A Conversation With Tim Rodgers, the New CEO of Phoenix Art Museum

Tim Rodgers will be the next director and CEO for Phoenix Art Museum.
Tim Rodgers will be the next director and CEO for Phoenix Art Museum. Lynton Gardiner
Phoenix Art Museum hired Tim Rodgers as its new director and CEO, announcing on April 3 that his official term will begin after July 1. The museum’s former director, Amada Cruz, left in July 2019, and now serves as director and CEO for Seattle Art Museum.

It’s a full circle moment for Rodgers, who earned his undergraduate degree in art history from ASU several decades ago. Coincidentally, his first art history professor, Claudia Brown, was one of the museum’s curators at the time.

For six years, he headed Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Rodgers also spent several years as chief curator for the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. Currently, he’s the director of a Miami Beach museum, library, and research center called The Wolfsonian-Florida International University.

“I’m excited about taking on this challenge, and really thrilled to be the person chosen to lead Phoenix Art Museum,” Rodgers says.

The entrance to Phoenix Art Museum. - LYNN TRIMBLE
The entrance to Phoenix Art Museum.
Lynn Trimble
He did a video interview with the search committee in February, when the world was on the cusp of a pandemic, and learned that he was part of a smaller group of candidates under final consideration for the job. “We went to Arizona right before everything broke,” he recalls. He and his husband returned to Miami on March 12.

The next day, Rodgers oversaw the temporary closure of The Wolfsonian-FIU, joining the ranks of arts administrators around the globe wondering when public health conditions might allow community gathering spaces to reopen. More video calls followed before Rodgers learned he’d landed the gig.

“I’m very happy to be coming home,” he says. Although Rodgers was raised in the Midwest, his family moved to Arizona while he was in college, and he still has friends and family in the Valley.

Rodgers’ official title is Sybil Harrington Director and CEO, which references one of the museum’s donors. He’ll be tasked with overseeing the museum’s $12 million budget (the board of directors oversees the museum’s endowment of over $26 million).

“I’ll start on July 1, whether I’m there in person or not,” Rodgers says. “The museum gave me some flexibility on that, just in case the whole world goes crazy.”

click to enlarge A November 2019 tour of "Legends of Speed" exhibit, before the advent of social distancing. - LYNN TRIMBLE
A November 2019 tour of "Legends of Speed" exhibit, before the advent of social distancing.
Lynn Trimble
He’ll assume the mantle as COVID-19 continues to strain museum resources on a local, national, and global scale. “The pandemic has shown how incredibly fragile these institutions are,” he says. “They all have financial issues at this point.”

Rodgers considers this a defining moment for museums. “Every institution will write its own story about how it gets through this — or not.” Of course, the fact that Phoenix Art Museum was already facing financial issues will only complicate that story.

There’s another issue in the mix — the prevalence of white males in museum leadership around the country. Several people took to social media the day Phoenix Art Museum announced Rodgers’ appointment, criticizing the museum for replacing a woman of color with a white man.

“I’m more complicated than that,” Rodgers says of the white male label. “I’ve been openly gay throughout my professional life, which gives me a perspective that helps me understand those who’ve been oppressed and marginalized.”

Rodgers says he’s eager to engage in conversations about the museum. “I want to come in and talk with the community, the staff, and the board, and get a better understanding of what they’re thinking rather than imposing my ideas on the institution.”

Even so, he’s already identified some possible changes.

“One thing many people have talked about is how the museum allocates space.” Some areas like fashion have grown and may need more room, Rodgers says. He’s also curious about how works from separate areas (such as Asian art and contemporary art galleries) could come together around shared ideas in a common space.

click to enlarge Previous "Flora" exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Previous "Flora" exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum.
Lynn Trimble
From his perspective, the museum already has several strengths.

“The museum has an incredible infrastructure, including a collection for building out strong exhibits, a beautiful building, and a strong staff,” says Rodgers. The museum’s collection includes more than 20,000 objects spanning more than 1,000 years. (The facility is owned by the city of Phoenix, as is the adjacent Phoenix Theatre.)

Last year, Phoenix Art Museum entered its 60th year in operation. Typically, it serves about 300,000 visitors a year. Recently, the museum's website became fully bilingual in English and Spanish, although Rodgers wasn't part of that change.

“The museum has always been at the heart of the Phoenix art community, and I’m happy to play a role in that,” says Rodgers. “A lot of listening needs to be done, so we can build a larger vision with everyone feeling that we’ve built it together.”
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble