Hanging in a second-floor gallery of the Phoenix Art Museum is a square canvas with the words "High-Speed Gardening," in upper-case, sans-serif letters the color of a hunter's safety vest. These letters are superimposed over a blur of vague greens. It could be an alien sunset, with the letters blaring through the strange dusk like a cryptic commercial logo. Like a lot of contemporary art, it is unsettling. And controversial.
High-Speed Gardening, the work of an influential California pop artist named Ed Ruscha, cost the museum $170,000--a major though not unprecedented purchase. Though Ruscha is a highly regarded modern artist, and a curator at ASU says it is a shrewd acquisition that could do much for PAM's reputation, some of those charged with approving museum purchases thought the price too high.
Sources say the June 1 meeting of the collection committee that led to the purchase was heated. At least two members of the committee reportedly called the piece "gimmicky," while others said it was not "among Ruscha's best work." There apparently were several disparaging remarks made about the painting, with one committee member comparing it to a child's handiwork. After vigorous discussion, which one committee member called the "liveliest" in years, a vote was taken, sources say. Four members voted to purchase the painting, four wanted to pass. The committee's acting chairman, Bill Tubman, broke the tie. He followed the recommendation of the museum's staff and voted to purchase the Ruscha.
Tubman conducted the meeting because collections chairman Alvin "Bud" Haas was out of town. Before he left, Haas had written a letter to PAM director Jim Ballinger stating his reservations about the painting's quality and price.
Now, however, with the painting safely on the wall, committee members and museum staff are soft-pedaling the controversy. Bruce Kurtz, PAM's curator of 20th-century art, who delivered an impassioned defense of the work at the meeting, says it would be "inappropriate" to discuss the internal workings of the committee. Director Ballinger denies there was any tension at the meeting, which he characterizes as "educational and informative." And committee members now are falling in line behind the staff.
Haas now won't comment on the heated meeting or his letter. "Ouch," he says. "I'd like to talk to Jim Ballinger before I say anything."
Though sources say members disparaged the painting during the meeting, much of the debate apparently had little to do with aesthetics. PAM is a private, nonprofit organization in a city building on city land, a relatively young museum with what Ballinger says includes "virtually no budget" for acquisitions. Ballinger says PAM, like many museums, finances its purchases through a "deaccession" program in which seldom-displayed works are sold to provide funds for new ones. And only a handful of new works is purchased each year, while hundreds are donated or loaned.
"That's because we have very little money," says Ballinger. "We have to be very careful about our acquisitions."
Ballinger says the purchase of the Ruscha was financed by the sale of a seldom-exhibited painting from the 1950s by Massimo Campigli to an Italian buyer. "It was pretty much a trade," he says, noting that Italian tax laws helped PAM secure a "very advantageous price."
After scheduled renovations are completed in 1996, the contemporary art gallery will be three to four times as large as it is now. With the new space to fill, some committee members thought $170,000 was too much to spend on one painting, no matter what the artist's reputation.
Former Scottsdale Progress publisher Jonathan Marshall, another collection committee member, thinks PAM might have purchased "several more important works" for the same amount.
"I think Ruscha is a good artist," Marshall says. "I think he has done some interesting work. I don't think he is a great artist, which was why I voted against [the painting]. I don't think great art is dominated by words written on canvas."
Was there a yokel factor? Ballinger emphatically says no, adding that it is unfair to characterize the purchase as a "victory" for the PAM staff over a committee of enthusiastic amateurs. He says committee members were chosen because of their expertise in different arenas of art. Many of them are among PAM's most generous patrons. While at larger and older museums there are likely to be several acquisition boards, each specializing in a particular type of art, Ballinger says PAM's board must be "more catholic" because there are so few art collectors and experts in the Valley.
He denies the Ruscha is a source of friction for the board.
"Ruscha is a really significant artist," Ballinger says. "Some would say he's one of the three or four most important American artists of the century."
Heather Lineberry, curator of education at ASU's art museum, praises the PAM collection. At PAM, High-Speed Gardening is surrounded by works of California pop artists such as Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman and Robert Irwin, adding to what some say is PAM's strongest collection.
"Bruce Kurtz has done a dynamite job of putting together a collection of important West Coast artworks and really showed some ingenuity in collecting in that area because it's still been relatively affordable as compared to the East Coast-New York school," Lineberry says. "It was a very important school--Ruscha, Bengston, John Baldessari--those people who worked together in Los Angeles were doing some very important things which tended to get ignored by the Eastern establishment art world. I think it showed some real insight."
While the better-known East Coast pop artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol manufactured art from everyday artifacts, some California pop retains the mystery of abstraction while embracing the candy colors and plastic sheen of commercial art.
In this context, High-Speed Gardening begins to make sense. Kurtz points out that while New Yorkers usually approach shops or banks on foot, people in the West usually glimpse them from a car speeding past at 60 mph. Hence signs are much more important in the West, especially since its newer buildings tend to be blander and more uniform than its East Coast counterparts.
Kurtz, who had been on the trail of High-Speed Gardening for nearly five years, says Ruscha's work, with its indistinct background and precise lettering, reflects this phenomenon. "Western cities like Phoenix are, in effect, the ultimate 'high-speed gardens,'" he says.
During the 1980s, a boom time for the art market, many of Ruscha's paintings sold for more than $300,000--about what he initially asked for this work.
"The eventual price was 40 percent lower than the original price," says Haas, who opposed the purchase. "Bruce did a heck of a job of negotiating."
Ballinger won't discuss what went on at the June 1 meeting, but he describes it as "ordinary."
"There was no adversarial position taken," he says. "Any time you're making purchases for a nonprofit organization, you're dealing with other people's money and you're charged with a certain fiduciary duty. And the larger the asset, the more careful you are to make sure all of the questions are answered."
Ballinger says he fears that news reports about the board's discussion of the Ruscha will give the wrong impression and he's concerned that some members' names may become public. An element of confidentiality, he says, is crucial to the committee's business.
"That committee is meant to be secret," he says. "In this day and age when people hear that, they think we're doing something wrong, but there are good reasons to maintain [secrecy]. . . .We need, in some cases, to decline things that are very awkward."
One member of the committee who has reversed his stance on the Ruscha is Edward "Bud" Jacobson. Jacobson voted against High-Speed Gardening, but he now says he is glad PAM owns it.
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"There was dissension," Jacobson says of the meeting. "It is difficult to understand why a nicely painted background with the words 'High-Speed Gardening' would be so valuable to a museum if you're not up on contemporary art. . . .Prior to the meeting I was not up on that segment of contemporary art."
Jacobson says the committee often deals with art some members personally dislike.
"We knew we were going to be handling a lot of objects some of us, because of our age, training and prior likes, wouldn't hang in our houses no matter how valuable they were," he says. "That's the nature of some contemporary art. . .with some of it you wonder what is going on.
"Do I like the painting? Absolutely not. Am I glad the museum has it? Absolutely yes."
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