The Phoenix Art Museum has announced the departure of Curator of Fashion Design Dennita Sewell. Her tenure with the museum stretches over 19 years, during which time she helped build an impressive collection of costumes, scored national press for the museum, and became a beloved member of its curatorial staff.
Sewell’s exit will likely have an impact on the museum’s already compromised coffers, as its fashion exhibitions were a chief money-maker for the institution.
It’s the latest in a long list of setbacks at the museum, founded in 1959 and overseen for decades by former director Jim Ballinger. His replacement, Amada Cruz, reportedly raised ire and lowered morale within museum administration, first by folding nine of the 11 support organizations and then restructuring the museum’s docent program, a move that caused more than 200 volunteers to quit.
Cruz, repeatedly credited with erasing the museum’s million-dollar debt, quit last month shortly after it was revealed by Phoenix New Times that the museum was $3 million in arrears. To reverse its debt, Cruz laid off nine employees, among them the museum’s research librarian, leaving museum staff with no library.
Longtime supporters of the museum, unhappy with these and other changes, began withdrawing financial support of, and bequests to, the museum. The total lost income, according to one source, amounts to nearly $100 million. Although Cruz and other museum officials insisted this loss was unimportant, PAM’s board of trustees announced last month its intention to hire former Arizona Commission on the Arts director Shelley Cohn to recoup some of this “unimportant” lost income.
During her time with the museum, Sewell expanded its fashion collection, adding more than 3,000 objects dating from the 18th century to the present. She curated dozens of exhibitions that garnered significant national press and lured crowds who were more interested in dresses worn by Marilyn Monroe than in the museum’s excellent Asian art collection.
“Dennita leaves a lasting legacy of excellence,” board chair Jon Hulburd said in a prepared statement.
Kathie May, president of Arizona Costume Institute, agreed. “It was both incredibly fortunate and rare to have her vision and guidance for nearly two full decades,” May wrote in a letter to ACI members.
Sewell, who didn’t respond to an interview request, has overseen the development of a bachelor of arts program in fashion at ASU’s Institute for Design and the Arts for the past several years. In an email, a PAM spokesperson confirmed that Sewell resigned on August 2. Her last day at the museum will be August 13, after which she will “focus her attention exclusively on her growing role at ASU.”
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