Queen of Arts

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Hirsch came up with the plan while riding around in a golf cart. He was playing the links with a fellow collector who owns a sizable collection of works by the late American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Hirsch asked the man what he had planned for the work after his death:

"He said it was going to the Guggenheim, in New York. So I said, 'Don't you think some of it should come here?'"

Hirsch says his golfing pal didn't appreciate the criticism.

"He got pretty incensed at me," says Hirsch. "But that got me thinking about how to change this lack of commitment to the institutions we've got here."

He asked several other golf buddies if they'd be willing to pay $5,000 to an organization that connected them to the arts in Arizona. Two wrote him a check.

He and his friends began scouring the putting greens and poring over recent high-end home sales for likely prospects.

Hirsch's route to Phoenix is similar to that of other transplants. He and his first wife, Judy, who died several years ago, began coming here for the winter around 1990.

At first they stayed at the ritzy north end of Scottsdale. They eventually gravitated south, buying a house near downtown Scottsdale, to be closer to the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

Sitting at a glass-topped table just beyond his kitchen, Hirsch momentarily ponders a large, colorful abstract painting on a nearby wall.

"I used to buy inexpensive art," he says. "In fact, I used to be part of a collector's group in Chicago. And there was a gal there who had the only wooden Calder in the world. All that means is you can afford a very expensive piece. It had nothing to do with anything else. I told her that and she said, 'Well, that might be true, but you should try it sometime.'"

The comment nagged Hirsch into doing that. He finally bought an abstract metal sculpture -- he still has it -- by Mark DiSuvero.

"But I found out that that doesn't do it for me."

Hirsch says he got to the point where he nearly stopped collecting.

"I found that owning the object wasn't the important part," he says. "The process of art was more important, how things are done, why they're done."

He taps his head and raises his brows.

"This is where the experience of art is."

The realization led him to develop a summer art program at his rural Wisconsin farm.

At first he considered using the farm as a site for a series of monumental outdoor sculptures.

"He thought about that," says Russell Panczenko, director of the Elvehjem Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where Hirsch sponsored a forum on sculpture. "But then he went in the direction of making it a think tank. He was really looking to it as a way to go somewhere himself. He didn't want to bring things to a close. He wanted to keep things open. That's really very unusual for a patron."

Hirsch says that instead of building objects, he wanted to document what artists were doing and thinking in the last 10 years of the 20th century. He invested about $100,000 a year in the effort, each summer inviting a different group of artists. The farm project compiled the sessions in a series of books filled with esoteric notions that he's still trying to figure out.

"This couldn't be done with public money, because public money requires you to have a specific result as part of the project. This thing, I never knew what I was going to get."

He sees the Circle effort as a similar kind of open-ended collaboration.

"It's another one of my experiments. And I don't know how it's going to turn out, but we need it. These are people who are coming here, spending their winters, and living in some very expensive homes," he says. "Some of them collect and give to institutions back home. They enjoy the benefits of the museums and organizations here, but they aren't getting involved."

Kax Herberger barely turns her stiffened neck to gesture across her wide living room at a painting by the late Scottsdale artist Philip Curtis on a far wall.

"That's The Fighters," she says without looking. "It's the only one he ever did with cowboys and guns. It's strange because it has two moons, one through the balcony and one through the window."

Across an open doorway leading down a hall with more art on the walls, another large frame contains several more Curtis paintings, all of them portrait miniatures. A third Curtis hangs not far from where she sits, bolt upright.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow