Artistic Differences

Paolo Vescia

Weddings and funerals rarely share the same spotlight. Yet when Frank Jacobson, president of the Scottsdale Cultural Council, emerged from the darkened wings of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts' Virginia G. Piper Theater one evening last month, to introduce a lecture by Time magazine's renowned art critic Robert Hughes, he was playing the nervous groom as well as the consoling undertaker.

The theater was filled with the fine crust of patrons that Jacobson and the cultural council have been wanting to walk down the center's aisle for many years. Most of the Valley's pedigreed collectors and art cognoscenti were there. Other luminaries had flown in from as far away as London, New York, Germany and Japan. But before Jacobson could say "I do," he had to lay to rest the man who had arranged the elaborate match.

That man, seated about midway up in the arc of hundreds of blue seats, was Robert Knight, who had abruptly resigned -- some say he was forced out -- just a few weeks before.

For 14 years, Knight had been the center's chief enthusiast of visual arts. He had helped to organize its exhibitions, and promoted the development of a full-fledged museum: the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. When SMoCA opened as the SCA's main visual arts venue two years ago, Knight became its director. And it was Knight who pushed for the exhibition that Jacobson, Hughes and the audience of about 700 -- some having paid as much as $175 a seat -- were there to celebrate: "James Turrell: Infinite Light." Turrell even named one of the works at SMoCA Knight Rise 2001, a tribute to the former director.

So when Jacobson glanced up from the podium that evening to praise Knight, the irony of the moment was not lost on a select few in attendance.

"It was very prophetic," says Will Bruder, the architect who designed SMoCA and is an advisory member on the SMoCA subcommittee of the SCC. "Here were all of us Munchkins in the expensive seats down front, and there was the man who'd made it all happen up there in the cheap seats. When Robert stood up and waved, it was really very bittersweet."

More important, it underscored the behind-the-scenes forces that have become a new and damaging reality at the SCC.

In recent months, it's become clear that the council's high expectations for the success of SMoCA and its desire to expand cultural programming have begun to squeeze the young museum.

Those pressures have been compounded by criticism from a small but influential contingent of council members who view SMoCA, the Turrell show notwithstanding, as lacking direction.

Over the past year and a half, the most vocal group of unhappy council members has included art collectors Sara Lieberman, Gail Rineberg and Jonathan Read, ASU art historian Betsy Fahlman and Karen Wittmer, publisher and CEO of Tribune Newspapers.

"You have a contingent of people here who don't realize that they're playing museum," says a former board member who requested anonymity. "They travel. They have lots of money. They think they know best. But they don't have a grasp -- a real understanding -- of the very difficult limitations of running a real museum."

Formed as a nonprofit agency in 1987 to manage the city's cultural affairs, the council has been the region's model for a grassroots institution that successfully mixes -- in one grand, civic sweep -- the performing, visual and public arts.

Jacobson, as president, is paid to oversee the council's day-to-day operations and supervise 55 staffers. The council consists of about 30 volunteer members, many of them civic leaders, arts patrons and artists. The council -- which also is commonly referred to as "the board" -- is broken into an executive committee and numerous other subcommittees.

The City of Scottsdale pays for 28 percent of the council's annual $10 million operation. About $2 million of that goes to SMoCA.

SMoCA got off to a happy and well-attended start on Valentine's Day 1999. Its daunting mission was to bring the best in contemporary art, architecture and design to a region that has never really paid much attention to that sort of thing. Just how difficult that undertaking was became apparent as the novelty of the new Bruder façade wore off.

After drawing more than 19,000 people in its first four and a half months, SMoCA's attendance fell to less than 17,000 for the entire following year. That was well below original projections that put total attendance as high as 100,000 per year.

Council members say the low turnout came as a shock.

"It's a major issue with the board," says Sara Lieberman. "People are just terribly concerned that we don't have huge numbers."  

Knight says he left to pursue other opportunities and wouldn't discuss any of the events surrounding his departure.

But now, with Knight gone, other longtime staffers are being scrutinized.

Despite the national attention that the Turrell show has garnered, some council members think that the museum is taking too narrow a view of contemporary art.

Karen Wittmer says the museum has focused "on really avant-garde, what I would call 'shock art.' And that's wonderful if that's just one part of the whole program. But you can't fill a whole museum with that stuff."

"There's an awful lot of art out there that's contemporary that people can relate to," she says. "I think our job is to make art and culture accessible to everyone in the community. And if you take a very narrow appeal, and you're not willing to bring people in with what they're comfortable with and expose them to a lot of other things, I think that's a mistake."

The confusion about SMoCA's identity partly reflects the tangled reasons behind building it in the first place.

Unlike other museums, it didn't rise from the dirt to provide a home for a significant art collection. It came into being with the hope of attracting one.

For years, art exhibits were displayed in the lobby, hallways and two formal galleries at the Scottsdale Center, which housed the performing arts theater. Patrons, young and old, sometimes encountered contemporary art that might offend them between shows at the theater.

The SCC temporarily lost the support of Virginia Piper in 1994 when she stumbled upon artist Guillermo Gómez Peña sitting on a toilet during his installation/performance Temple of Confessions.

She and her money eventually returned. After she died, the Piper trust gave the SCA $1 million -- the theater was named in her honor.

Most of the troublesome works came, as Peña's did, as part of temporary exhibitions.

The permanent collection was generally tamer. Up until the early 1990s, it was a hodgepodge of mostly forgettable "gifts" to the city.

In the early 1990s, the SCC's visual arts program began steering the collection toward contemporary regional artists. It had a natural avenue through its annual "New Directions" shows, featuring some of the region's foremost young artists. In 1996, it also began purchasing the archives of fine-art prints produced by Segura Publishing Company, a Tempe press that has collaborated with Luis Jimenez, William Wegman, Mark Klett, Claudia Bernardi and a number of other prominent contemporary artists.

What the center really wanted to establish its core identity was Carefree collector Stephane Janssen's 4,000-plus works of photography, crafts, contemporary American, postwar European and Native American arts. The collection is usually included by art magazines in the world's top 200. From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, the SCA devoted 14 exhibitions to it, giving them expectant titles like "Museum in the Making: The Janssen Collection of Fine Art."

But as the courtship dragged on and the museum approached reality, Janssen began to have second thoughts.

He doubted that an institution that relied so heavily on public money would exhibit some of the edgier works in his collection. And he wasn't sure what identity the museum was trying to make for itself.

In addition to Janssen's collection, the cultural council was considering exhibiting an extensive holding of contemporary glass. The collection was owned by Gerard Cafesjian, a patron the SCC was wooing to give a significant donation to SMoCA. He eventually gave enough to have the building named after him.

"I went to a cocktail party at his house," Janssen recalls, "and I was horrified by what I saw. There were some very good pieces, and then there was just glass."

Janssen says it was Jacobson's tactlessness that finally caused him to break off discussions.

"One day he invited me and my assistant to lunch with him and Robert Knight. By then, I think the museum had been approved. And with these other people there, he said to me, 'Now you have to tell me today what you are going to give me.'"

It was a bad approach.

"If it was between two people," says Janssen, "you can always say, 'Listen, I'm not ready.' But in front of two other people, I felt trapped. I thought it was extremely rude. It really upset me terribly. After that I stopped communicating with them."

Jacobson doesn't apologize for the lapse.

"Here we are getting ready to build a museum and Robert and I sit down with Stephane and asked him for money to help us. Isn't that something? Isn't that a surprise? Asking for money from Stephane Janssen. Give me a break."  

Janssen has since become a key benefactor of the ASU art museum, giving more than $1 million.

Janssen's withdrawal yanked a pillar from the museum's identity, forcing it to depend more heavily than it should have on Cafesjian's glass and what some council members viewed as an uneven exhibition schedule.

ASU professor of art history Betsy Fahlman, who chairs the SMoCA subcommittee, says that when the collection first appeared in the SCA's atrium gallery, "it was really very beautiful. But when they put it in SMoCA, it looked like no one cared about it."

And it stayed up far too long. As the months rolled by, the question became, "When are they going to take that down?"

SCC officials initially thought that Cafesjian, who lives in Naples, Florida, would donate the collection to SMoCA. But last year, he took most of it back.

Some council members wonder why SMoCA can't have the sure identity that the ASU art museum has developed under Marilyn Zeitlin -- who organized and sent the Bill Viola exhibition to the Venice Biennale in 1995, and developed an exhibition of Cuban art two years ago. Or why it can't generate the blockbuster buzz that the Phoenix Art Museum has with its expensive exhibitions of Egyptian art, and paintings by Monet or Norman Rockwell.

Fahlman says these are normal questions for an art program that has grown from shows in the lobby of a performing arts center into its own museum.

"We got a real museum, a real building," she says. "And we suddenly have very ambitious collectors who know [other museums of contemporary art]. They really want to go places."

That journey is at the heart of SMoCA's struggles.

"We're asking ourselves just how far we should go," says Patti Parsons, an artist who serves on the SMoCA subcommittee. "Are we in a conservative environment? Should we push the envelope? In other words, what does the community want?"

When SMoCA was being planned and built, the council envisioned it as a popular, upbeat showcase of today's art -- which can be decidedly unpopular and downbeat.

The board was also divided, along traditional provincial lines, over whether the museum programs were excessively or insufficiently toney for the West's Most Western Town.

But concerns about lagging attendance and the caliber of the shows spurred several small contingents of board members to begin talking to Jacobson about the need to make changes at SMoCA.

Richard Hayslip, a Salt River Project executive who is the volunteer chairman of the council, says that about a year ago, the council's executive committee spoke with Jacobson about finding ways to improve attendance.

Long before that meeting, however, according to at least five council members interviewed by New Times, Jonathan Read, a prominent art collector and businessman who left the board last year, complained to Jacobson and fellow board members about how SMoCA was being run.

Read is an international player who has tapped prominent artists to design the decor of his worldwide chain of hotels, called Art'otels. He is now on the board of the Phoenix Art Museum.

"He had some concerns about the museum not being a chartered museum," says Hayslip, "or a place where he could give his artworks and be assured what would happen to them. He also had concerns about the staff."

Hayslip says that "other people were influenced by Jonathan or had independently come to a similar kind of point of view."

Among them were Fahlman, Wittmer, Lieberman and Rineberg.

Jacobson took the complaints about Knight and the museum seriously, says Fahlman.

"Frank made me aware," she says, "because he made a point of talking to all of us, particularly the key committee chairs, as he should, to take our pulse."

She wouldn't say whether she lobbied for Knight's removal at that point. But she confirms that Read's concerns extended both to Knight and Jacobson.

Read did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Hayslip and Gail Bradley, an official with Northern Trust Bank who also sits on the SCC executive committee, say the committee never directed Jacobson to remove Knight or ask for his resignation.

But some current and former board members say Jacobson used Read's complaints and the executive committee's concerns as grounds for telling Knight that it was time to go.

"Nobody was squeezed out," says Jacobson. "There was certainly a degree of high expectation. But I can sit here and honestly tell you that Robert left of his own accord."

However, Fahlman and several other council insiders say that's not the case.

Worse yet, Knight's departure has uncorked a nasty dose of groundless criticisms about the professional abilities of SMoCA's interim director, Valerie Vadala-Homer, and senior curator Debra Hopkins, who worked with Knight to develop the Turrell exhibition.  

"Deb's expecting her second child," says Lieberman, who is a member of the search committee for a new director, "and Valerie's the specialist in the community on public art, so this isn't their thing."

Jacobson says such criticism doesn't reflect the feeling of the council. But it has stung a staff that should be flying high on the success of the Turrell exhibition.

"It's really very demoralizing," says Hopkins. "We have shows to schedule for the coming year, but we don't know what will be happening to them."

According to members of the SMoCA subcommittee, Hopkins and Vadala-Homer submitted a proposed schedule two weeks ago. But committee members made few comments and no decisions about it.

"The reason they're silent," says a board member familiar with the committee's proceedings, "is that they have no confidence in their vision. They don't have an understanding of contemporary art. They want someone with a tattoo on their ass that says 'I am a certified art expert, trust me, follow me.'"

A few years back, it seemed that every major museum in the nation was looking for a new director and not having much success finding one. The expectations can be unnervingly high. The ideal leader is expected to be a walk-on-water wunderkind with the vision, talent and savvy to curate, write, schmooze, fund-raise and blockbust an institution's way to greatness.

"Contemporary art can be a scary thing," says Lieberman, "so I want someone who can bring people in. I want someone who's passionate about that and can communicate it."

Wittmer wants a networker who's smart about handling public money, and sensitive about what the community wants: "Someone who won't be perceived as an elitist."

Hayslip wants someone with the ambition to be director of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art someday: "They want to come to Phoenix to make a name for themselves, spend five years here and then go someplace bigger. You need that kind of motivation in a person to help sustain the momentum."

The SCC has hired a top East Coast headhunter to bag a new director for SMoCA. The search is expected to take another three or four months.

But even the right person may have a hard time appeasing this council. Too many people at the SCC don't know how to gauge the success of a museum, or understand the difference between selling tickets to the popular performing group Stomp and getting people to shell out five bucks to view a giant ball of wool.

"Contemporary art isn't easy under any circumstance," says ASU's Marilyn Zeitlin. "It is not familiar. It doesn't come dripping with nostalgia, the way a Norman Rockwell does."

The assumption is that a new director will save SMoCA and lift it to a new level.

"But save it from what?" asks a former board member. "Things like the Turrell show? Last month Susan Stamberg did a piece on Turrell for National Public Radio, and plugged the show. This month, I hear that the New York Times will probably be covering it. What other museum in town is getting that kind of play for contemporary art?"

The point is tough to argue. The nostalgia and established values of Norman Rockwell may be drawing record crowds downtown. But in the difficult realm of contemporary art, which redefines its values and expectations every day, the Turrell show is as close to a blockbuster as contemporary art can get.

"It is truly an international event," says Bruder. "People are talking about this as the show to see."

Joe Hill, a museum specialist with AEA consulting in New York, which advises cultural institutions worldwide, says that the fact that SMoCA has been able to mount a Turrell show this early in its existence is an institutional coup. He also cites SMoCA's plan to host the national tour of works by Wolfgang Laib as another promising stroke. Laib is a German sculptor whose installations have been getting rave reviews in national publications.

"If the museum wants to put itself on the map and establish its presence, it's doing exactly the right thing," says Hill. "Turrell and Laib are stellar, interesting artists, but ones who are off the beaten track."

This willingness to go after under-recognized talents and produce exhibitions that carry weight outside the area is how museums gain the respect they need to secure grants. The Turrell exhibition landed a $125,000 grant, which Knight wrote, from the Flinn Foundation. Another grant he wrote before the museum was up and running brought in another $500,000, from the Kresge Foundation.  

Unfortunately, these achievements don't mean much to board members with their eyes on the museum's attendance chart.

SMoCA's fame outside the region would be fine, says Karen Wittmer, "if those people were paying the freight and the rent and everything else. But the people of Scottsdale are paying the freight and the rent and the salaries."

To help SMoCA out of its attendance doldrums, Rineberg, whose husband, Stephen, is on the Phoenix Art Museum's board, recently suggested that the museum might want to switch its focus from exhibiting contemporary art, design and architecture to showing contemporary crafts.

"I thought that would make the museum a really good destination place," says Rineberg. "Sara Lieberman has an extraordinary collection, so I thought that might help."

The idea didn't go over too well.

"People didn't quite leap out of their seats," says Fahlman. "But the idea that you radically change the mission of the museum after one year, to me doesn't make sense at all."

SMoCA's chief problem is "it's been completely boring," says Fahlman. "I've said that to Frank many times. What matters is what this institution does with its mission."

This wrangle over SMoCA's mission will undoubtedly become the new director's task to resolve.

However, some longtime Scottsdale cultural observers say the new person isn't likely to make much difference so long as the SCC board remains the same.

"The real problem," says Mel Roman, an artist who served on the SCC board in the mid-1990s, and is a friend of Knight's, "is that you have a board that's in general really unsophisticated about contemporary art and what it takes to run a new museum. This really is a classic example of a board that needs some basic training."

Council member reactions to the Wolfgang Laib exhibition, which is scheduled to open SMoCA's season next October, typify the problem. A month ago, they were puzzled about Laib, whose deeply esoteric and minimal installations of beeswax, pollen and other natural wonders are considered a difficult stretch for Scottsdale. But when the artist and exhibition, which was organized by the American Federation of the Arts, showed up on this month's cover of Art in America, board members began congratulating themselves for the museum's vision.

That ignorance about art is fairly common on community-based boards where few people are arts professionals. But Roman and others see this lack of expertise as a leading obstacle to the museum's future development.

The new director will also have to deal with the highly unusual relationship of the museum to the SCC.

Because SMoCA operates under the umbrella of the SCC, it doesn't have its own dedicated board. The 30-member council is too large and unfocused.

Jacobson says that the SCC tried to remedy that a year and a half ago. It created three subcommittees to more effectively track the needs of the museum, the SCA's performing arts program, and plans for future expansion.

But those changes haven't solved SMoCA's lack of a dedicated marketing or development staff. The museum has to compete for time and money with the SCC's performing arts division and the council's exploration of potential future expansions.

Those initiatives include the potential development of two new major cultural complexes: one a cluster of up to five or six theaters along the Arizona Canal; the other an art center in north Scottsdale. The tab would far exceed $100 million.

Jacobson and many board members say the council needs to explore the possibility of building these projects. The downtown theaters, they say, would provide needed venues for area performing arts groups. The uptown art center would serve the growing population.

But the pressures of exploring the expansions are significantly thinning the SCC's resources.

Under its five-year plan, SMoCA was allowed to operate at a deficit for the first few years. But a shortfall in SMoCA's endowment -- it was supposed to be $5 million but only $2 million is in the bank -- coupled with the cost of planning for future projects means SMoCA now has to raise about $600,000 more to operate this year. It's unclear where that money will come from.

It's also unclear where the museum will get the money it needs to effectively market shows. The marketing sum for Turrell is only $10,000, a pittance, given the enormity of the show. No money has gone into national marketing.

"That isn't because the SMoCA subcommittee didn't ask," says Fahlman. "There just isn't the money."

Last year, former board member Ellie Ziegler pumped $25,000 into selling "Almost Warm and Fuzzy," an exhibition of contemporary art intended to draw families, because she feared the show would be a failure if it wasn't marketed. That push raised attendance to then-record levels, about 3,500 visitors in December.  

The good press that's accompanied Turrell has helped to keep those numbers up. It has drawn about 4,100 people in its first two and a half weeks.

But unless the SCC comes to terms with the pressures that growth is applying to existing organizations, those good attendance trends are bound to slide.

Jacobson insists that no expansions will take place until the cultural council has fully examined the consequences.

But a number of council members say those consequences are already having an effect.

A few weeks ago, says Wittmer, "The board finally said, 'Look, we're spending all these resources chasing these two opportunities. We know SMoCA is a problem. We've got other things we could be focusing on. Let's make a decision one way or another whether these things make sense to chase.'"

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