We May Be Losing Cultural Cornerstones Like ASU’s “Duke” Reiter and SMoCA’s Susan Krane, but Just As Much Talent Is Coming to the Valley As Leaving It

I'm sort of befuddled about the recent requiems for Phoenix arts community members who've left town for greener pastures — just as they always have and just as they always will.

Okay, so it does seem like there's an arts diaspora going on here, which some scene watchers view as a brain drain sucking vitality from the local arts scene. But I see just as much talent coming to the Valley as I see leaving it.

Trust me, I know this incestuous little world — and understand the reasons someone might want to flee this burg, like seven-month summers of almost-unbearable heat. When I moved here in 1992 from Orange County (home of Disneyland, Little Saigon, moderate temperatures, ubiquitous boob jobs, credibility-testing face lifts, the John Birch Society and, most recently, The Real Housewives of Orange County), my mantra was that I would not die in Arizona.


Phoenix Art Museum

But though the summers seem to have gotten hotter here, my ardor for Southern California has definitely cooled. People I've met in the Valley, like Marilyn Zeitlin, John Spiak (actually, I knew him back in SoCal when he was a mere pup) and Lisa Sette, not to mention a gaggle of wonderful local artists and art professionals, are a huge part of why I'm now in Phoenix for the duration.

So, instead of being buried under a pepper tree in San Diego's Balboa Park, I suspect I'll be resting for eternity in the Bisbee graveyard where my dad's parents and a number of other paternal relatives are buried. But I digress.

Recent art-related departures include Susan Krane, director of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, who just announced she's leaving SMoCA to become director at northern California's San Jose Museum of Art, leaving SMoCA to seek a new leader.

And Marilyn Zeitlin, the longtime director of Arizona State University Art Museum, "retired" almost a year ago. Zeitlin put the once-sleepy museum on the international arts map by being chosen U.S. commissioner for the 100th anniversary of the Venice Biennale in 1995 ("Venice, Anyone?" June 1, 1994). It seems Kwang-Wu Kim, dean of ASU's Herberger College of Fine Arts and a concert pianist, owes his primary allegiance and attention more to music than the visual arts, about which he has publicly admitted to knowing very little. Kim apparently has been lethally slow in beginning the search for a permanent ASUAM director. Heather Lineberry, the museum's interim director and senior curator, has made it very clear that she doesn't want the position permanently, though, as always, Lineberry is pure grace under fire.

Yes, we're forced to bid bon voyage to Wellington "Duke" Reiter, ASU's dean of the College of Design and architecture professor, who's packed up and headed to Chicago, where he's taken the not-too-shabby position of president of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A major force in the shaping of ASU's new downtown campus — which, at this point, is basically completed — Reiter previously was a principal in Urban Instruments, an environmental arts firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an associate prof of design at M.I.T. "That [downtown campus] project is under way and, frankly, doesn't need my supervision," Reiter unapologetically told Chicago Tribune reporter Charles Storch, in reference to ASU. "I am not leaving anyone in the lurch."

No dummy, Reiter is taking with him Sherrie Medina, the College of Design's assistant director of the Master of Real Estate Development program, a position that oversees a collaborative degree between the schools of law, design, construction, and business. She'll assume the even weightier mantle of the Chicago school's associate vice president of research and strategic initiatives. Medina has curated several memorable local exhibitions here, like "You Still Draw Like a Girl" and, in conjunction with ex-SMoCA curator Erin Kane, the peripatetic Ghost Gallery. But Medina earned her BFA in painting and sculpture from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so her defection seems to be a case of getting back to where she once belonged.

And, woe unto us that Phoenician Liz Cohen is off to prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit to teach photography. The multi-media/performance artist is currently consumed with making art about muscle and lowrider cars, as well as "pimping her own ride" by reconfiguring herself as a car model. Cranbrook seems a logical career choice since Cohen is an experienced photographer and Detroit is the Motor City (where better to snag cherry car parts?). She'll be in the same place as superhero-costume-knitting artist and former ASU fibers prof Mark Newport, who was appointed artist-in-residence and head of Cranbrook's fiber department in 2007 — another no-brainer. Funny that there was no similar eulogy with the departure of edgy African-American painter and ASU painting professor Beverly McIver after she left town about a year ago to go back to North Carolina, the place she was raised and got her undergrad degree. And word on the street is that Hector Ruiz is waffling about whether he will continue to mount exhibitions at The Chocolate Factory, located on Grand Avenue.

What art-scene mourners have overlooked, however, is the influx of major talent that is filling the voids left by departing artists, museum curators, and gallerists.

While some may call these art exits a brain drain, others view such typical ebb and flow as a cerebral swap necessary to reinvigorate our local arts community. According to the ever-networking arts booster John Spiak, a curator at ASU Art Museum since 1994, "People come and go from our arts community all the time, which is extremely healthy. When they leave, we often hear it's a 'brain drain,' but I believe that's the wrong way to think about it. New individuals arrive to our community all the time, infusing our scene with new energy, insight, and vision. They also bring knowledge from their former communities, helping to build expanded relationships, connections and opportunities."

"The individuals who leave," adds Spiak, "provide us with connections in the communities in which they relocate."

Some of the more recent infusions to Phoenix's arts scene include Phoenix Art Museum's new curator of modern and contemporary art, British-born and Sorbonne-educated Sara Cochran. No slouch in the curatorial department, Cochran left Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she was an assistant curator of modern art. Before that, she was a curatorial assistant at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, a researcher for the education department at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and curator of the East Wing Collection at the University of London's Courtauld Institute of Art, touted as one of the world's pre-eminent centers for the study of art history. If this seems too good to be true, see for yourself at Cochran's meet-and-greet lecture at PAM on October 14 (details at phxart.org).

Not to be outdone, in April of this year, SMoCA added Claire Schneider to its curatorial roster as the museum's senior curator. Schneider came from a 10-year engagement at the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York, one of the oldest and best-known modern and contemporary art museums in the country. Considered a heavy hitter, Schneider also has put in time at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), New York's Guggenheim and Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum. She's mounted a number of important exhibitions, including ones showcasing the work of Mathew Barney and Andrea Zittel, and is best appreciated for co-curating "Extreme Abstraction," a gigantic international survey of over 150 artists that included 20 site-specific installations and special commissions. The work in "Extreme Abstraction" spanned several generations of American abstractionists and minimalists (think everyone from Pollock, Gorky, Rothko, and deKooning to Judd, Flavin, and Lewitt to Linda Benglis, Polly Apfelbaum, and Damien Hirst).

Also new to town and sure to add a Pacific Rim presence is Rico Reyes, a multimedia artist working in video, installation, and performance, and former director of the University of the Pacific Art Gallery in Stockton, California. Reyes made his art mark by curating exhibitions of contemporary Filipino-American art. He's been a member of Barrionics, a group of Filipino-American artists featured in "Barrionics Does Barrioque" at the Togonon Gallery in San Francisco — how's that for new influences on the old local scene?

Another newcomer to Phoenix, but old-timer to the international art world is Bruce Ferguson, a well-known independent curator and critic with credentials to choke a sword-swallower. The former dean of New York's School of Arts at Columbia University and president and executive director of the New York Academy of Art, Ferguson was the founding director and first biennial curator of a little art soirée known as SITE Santa Fe, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I guess he thinks Phoenix is important enough in the international art galaxy for him to plan a brand-new media, arts and culture institute at ASU, which will be known as Future Art Research Institute (FAR).

People seem to ignore the fact that just because artists leave town doesn't mean that they never come back. Tethered by roots to family, friends, and colleagues, they visit on a regular basis. Some actually move back, like interdisciplinary artist Angela Ellsworth, a glittering star in the Phoenix art firmament (boy, did I cry when she left town the first time). Ellsworth is now an assistant professor of intermedia in ASU's Herberger College of the Arts. And I don't hear anyone heaving a sigh of relief — though they should — that Perihelion has decided to stay in town and is moving to Roosevelt Row's Artisan Lofts. Specializing in slightly demented, high/lowbrow work heavily influenced by pop culture that appears in San Francisco-based Juxtapoz magazine, Perihelion is an aesthetic groundbreaker whose vision has just been given certified museum credentials by "In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor," an exhibition at Laguna Art Museum presenting the work of 150 artists who are an integral part of the huge, but officially unrecognized, art movement that's been taking place in this country for the past 40 years.

And don't forget all the artists who may not live here but are constantly in town working on public-art projects or showing at places like Marshall Way's Lisa Sette Gallery — people like Kim Cridler (Madison, Wisconsin) and Einar and Jamex de la Torre (San Diego/Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico).

I just don't see any reason to bemoan the loss of art types who are moving up the ladder to bigger and arguably better things, especially when they're being replaced by such incredible newcomers who've left places just as important as the places for which the old artists, curators, and gallerists are leaving. Artists are built to crave new surroundings for new inspiration and will always go elsewhere. It's going to happen. It has to happen to transfuse Phoenix's art scene with new life. God only knows how many artists have come to town in the past six months whom we just don't know about yet.

And, by the way, that rumor about fourth-generation Phoenix farmer and land artist Matthew Moore and painter Carrie Marill leaving town? It's just a rumor. According to Marill, whose current solo show, "Doing a Lot with Very Little," just opened at NYC's Jen Bekman Gallery, the art couple plan on staying here for at least a few more years before they contemplate leaving family and friends.

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