An Artistic Challenge

When the Phoenix Art Museum's sprawling new $25 million expansion/renovation hatches next month, it is expected to be one of the premier museum spaces in the Southwest.

Two new wings, designed by New Yorkers Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, will double PAM's exhibition area, to 65,000 square feet. The new galleries will house special shows, graphic arts and the museum's growing collections of modern and Latin American art. And the upgraded, old building will create breathing room for the museum's displays of fashion design and Asian, European and decorative art.

Together, these improvements will enable the museum to bring more of its roughly 13,000 works out of storage and accommodate exhibitions that the cramped, old digs simply could not.

Better storage, better lighting, better security, better studios for children's classes and easier access to the museum's library are also part of the package. There will be a new lobby and an expanded museum store (both already open), a 300-seat theatre for lectures and films, a restaurant run by Eddie's Grill and a "great hall," which the museum hopes will become a moneymaking party room.

What isn't yet clear about these impressive improvements in the museum's physical plant is whether or how they will be matched by the permanent collection to be displayed within. For historical, financial and cultural reasons, PAM's permanent collection is, even under charitable analysis, spotty. With the exception of Chinese art, the museum's collection has few areas that demonstrate comprehensive excellence, and many in which the occasional striking work is surrounded by mediocrity.

What cultural identity and purpose will emerge, then, behind PAM's new facade?

How will the museum fulfill its self-defined public mission to educate, enlighten and entertain? Will it be able to balance a growing trend among museums--making high culture more attractive to unsophisticated viewers--with deeper obligations to sponsor exhibitions of original, scholarly and artistic merit? And how will it focus its varied collections: What will it buy, and what will it sell?

In short, can the Phoenix Art Museum build a collection as well as it has built buildings?

Questions about collecting are hardly new or foreign to the museum. James Ballinger, PAM's director, says that as far back as the early 1980s, when expansion was still a glimmer in the institutional eye, the museum began evaluating what kind of institution it was and wanted to become.

The collection was the first and most obvious focus, he says, "for the simple reason that before you can expand, you need to know what galleries to build. And to do that, you first have to determine what sort of collection you have."

"When we began to evaluate ours, we realized that almost everything here, whether it's in costumes, Asian, American, European and Latin American art, fell somewhere between the 18th century and the present. We predate that by a little bit with some earlier European things. We do have a few Renaissance and Baroque things that are quite nice, but it's not an arena we can afford to leap into. Likewise, in the Asian area, we have earlier material. But our mark has really been made in what's called recent Asian art."

One of the more reliable cliches in the museum business is that collections are their community. Whether the result of conquest, settlement or serendipity, collections tend to mirror the taste, money and influence of the people who gather, give or bequeath them.

This has particular relevance at PAM, where, according to Ballinger, the museum has never had much money to purchase works and roughly 90 percent of the collection has come via donations of art.

The museum's story deviates from the norm in one significant way: Most museums are founded and built around distinct collections. But PAM was built in 1959 as an outgrowth of a general feeling among well-heeled Phoenicians that their young city deserved a museum.

"You can trace that idea directly back to the artist Phil Curtis, who came here in the 1930s and started the WPA art center," says Edward "Bud" Jacobson, a prominent Phoenix attorney and longtime trustee and benefactor of the museum.

"When Curtis came back here after the war, he was able to coalesce enough people who had money and really did love art. He sort of attracted them as a pied piper would. Of course, once you have a group like that, the next thing you know they want to have a place to meet and then a place to view pictures. So a museum was just the logical next step."

The first such step was taken by the Heard family, which donated most of the block the museum now occupies. A fund drive among potential patrons and trustees netted the money to purchase the rest of the land. And the original building, constructed in 1959, also was built with private donations.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow