Edifice Complex

If you listen closely, beyond the din of new megamalls, hockey arenas and football stadiums, you'll hear the rumble of an approaching wave of culture.

To the east, Mesa is expanding the Arizona Museum for Youth at a cost of nearly $3 million and adding a voter-approved $92 million arts center. Tempe is about to select architects for a $35 million arts center of its own.

Scottsdale, the region's perennial culture queen, is mulling additions, as yet unpriced, of a satellite art center to serve its booming population up north. Five or six new performing arts theaters are likely along its downtown canal.

Phoenix is hardly a slacker. Its March 13 bond election includes a $66 million slate of cultural improvements that would, among other things, provide needed expansions of the Arizona Science Center, Phoenix Art Museum and Phoenix Theatre, and long-overdue renovations of downtown's Symphony Hall, Community Arts Center, and Carver Museum and Cultural Center. A brand-new "family museum" is also being proposed for the cultural row along Seventh Street, just beyond the northern shadow of Bank One Ballpark.

This tide of edifice planning and building has been rising here over the past dozen years. It has deposited the Science Center, Phoenix History Museum and ASU museum into their concrete homes.

It raised Phoenix's copper-and-glass-wrapped Central Library and Scottsdale's steel-clad Museum of Contemporary Art. It gave Pueblo Grande Museum new galleries, Phoenix Art Museum its big green wall and soaring interior halls, and expanded the Heard Museum into an impressive complex of studios, galleries and a store.

The approximately $200 million in proposed enhancements may not have the singular splash of a $331 million gridiron. But its breadth should help finish off the lingering joke about the difference between yogurt and Phoenix (culture), and give people a reason to think that the Valley is finally beginning to act its size and age.

"When you look at major cities in the world," says Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director of Actors Theatre of Phoenix, "they're known for their cultural amenities. This is what good cities do. They build these things. And they use them."

To what extent these facilities will be used in a region that traditionally has preferred to find its culture outdoors, in sports arenas or at a mall remains to be seen. What's clear is that they're arriving at a time of tremendous change affecting museums and cultural groups.

More money is flowing in from some new sources.

For many years, Phoenix's cultural institutions came second in the hearts of wealthy snowbirds who did most of their giving back home. But arts officials say that as transplanted patrons have settled in and begun vying for local institutional attention, they've begun reaching into their pockets and their collections.

Stephane Janssen, a European transplant by way of California, has made generous donations to ASU's art museum. Collectors Sara and David Lieberman, Stephen and Gail Rineberg and other migrants from older, colder Midwestern cities have done the same for the Scottsdale Cultural Council and the Phoenix Art Museum.

In the past few years, some longtime local public and private benefactors have also upped their involvement and investments.

The Arizona Commission on the Arts is building its own endowment, called ArtShare, of more than $20 million to assist the state's increasing number of nonprofit arts groups -- estimated at between 300 and 400.

Virginia Ullman contributed $1 million for a new gallery at the Heard Museum, and another sizeable sum to the Phoenix Art Museum for a new room dedicated to the work of the late Scottsdale painter Philip Curtis.

Kax Herberger, in one of the largest private gifts ever given to a local cultural institution, endowed Arizona State University's College of Fine Arts with $12 million, fortifying the school's position as the region's most active arts incubator.

Next fall, the Virginia G. Piper Trust will begin awarding about $30 million in annual grants for a range of cultural and social-service causes in Maricopa County.

But despite these encouraging signs, there's growing concern over whether the region's institutions, old and new, will be able to attract the patronage and audiences they need to stay in business and expand their audiences without abandoning experimental work.

"It is fairly easy to get caught up in the excitement of 'Build it and they will come,'" says Myra Millinger, associate director of the Flinn Foundation, which has been instrumental in cultural growth here. "Every city wants a facility. What they may not have in place is an understanding of what it takes to operate those facilities and an effective plan to do it."

Millinger supports the Phoenix bond and other local efforts to build more cultural venues. Yet she and others in the philanthropy business are worried the proposed new venues may not be able to count on the level of corporate support that existing institutions have enjoyed.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow