A friend of mine emailed the other day after hearing that Tim Rodgers, the director and CEO of Phoenix Art Museum, was leaving his post after less than a year. The much-lauded former executive director of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art was hired about a year after the 2019 exit of director Amada Cruz, who’d left behind a smoldering stump of in-fighting and penury for Rodgers to sift through.
My friend was worried, she wrote, that if the museum continued its slow sink into the mire of the last several years, it’d close for good. I assured her, a longtime docent who was among those kicked to the curb when the museum’s volunteer program was mangled beyond repair, that the museum will never close.
“But,” I reminded my friend, “it will also never fully recover in our lifetimes.”
The damage done to Phoenix Art Museum after longtime director Jim Ballinger was forced to retire in 2014 isn't something that can be fixed quickly by hiring a new director. The hasty exit of Rodgers, a uniquely qualified local museum authority, is likely proof of that. He can’t have accepted a job as director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design simply because it was too good a gig to pass up, though we’ll never know why he’s blowing town for the second time in little more than a year.
His predecessor shut down the support organizations that had raised museum funds for decades, hobbling the art-buying budgets and wiping out critical supporter morale. She gutted the docent program, reimagining it as a simpleton’s tour and treating its distinguished delegates like a bunch of annoying old biddies. She closed the Ullman Center for the Art of Philip C. Curtis yet continued to accept funds earmarked for that project.
All this while the museum board of trustees looked on, perhaps admiringly. “Who needs a bunch of volunteers devoting their lives to raising money for us?” I imagine our city’s museum board smugly bellowing before sending those sturdy helpers packing. “And let’s get rid of the hundreds of highly trained, unpaid assistants the docent program afforded us!” I can imagine another of them saying, maybe while others cheered and applauded.
Those two support beams weren’t just removed, they were kicked out from under, and then someone ran off with them. Now we’re back to searching for some well-meaning, hopeful director who’ll be tasked with trying to paste together another new solution to prop the place up again. I’ll be in an old-age home by the time PAM gets back on its feet in any real way.
Because who’s going to arrive here knowing where the checkbooks are buried? All those wealthy people who disinherited the museum after Cruz kicked the shit out of it — and I interviewed nearly a dozen of them when I wrote about this atrocity a couple of years ago — aren’t going to sit down with some stranger from Altoona and listen to why they should put the museum back in their will, and oh, by the way, can you write us a check because business is so bad we’re having to offer 60-percent-off Groupon memberships?
Those rich folks are gone.
So, too, are the groups of art lovers who raised funds to purchase artworks for PAM, like that nice ceramic piece, Camello Bactriano, bought by the Asian Arts Council, or Adoracion de Indios, a painting by Alfredo Ramos Martinez gifted by the Friends of Mexican Art. Both organizations are history.
This is what Rodgers was saddled with when he showed up last July, after nearly a year during which the museum limped along without a director (board honcho Mark Feldman pinch-hit, as he’ll do again while PAM goes hunting for Rodgers’ replacement) and an ongoing exodus of senior staff members. He issued an outline detailing how the organization should move forward, with an emphasis on inclusiveness and an admission that the museum had been remiss in the past. After that, nothing much, other than the pandemic, happened. Then Rodgers announced his departure.
What in the world, I wonder, can Rodgers’ replacement possibly do to compensate for this kind of loss? Rodgers was a local guy with a personal investment in both our community and our museum; where will we find another one of those?
If I were running the joint, I’d plead with Jim Ballinger to come back. “Just for a year,” I’d beseech Jim, on bended knee. I’d give him a corner office and a phone and a list of all those nice rich people who withdrew their multimillion-dollar bequests; all those volunteers and docents who were never apologized to. “Call them, Jim,” I’d ask. “Tell them we’re sorry. Call the benefactors you romanced and befriended for years and tell them that we appreciate them, and we need them, and we want them back.”
It’ll never happen. Even if Ballinger were dumb enough to return to the wreckage of the museum he practically built — and although I barely know the man, I can tell you he’s no idiot — we’d all have to agree that it’s okay to hire an old white guy to run a cultural institution, and that will never happen, either.
What’s more likely is that the museum will limp along for another year or so without a director, and then we’ll get someone from out of state who’ll enlarge the fashion gallery (again!) because people don’t want art, they want Balenciaga gowns. And racecars. Maybe the new director will institute unisex bathrooms or title cards in Braille. A year later, they’ll jump ship, and I’ll get another press release about how the new director couldn’t resist a directorship at a real museum in a better city.
There’ll be a lot of talk about “new eras” and “improved inclusiveness” and a tidy spin on museum directorship turnover, but what no one will be talking about is this: A very few years ago, Phoenix Art Museum, the largest museum in the Southwest, was at long last heading into its own thanks to a longstanding director who nurtured financial and volunteer relationships and who appeared interested in something other than furthering his career. And then a bunch of hacks fucked everything up while the museum board shrugged and equivocated and did nothing, leaving the museum to offer cents-off coupons in hopes of inflating a dwindling membership.
Once again, Phoenix culture has been pushed back down into the basement. The people moving here from Chicago and Boston and Cleveland are going to take notice of that, and before we ever gain their support, we'll have lost that, too.