Visual Arts


Karen Reinhold is sitting in the office she occupies as director of the Sun Cities Art Museum when one of the women working in the gift shop comes in with a pair of earrings. "She says she'll take them if we can change them to clips," the woman tells Reinhold.

Reinhold looks up from her pile of papers and examines the earrings briefly, then says to the woman, "No problem."

This seems like a petty problem for a museum director to be concerning herself with, but that is typical of the friendly way the Sun Cities Art Museum works. This is a museum where on Wednesday afternoons tea is served on English bone china in a sun porch off the foyer. A white-haired woman plays songs like "My Way" on a baby grand piano, and the ladies in attendance wear hats. This is a museum that has Las Vegas nights and tea dances.

This is also a museum whose entire collection has been obtained through donations, which has meant some truly odd acquisitions--dolls dressed like nuns, tourist-quality Indian pots, a bowl from the first governor's mansion in Georgia and what appears to be the complete oeuvre of an artist named Henry Varnum Poor.

With no government funding, its $150,000 annual budget supported by donations, admissions and memberships, the Sun Cities Art Museum truly belongs to its people.

It was set up in 1976 as a satellite of the Phoenix Art Museum, incorporated on its own in 1980, and built entirely through gifts from local residents. There are only two paid staff members, and the museum closes in the summer when everyone's away.

The place is tiny--200 linear feet of exhibition space in the main gallery, a storage area smaller than some bathrooms in Paradise Valley. There's also an ancillary gallery, where every month the work of different local artists is hung in shows that run heavily to watercolor.

Reinhold's job is to cater to her constituents' tastes.
"They like American art; they like shows that are pleasing to the eye and relaxing," she says. They don't like Mexican art and they don't like photographs.

Reinhold came on board last fall as a peacemaker after problems with two earlier directors had brought dissention to the board. With a background in art consisting of classes in china painting, her more pertinent experience was as director of elderly services at her former hometown in Wisconsin.

At the museum, Reinhold has taken such unprecedented steps as long-range planning and pruning unwanted items--like coins and figurines--from a collection that grew by accepting anything offered. These days, Reinhold is trying to direct the growth of that jumbled inventory through appropriate applications of encouragement and discouragement to possible donors.

The main collection, she has decided, will be ethnic dress built around the 150 costumes and accessories from seventy countries donated by Dorothy and Herman Knop. "This is what the Sun Cities Art Museum will be known for," Reinhold says.

Were she single, the 47-year-old Reinhold would be too young to live in the community she serves. Luckily, she says, her husband met the age requirement several years ago, and they moved in as soon as he was eligible. Reinhold loves the "melting pot" the town represents.

With 400 active volunteers, some of them doing what amounts to full-time jobs, the museum is a popular place. It's already expanded once, and fund raising for the third stage will start this fall. Reinhold even gets fan mail. "They're going to their museum," she says. "I know what our audience asks for."

They ask for pierced earrings to be converted to clips. And the purchaser probably knows that the woman doing the work of converting them will be Karen Reinhold herself. She's taken jewelry classes, too.


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Anna Dooling