foundation annual reports for the years between 2004 and 2008, which are posted online. Shelly Yocum of the ASU Foundation says via e-mail that it can't divulge the amount of the Halle grant "[d]ue to the confidential nature of donor gift agreements."
Diane Halle was unavailable for comment. However, given that F.A.R. pays for rent on its two-bedroom, two-bath office/residency condo; now supports a staff of four employees, including Ferguson and Knode; apparently pays for artists' travel expenses to Phoenix; publicity and marketing costs (such as printing); a stipend for each visiting artist; and Web site fees and maintenance, it's not unreasonable to speculate that Halle's grant was several million dollars.
With underwriting from Halle as F.A.R.'s founding donor, Ferguson says, it took about a year to organize infrastructure, including renting downtown office space, as well as determining F.A.R.'s basic areas of interest. Currently, F.A.R. is headquartered in a tri-level condo apartment it rents in Artisan Village, located at Roosevelt and Seventh Streets, close to the burgeoning downtown arts community and ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. The space can accommodate two resident artists at a time.
It's not exaggerating to say that F.A.R. didn't know exactly what it wanted to be when it grew up, given the fact that its objectives were fleshed out and posted online for public consumption just this January. According to Ferguson, Knode, and the academic jargon-laden explanation on F.A.R.'s new Web site, F.A.R. is going to be subsidizing artists, writers, and intellectuals from around the world to engage in research for potential artistic projects here in Phoenix, whether their research is ultimately productive or not — just as, Ferguson and Knode claim, scientists do on a regular basis.
And it's been decided that F.A.R. will concentrate on three seemingly boundless subject areas: the arts as they relate to human rights and the justice system; desert aesthetics (or what Ferguson calls the "culture of the desert"); and art and technology. Additionally, F.A.R.'s director says the projects will be about Phoenix in some way, so "Phoenicians will be able to see themselves through outside eyes" — though this requirement seems to have fallen by the wayside more recently.
To date, because of its amorphous, self-described "organic" approach and ongoing quest to define the demographics of its target audience(s), F.A.R.'s borderline schizophrenic activities and programming have roamed all over the cultural map, making one wonder how effective this indiscriminate, scattershot approach really can be in the long run.
Last year, the arts research institute underwrote a number of free, feebly publicized lecture programs held at local galleries and other Valley cultural sites (a complete list of past and future imported lecturers can be found at F.A.R.'s Web site at http://futureartsresearch.asu.edu/). Among those F.A.R. brought to town in 2008 was Richard Andrews, who spoke at ASU's downtown Walter Cronkite School of Journalism on the land and light art of Arizona artist James Turrell and the work of artist-architect Maya Lin, best known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Quirky theater director and UCLA professor Peter Sellars, known for his unusual po-mo versions of theater, musical, and opera classics (staging Handel's opera, Orlando, in outer space and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro against the backdrop of a luxury apartment in New York's Trump Towers) lectured at Tempe Art Center. Artist-photographer and environmental activist Subhankar Banerjee appeared on ASU's main campus to speak about how his photographic work relates to issues of environmental destruction and indigenous human rights in the Arctic, while Andrew Shoben, founder of Britain-based Greyworld, lectured at Phoenix's Burton Barr Library on the edge-pushing, often interactive urban art installations for which the group is noted.
F.A.R.'s also been involved with a fashion show at the Icehouse for a clothing designer. It's in the active process of commissioning Turrell to create a major Skyspace piece on ASU's east campus using the latest LED technology. It would be similar to one that was just unveiled at Pomona College, but on a larger scale. It's a good idea, but why does it have to be a knock-off of something Turrell has done before?
Knode adds that F.A.R. also has curated two projects that are to be part of the 2009 Phoenix Fringe Festival (PHX:fringe), during which experimental theater pieces will be performed by local, national, and international artists in non-traditional downtown spaces (see www.phxfringe.org).
Scheduled to be one of F.A.R.'s recurring events is an annual symposium that will concentrate on art-related events designed to link audiences in the Sonoran Desert to other deserts around the world. For example, its 2008 program featured a sparsely attended slide lecture on the creation (minus photos of the final product) of Solo, a 12-foot-high sculpture on the Tohono O'odham reservation that was commissioned by F.A.R. It was molded from dirt, straw, sand, and water and is designed to disintegrate over time. Solo is the aesthetic offspring of Ojibway Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore and Cuban-born Canadian artist Osvaldo Yero, who, during their F.A.R. residency, found a stereotypical "sleeping Mexican" souvenir in Ajo. Their lecture literature says the souvenir recalls ancient pre-Columbian figures and suggests loneliness or strength.
If the artists had done their homework, perhaps they would have discovered that the "sleeping Mexican" motif was first used in the 1920s and '30s on Tlaquepaque pottery and sold by Mexican potters primarily to American tourists after the Mexican Revolution. What began as a glorification of the indigenous campesino in post-revolution Mexico quickly ended up becoming in the American Southwest a negative stereotype representing the "lazy Mexican," one who snoozed when he should have been working. Building one of them on the American side of the Mexican border is, to my way of thinking, akin to erecting a 12-foot black-face lawn jockey smack in the middle of a poverty-stricken, African-American housing project — though the idea that illegal Mexicans flee poverty and die in our deserts certainly may be another underlying theme.
F.A.R.'s most trumpeted commission was a one-woman show by actress, playwright and author Anna Deveare Smith, performed at the Herberger Theater in conjunction with the renaming of ASU's law school after Arizonan and retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor — the first law school in the world to be named after a woman. The performance was based on Deveare Smith's interviews of more than 40 people in Arizona connected with the law — including O'Connor herself, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a longtime Phoenix attorney, and a female prisoner experiencing the justice system firsthand.
The opening performance was under-whelming. Deveare Smith read from interview transcripts, while changing props (mainly shoes) to signify different characters. It was like having deposition transcripts read out loud, and about as entertaining. And it didn't help that Arpaio came off as a jolly, avuncular figure — at least at the first performance — not to mention that Deveare Smith ended the program with an almost embarrassingly commercial plug for Michael Crow and his vision.
Ferguson says F.A.R. commissioned the performance and all the interviews that were conducted, transcripts of which will be preserved in a living archive where young law students can contribute interviews. I suppose they can sandwich those interviews between exploring the mysteries of the rule against perpetuities, navigating the tax ramifications of bargain sales to charities, and studying for constitutional-law exams. (I think that F.A.R. would much better serve the community by posting online videos of lectures and performances it has sponsored. This could be a lasting repository of these primarily ephemeral events.)
Substantially more engaging and truly touching was a spin-off performance by female Estrella Jail inmates inspired by Deveare Smith's presentation, which was shown on DVD to them as part of a longstanding jail arts program organized by Life Paradigms, Inc. (check out its Web site at www.ghettogirls.org). F.A.R. underwrote the organization's fall "Journey Home" workshop, which produced a poetic examination of the inmates' self-perceptions, the lives they left behind (most were young and nearly all had young children, we learned) and their views of the justice system through which they're now being processed. Better candidates for Dr. Drew's Celebrity Rehab than jail, these women spoke directly from their own personal, emotionally crushing experiences. Unfortunately, only a small group of invited guests, all of whom had to pass security clearance, were allowed to watch the performance.
F.A.R.'s latest and greatest is a call for brainstorming sessions with members of STREB who are doing a one-week residency here and from whom F.A.R. has commissioned a project called STREB: BRAVE. BRAVE, "an in-depth exploration of the circle and perpetual motion," is a collaborative effort among choreographer Elizabeth Streb, composer David Van Tieghem, the MIT Media Lab, and projection designer Aaron Henderson that's supposed to incorporate visuals set off by the action of dancers and equipment on stage. For a taste of what STREB's done in the past, take a look at www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgYW6D5IyR0. From its latest geek-speak e-mail, F.A.R.'s looking for possible local BRAVE spin-off projects.
It's hard not to wonder whether Diane Halle was aware of what eventually would be done with her money at the time she pledged it to F.A.R. Doubtful, because it's obvious that even F.A.R. didn't know what it was going to do with the money. Yes, our community can benefit from the importation of lecturers in a variety of disciplines and, for a chosen few in the Phoenix arts community, there may be an opportunity to connect with people working in other parts of the world (in the case of STREB: BRAVE, you're out of luck unless you're conversant in openframeworks, a library for coding audio-visual compositions in C++). But all this is a far cry from the original aim of the institute: being a bridge between the university and the community.
Ferguson and Knode say they're trying to elevate artistic research to the level afforded scientific research, which often ends up experimentally empty-handed. By casting elusive artistic "exploration" in terms of meat-and-potatoes scientific research, it's easy to suspect that both Crow and Ferguson hope to lure future F.A.R. program funders who will pony up bountiful bucks, betting that some idea sprouted by a F.A.R.-underwritten artist, writer, or scholar might lead to commercial application. This is exactly what has happened with ASU's Arts, Media and Engineering program, formerly known as the Institute for Studies in the Arts, which, unlike F.A.R., has its own faculty and brick-and-mortar facilities. Because of its rebirth in scientific- and humanitarian-flavored terms, A.M.E. has been awarded several notable National Science Foundation grants, as well as at least one from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Given the fact that the global economy has hit the skids and funding for any program, whether scientific or arts-related, is dicey, this type of approach, which more than smacks of the corporate, appears especially critical to F.A.R.'s continued existence. Ferguson is uncertain as to whether Diane Halle will be continuing her financial support in the future and opines that F.A.R. will be looking to other funding sources, including private donors, corporate sponsors, and institutional grants. It would be nice to see F.A.R. find some, because the arts community in the Valley can always benefit from an infusion of fresh and off-the-beaten-track ideas to keep its heart healthy. But is F.A.R. the one best for the job?
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