Commentary: Phoenix Is Not Your Steppingstone for Museum Directors

Amada Cruz has been named the new director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum.
Amada Cruz has been named the new director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum. Phoenix Art Museum

Amada Cruz has been named the new director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum. - PHOENIX ART MUSEUM
Amada Cruz has been named the new director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum.
Phoenix Art Museum
Some friends of mine adopted a dog last week. They’d rescued him from a monster who beat him, and the pup had mostly been cowering behind the furniture ever since. He whined a lot, my friends said, but he never barked at strangers who came through the door.

I told my friends they should name their dog Phoenix. “You mean because he’s going to rise from the ashes?” one of them asked. “No,” I replied. “Because Phoenix hides behind the furniture, too. When someone awful comes to the door, we let them in. And then we whine about how they kicked us around.”

I was in a mood, having spent the day fielding emails and phone calls from people who wanted to talk about how Amada Cruz, the beleaguered director of the Phoenix Art Museum, was leaving for a new position at the Seattle Art Museum. In March I’d published a Phoenix New Times cover story about how Cruz, hired in 2015, had undone much of what had kept the museum going these past 60 years.

So, people were calling to congratulate me, as if I’d had something to do with Cruz’s hasty exit for Washington state. “It wasn’t me, and she wasn’t fired,” I told everyone who called. “She quit.”

“Oh, now, you know that can’t be true,” pretty much all of them said. “I heard that the museum told her to go find another job so they wouldn’t have to pay her a severance.”

And then they all, to a person, made me promise not to quote them.

I doubted that Cruz was shown the door, but I wasn’t surprised to learn she was fleeing. After watching her beat the crap out of our museum for four years, I never expected anything more noble from Cruz than leaving her underqualified staff and her befuddled board of directors to clean up the mess she’d made.

“I feel like I’ve been given a gift,” Cruz had the gall to tell the Seattle Times about her pending escape from Phoenix. If not a gift, Cruz certainly deserved something after dumping key staff within her first few weeks on the job here and chasing away more than 100 volunteers, some of whom had toiled for 30 years and longer at their own expense.

She’d shuttered volunteer organizations that had raised funds and purchased art, and had closed the Ullman Center for the Art of Philip C. Curtis, the only PAM gallery devoted to a local artist. According to Phil Curtis Sr., a trustee of the Curtis estate and the artist’s nephew, the museum had a lifelong lease on that space. He says Cruz refused to respond to phone calls and registered letters asking why she’d closed the gallery and what she planned to do with the money earmarked for that project, which the museum was apparently still receiving.

All this led to shattered morale and the loss of nearly $100 million in personal endowments to the museum, according to Dr. Cathy Swan, another former longtime volunteer who’s continued to track former benefactors who’ve disinherited PAM, and for how much.

Cruz got a couple of things right before bailing out on Phoenix and our art museum. She introduced long-overdue bilingual signage throughout PAM’s galleries, an achievement mentioned endlessly by PAM flacks. (The museum magazine, brochures, and website remain exclusively in English, however.) She’s credited with doubling complimentary First Friday attendance and adding additional free-access times, although neither of these generated revenue. She did make money for the museum, landing several new big-bucks corporate donors.

But I’m still dubious about claims that Cruz eradicated the museum’s debt. Phoenix Art Museum profit and loss statements from last year show that the museum borrowed money to pay off old debts. I’m no bean counter, but what’s that old saying about robbing Peter?

“Seattle can have her,” Curtis Sr., said when he called to talk about Cruz’s hasty exit. “Good luck to them. I think this will be a positive change for Phoenix Art Museum.”

I wish I were as hopeful as Curtis, or the dozen or so others who called to cheer the advent of a new PAM director. I worry that hiring apathetic, under-qualified out-of-towners to run our cultural institutions has become a solid but questionable Phoenix tradition, like tubing the Salt River or cruising Central Avenue. And that refusing to do much more than gossip about it — off the record, please! — is now just our way, here in the desert.

There are big cities, I am told, where theater companies hire artistic directors who actually stay longer than a few months (hello, David Ivers!); where museum boards laugh at wealthy doyennes who try to strong-arm them into hiring a ribbon clerk as CEO; where arts volunteers who’ve been badly treated aren’t afraid to talk to journalists about it.

Phoenix is not such a place.

Well, mostly. When I wrote about the mess at the Phoenix Art Museum earlier this year, a handful of people were willing to talk about how they’d taken action. But there were more people who called or met with me to say, essentially, “I stood by and watched it all happen, and I didn’t do anything about it because I was afraid. But, look, I disinherited the museum! Please don’t quote me.”

That’ll show ’em.

On our way to becoming a big city, we’re stuck in a rut. We keep hiring people who don’t know how to do their jobs, who won’t consider how things have been done in the past, and who don’t care about whether we have culture or not, because they’re on their way someplace else. For these ambitious, hardhearted folks, Phoenix is one big, fiery steppingstone; a blurb on their updated resume. And once they get here and start lousing things up, we protect them with our fear and our embarrassment and our secrets, knowing they’ll eventually get tired and go away. These are not people who love Phoenix, or care about advancing our culture.

I don’t begrudge Cruz the greener pastures of Seattle. If I’m angry at anyone, I’m angry at everyone who was afraid to speak up. I’m mad at my colleagues who soft-pedaled the Cruz story, trying so hard to be “fair” that they came off like PAM flacks. I’m mad at the would-be-activists who turned Amada Cruz into a token, refusing to admit that even a woman of color can be lousy at her job. And I’m mad at the spineless board members who let a couple of wealthy trustees strong-arm them into taking on a CEO who’d never run a museum before, a story I was told time and again by board members past and present; former employees and present employees; and docents and ex-docents.

“Why did you let that happen?” I asked Peter Banko, a museum studies professor and former PAM board member who resigned after Cruz began shaking things up. “Why didn’t you stand up for yourselves, for the museum?”

“We tried,” Banko told me. “We were told by a cabal of wealthy board members that they were hiring Amada Cruz, and not to make a fuss about it, not to speak up, because the decision had already been made. And everybody just shut up, and she was there at the next meeting. And everything started to fall apart after that.”

Our cultural institutions are going to keep falling apart, until their governing boards learn to give the finger to the wealthy, bullying cabals. Our cultural leaders need to stop cowering behind the sofa; to stand up the next time someone tries to force an amateur on them. Until they do, let’s don’t bother to get our hopes up about future Phoenix cultural leaders. We will almost certainly have another Amada Cruz, any day now.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela