The mass exodus of senior staff at the Phoenix Art Museum continues with the departure of Dr. Vanessa Davidson, curator of Latin American art. The museum announced the news this morning in a press release, stating that she’s taken a job as curator of Latin American art at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas.
Davidson’s exit leaves only one longtime curator on staff at the 60-year-old institution: Janet Baker, curator of Asian art. Another senior curator, Betsy Fahlman, is an adjunct curator of American art on faculty staff at ASU; Dr. Rebecca Senf, a curator of photography exhibitions since 2007, left recently after a promotion at the Center for Creative Photography.
During her eight years at PAM, Davidson curated 13 exhibitions, including two that traveled internationally. Renowned for her scholarly lectures on Latin American art, Davidson will leave the museum on September 13.
Jose Damasceno, Nota sobre uma cena acesa ou os dez mil lapiz (Note on a Lit Scene or the Ten Thousand Pencils), 2000. 10,000 pencils on wood panel. Museum of Modern Art, Sao Paulo Collection, MAM Sao Paulo Contemporary Nucleus Acquisition.
“The past eight years at Phoenix Art Museum are very dear to my heart,” Davidson says. “The opportunities I have had to engage in the international conversation of what Latin American art is and can be, and to present exhibitions that illustrate that conversation at Phoenix Art Museum, have been extraordinary.”
Her exit is the latest in a long list of staffing changes at the museum, which was founded in 1959 and overseen for decades by former director Jim Ballinger. The museum struggled to maintain staff after Ballinger’s replacement, Amada Cruz, began reorganizing volunteer organizations, reshaping its lauded docent program, and firing longtime employees.
After Cruz’s departure for a job as CEO of the Seattle Art Museum was announced several months ago, the museum stated that the $3 million debt Cruz claimed to have eradicated was still there. In response, Cruz laid off nine employees, presumably to recoup some of the lost revenue. A few weeks later, Dennita Sewell announced her exit after 19 years as the museum’s curator of fashion design.
The museum's ongoing loss of leadership is evident on its website, which still boasts the docent program of 500-plus members. In reality, the program has been reorganized and was nearly halved after over 200 docents fled over the past year.
Meanwhile, the museum is attempting to engage community support with questionnaires inquiring about what local artists, arts organization members, and museumgoers most want to see in the coming years. The questionnaires were likely inspired by advice from former Arizona Commission on the Arts director Shelley Cohn, hired last month to put out fires and recoup some of the nearly $100 million of bequests reportedly lost when angry museum members changed their wills.
PAM has also offered an unimposing incentive to visual artists who are paid members of the museum: free membership in its fledgling Friends of Contemporary Art group.
The museum will launch yet another international search in October for Davidson’s replacement.
“While leaving Phoenix is a difficult decision, I look forward to continuing to collaborate with the museum,” she says, “and to support the work Phoenix Art Museum continues to do.”