Amada Cruz on Phoenix Art Museum's Staff Turnover, the New Chief Curator, and What's Next

For a cultural institution focused on visual art, Phoenix Art Museum has been all about the drama of late.

On Friday, August 14, Carlotta Soares and Stephanie Lieb of the museum's marketing department were let go, leaving the department with one remaining member: graphic designer Felicia Penza. That same day, curator of European, American, and Western art Jerry Smith submitted his resignation. On Monday, August 17, the museum announced that Gilbert Vicario would be its chief curator, in addition to taking on the role of contemporary art curator, a position that's been vacant for two years this September. 

These staff changes amount to 12 people resigning from their jobs at the museum, and another four being fired since Amada Cruz became director of the museum in February of 2015. Sources close to the situation, including former PAM social media and web administrator Evan Roberts, have spoken out about low morale at the museum and called out Cruz's leadership style as lacking and abrasive. 

In an e-mail interview with New Times, Cruz weighed in on the many staffing changes, the incoming chief curator, and what's next at Phoenix Art Museum.

Would you care to comment on employee turnover over the past six months — and what's been dubbed by some as a mass exodus from Phoenix Art Museum? How would you characterize the changes in staff? Are they to be expected with new leadership?
With change in leadership often comes change within an organization. As we move forward, there will be those who disagree with the new direction, and our employee turnover reflects that to some extent. In many ways, it’s a natural process. But that doesn’t mean change is easy, particularly at an institution like Phoenix Art Museum, where Jim Ballinger created and fulfilled a vision over more than 30 years. Improving and building on the successes of the Phoenix Art Museum is exactly what a new leader should be doing. And that will inevitably involve changes because progress is impossible without change. Any change, even a change for the better, will have its detractors. I am sensitive to that, but that cannot impede our growth, innovation and progress, especially at what I view as a tipping point for the development of the Phoenix arts community. I view this time of change in very positive terms as we all work toward enhancing the Museum’s position as a world-class institution in a world-class art city. As always, we will never comment on confidential personnel matters.

What does the future look like for the marketing department? Will a new manager and director be hired?
We will move vigorously, strategically and thoughtfully to fill the marketing department positions as soon as possible. 

Now that a chief curator is coming on board, what will be your top priorities in the coming months? Will a separate contemporary art curator be hired eventually, or are those jobs to remain merged?
As the Selig Family Chief Curator, Gilbert Vicario, will oversee all the curatorial functions of the museum to increase the visibility of all of our programs relating to the collection and exhibitions. He will work with our excellent curators on exhibitions programming, collections management and acquisitions, and overall strategy of presenting art to the public. A priority will be to travel in-house organized shows to other museums and to strategize with other Museum departments on how to make the Museum relevant to all our visitors. Since his expertise is in contemporary art, he will also serve as the Museum’s curator of contemporary art. 

When will we start to see bilingual signage and tours?
We already have begun the process of creating a new culture, direction and outreach to our diverse community with the symbolic new signage at the lobby entry to the Museum that says: “Welcome. . . Bienvenidos.” Spanish language tours will begin as soon as we can start training our bilingual docents in the fall. Both these changes were wonderful progressive suggestions from our Latino Initiative Task Force, and we will be adopting more of their thoughtful suggestions soon. 

Are any other big changes coming to PAM?
I have often said I like to think big, and that is where we are headed. I have empowered the curators to do the same to organize stellar traveling exhibitions that reflect the richness of our collections. I want to encourage innovation, growth, and learning. We will have a focused commitment to operate at the highest level to take full advantage of the fact that Phoenix is the sixth largest city in the US. There is no reason it cannot become the sixth best arts venue and a cultural destination point for artistic excellence. In short, we are thinking big and destined to do big things, and the Board, staff and I are extremely excited about the possibilities.

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