How Dare They?

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Hugh Davies, whose Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego has been collecting contemporary works since the 1950s, cites the benefits of collecting by comparing the case of New York's MoMA and Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Both institutions were founded in the 1920s, MoMA as a collecting museum, the ICA as one devoted strictly to temporary exhibitions. "I don't have to tell you about the success of MoMA," says Davies. "But if the ICA, which is a wonderful, scrappy institution that scrambles every month to pay its phone bill and keep its door open, had bought one piece from every show they've had there--or if they had bought even one piece a year, they'd have a collection worth millions."

Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, points out that another rationale for developing good collections is to provide young artists with access to original works of art.

One of the things that's likely to help draw donors and benefactors to SMOCA, he adds, was the selection of architect William Bruder. "He's respected throughout the profession and among museum people. And that first step sends a signal to the community and collectors that this new museum values creativity."

Another lure, says SMOCA donor Sara Lieberman, is that it's easier to have an impact on the future of an institution like SMOCA than it would be to affect an older institution "where collections policies have been established for generations and generations." She and her husband, David, relocated here from Minneapolis several years ago and are prominent collectors of American crafts.

Over the past decade, the SCC's spending for visual art has jumped from about $50,000 and 2.5 employees to $1.7 million and a staff of 14. Most of the increase has gone into the SCC's percent-for-art program, which, since its adoption in 1985, has completed 22 projects and has another 27 under way. In 1988, the city also approved an art-in-private-development program, requiring developers to add art to large-scale projects in the downtown area.

Many people attribute the growth of those and other SCC-managed visual arts programs to the agency's success in knowing how to avoid exhibiting works that might offend "community values."

In fact, the agency was established by the city in 1987 to do precisely that. And to spare the city council from having to legislate and curate art.

"The feeling among some council people at that time," says Frank Jacobson, "was who are we to be qualified to decide the merits of a work of art?"

That doesn't mean there haven't been a few skirmishes. In 1991, New Mexico sculptor Luis Jimenez was recommended by an SCC jury as a finalist to produce a sculpture at Main Street and Marshall Way. A contingent of Scottsdale gallery owners opposed the recommendation. A local artist eventually received the commission.

Knight and other staffers say the most difficult juggling they've faced in the old facility was determining what kind of art was appropriate for visitors of all ages and outlooks.

"The problem is that you've got people who come to the center to be entertained at one of the performances, and they wind up being confronted by art that makes them uncomfortable," says Valerie Vadala-Homer. The addition of the Louchheim mezzanine and lower galleries in 1987, gave the SCA's visual art programs a place to sequester the scarier art. However, the New Directions Gallery, which showcases contemporary art--often the most difficult work--has been in a hallway leading to the public restrooms and small lecture hall. Shows have also been mounted on gallery panels in the center of the atrium.

"Whenever we've had anything we've considered graphic or potentially controversial, says Vadala-Homer, we generally post it with the kinds of warning signs you see in a lot of institutions--enter at your own risk."

However, the SCA's layout makes it impossible to prevent every intermission-bound chamber-music patron or wandering school child from becoming an accidental art viewer.

SCC officials say they lost a significant donor who, on her way to the restroom, happened upon Guillermo Gómez Pena sitting on a toilet during his 1994 installation/performance "Temple of Confessions."

The donor hasn't come back.
Vadala-Homer and other officials stress that having a stand-alone space devoted to contemporary art will reduce those kinds of unpleasant surprises.

But it won't eliminate them.
Debra Hopkins, curator at the museum, says that SMOCA's concentration on contemporary art may inevitably leave some people feeling left out. "As we become stronger in our mission and are better able to define what that is, people may get upset. They may want us to be the same place. But we're changing."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow