Longform

How Dare They?

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Some collectors say they want to see where that change will lead the museum before they donate works of art.

One of them is Carefree resident Stephane Janssen. Over the past decade, the SCA has devoted 14 exhibitions to his 4000-work collection of contemporary American, post-war European and Native American art along with photography and crafts, which art magazines frequently list among the world's top 100 private art collections. The expectant titles of the shows, "Museum in the Making: The Janssen Collection of Fine Art," did more than hint that the future museum was going to be built around his collection. But in the past few years that changed.

Janssen says he's willing to help SMOCA in any way he can. However, he has expanded his interest in Valley institutions to Arizona State University's museum, where in recent years he has donated more than $1 million in art.

"To tell the truth, I don't know where the philosophy of the Scottsdale museum is going to be yet," says Janssen. "Will it be glass art or something else?"

Robert Knight says that while Gerard Cafesjian donated more than $1 million to get the museum started and is likely to offer the museum his substantial collection of glass, the museum hasn't decided whether that will be a major emphasis. He says up to this point Cafesjian has donated only money to the museum. Cafesjian won't discuss his collection or involvement with the museum. SMOCA staffers say it's simply a matter of time before his collection comes to the museum.

As far as future exhibitions go, the museum is organizing a major show of sculptor Howard Ben Tre, who works extensively with glass. It is also planning a major exhibition of work by James Turrell, whose perceptual works with light have distinguished him as one of the finest American artists working today. The show will coincide with the completion in 2000 of the first phase of Turrell's "Roden Crater" project, in which he's transforming a volcano northeast of Flagstaff into a celestial observatory.

The issue that seems to concern Janssen and a number of other art followers is whether the new museum will have the independence to curate without having to censor.

Janssen says that when the museum was selecting works to include in its 1995 exhibition of his photography collection, the museum's staff eliminated part of a diptych by an artist "because there was the word 'fuck' in it," he says. They also chose to delete works by photographer Joel Peter Witkin, whose tableaus often feature living and dead nudes and parts thereof.

Yet his most vivid recollection of the weeding occurred while he and Robert Knight were considering several photographs showing a monkey with a man, a woman and a child: "Robert said, 'we can't put the child in because it could be seen as child pornography.' I said, 'the child is 3-years-old, and he's standing on the belly of a monkey.' He said, 'but the monkey is playing with himself.'"

So the two of them, says Janssen, pulled out a magnifying glass and leaned over the picture. "And what we see is that it's a woman monkey. He's not playing with himself because there's no him."

Knight says that the museum did edit works from its show of Janssen's photography, but citing the predicament of the SCA's galleries, he characterizes the decision as one of curation rather than censorship. "There are two different things at work here. We--the staff--love the pieces that he talked about. We would love to show them. But at the time we just didn't have an appropriate gallery for them."

He points out that the show was slated for the middle of the atrium, where school children are constantly roaming.

Knight says the museum is considering taking a traveling exhibition of work by Joel Peter Witkin.

The point is, "We're here to make selections," he adds. "But it's not our own personal standards. Our decisions have to reflect community standards."

Knight says that having the new museum will allow for more adventurous work, even work that might test the limits of those standards. But in talking with city officials and corporate sponsors, it's apparent that the powers and funders that be are trusting that SMOCA will continue to weigh those values carefully.

"We're going to have to continue to make choices," says Frank Jacobson. "Will he do tough things? I think he'll do tougher things with this new building."

Right now, Childsplay, the children's theater, is moving in its sets for Velveteen Rabbit, and over the next few weeks, hundreds if not thousands of first graders will be roaming through SCA, bumping up against the art.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow