Nurturing the climate for contemporary art in the Grand Canyon State is largely in the hands of curators at its major institutions, and conversations with Arizona curators reveal how diligently they take on that role. With a zeal for sharing their knowledge, they constantly assess contemporary art trends and bring in artists of national and international renown. At the same time, there is an expectation that they acknowledge the innovative work being done in Arizona itself. It can be a daunting balancing act. But if the 2016-17 season at five of the state’s most significant museums is any indication, Arizona curators are striking that balance just fine—mounting shows with national and international cachets as well as those that highlight regional artists.
The Tucson Museum of Art, for instance, is featuring a show through mid-2017 that seamlessly blends the works of international and Arizona artists. Called “Poetic Minimalism,” it places works by the likes of Beverly Pepper, Jasper Johns, Robert Mangold and Theodoros Stamos alongside paintings and sculptures by regional artists exploring Minimalism with comparable facility yet without the same degree of fame. Although all the works could come under the umbrella of Minimalism, several are imbued with a humanistic, expressionistic or “poetic” subtext.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Julie Sasse, who’s been at TMA for 16 years and is now chief curator and curator of modern, contemporary and Latin American art. The fact that she has worked in Arizona since the 1980s gives her an indisputable perspective on the state’s art scene and has deepened her knowledge on the variety of contemporary artists—well known and not so well known—who hail from Arizona or who have based themselves here.
Sasse says her mandate as a curator isn’t necessarily to influence Arizonans’ taste in art, but simply to educate audiences and broaden their horizons. “I see my job as being a conduit between what was done, what was made, and why it’s relevant—why we should care about it,” she explains. Much of her work over the years has been creating themed shows—“I call them ‘portals of understanding’’’—enabling side-by-side presentations of regional and national artists. One notable example is 2009’s “Trouble in Paradise: Examining Discord Between Nature and Society,” with a broad spectrum of artists looking allegorically and narratively at environmental phenomena.
Having established that premise for the show, “there was no way I wasn’t going to include regional artists,” she says, referring to the many ways local artists address the Southwest’s environmental concerns. Sasse also oversees the Arizona Biennial (next slated for 2018), spotlighting the state’s contemporary artists working in a variety of mediums, which has gained a sound reputation by typically being curated by someone from out-of-state.
An important hub for regional artists is the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe, where Heather Sealy Lineberry is senior curator and associate director. Many longtime Arizona artists, some of whom show internationally, teach in ASU’s art department, and as Lineberry notes, one of the museum’s mandates as a university-based institution is to foster the careers of faculty members. On the one hand, “We’re doing community-based research and being socially embedded, because of our role as a local academic institution,” says Lineberry, who has been with the museum for more than 25 years. But on the other hand, “We need to contribute to the larger dialogue and bring very broad, creative ideas to the attention of our students and our community. We’re navigating the two on a regular basis.”
Among the variety of strategies the ASU Art Museum employs to strike a balance between the local and international scenes is to host numerous artists-in-residence, notably from Latin America and Europe. Another strategy is trans-disciplinary ASU teams exploring a particular curatorial thesis, such as art addressing the borderlands or the exigencies of the desert. Lineberry is particularly excited about a show running through June 17, 2017, called “Map(ing),” bringing together indigenous artists and ASU graduate students to investigate personal and cultural histories through printmaking. Professor Mary Hood began the project in 2009. Also on the horizon this spring is “projectWALK,” which is being co-coordinated by ASU faculty member Angela Ellsworth, a nationally known multi-disciplinary artist. The project will encompass exhibits, a 3-mile silent walk aiming for 1,000 participants, a film series on walking as an art practice, and a symposium featuring site-specific performance artist and writer Ernesto Pujol.
Across town at the Phoenix Art Museum, chief curator Gilbert Vicario is quick to preface his conversation with the fact that he’s been on the job for less than a year-and-a-half, but that he’s excited by Phoenix’s energy and desert setting. Still, he sees the potential to expand the curatorial mission of the Southwest’s largest art museum, which could amount to fresh infusions of cutting-edge artists and more origination of shows suitable for travel to other museums, he says.
“The role I can play is to bring the world to my community,” Vicario says, noting how shows with an international cachet can be both educational and inspiring to museum visitors. An “encyclopedic” museum like PAM, he says, can’t afford to be parochial. “If you’re only fed what’s around locally, then that doesn’t really give you a well-rounded perspective of the culture or the world,” he adds.
Accordingly, one of the first shows Vicario has arranged for the museum is The Propeller Group (February 18 – May 14, 2017), a Vietnam-based art collective merging conceptual art with media production, often touching on historical, political and cultural themes. Aware that the show might be outside the comfort zone of many viewers, Vicario is confident The Propeller Group’s distinct approach will find an audience. “What I’ve learned being here over the past year is that there isn’t just one audience of Phoenix Art Museum—there are multiple ones, and that it’s important to manage that and to offer that (variety) to people,” he says.
In recognition of the other side of the coin, though, Vicario wants to raise the visibility of the annual showcase of Arizona artists sponsored by the Contemporary Forum (a museum support group), slated for early summer 2017. In past years, the half-dozen participating artists have often had their work relegated to corridors or easy-to-miss areas. Vicario plans to dedicate an upstairs gallery with good foot traffic to the Contemporary Forum show, with an added goal of helping artists learn about the ins and outs of showing in a formal museum space.
Some of the most cutting-edge work that Arizona has to offer can be found at a much smaller institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson, housed in a former fire station near downtown Tucson. Curator at MOCA since 2013, and chief curator since 2015, Jocko Weyland has noticed that local audiences are still slow to warm to the idea of conceptual art and art utilizing digital media—a cornerstone of MOCA. “Tucson’s a place where contemporary art is not that well known, even with the existence of the museum, but we’re doing our best to get the word out,” says Weyland. And he’s not been deterred from organizing intriguing shows featuring both international and regional artists. An example is the current Miranda Lichtenstein show “Sound and Noise,” a photographic exploration into the inscrutability of emotions and thoughts (through January 29, 2017).
The main gallery, for its part, features the Tucson- and New York-based architectural firm of Aranda\Lasch in collaboration with basket weaver Terrol Dew Johnson, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation of southern Arizona. In “Meeting the Clouds Halfway,” the artists explore the place of traditional Native American art—its shapes, materials and symbolic nature—in relation to contemporary aesthetics, filling the gallery with variously sized experiments with natural materials (through January 29, 2017).
When asked how successful MOCA has been in expanding Tucsonans’ notions of what constitutes art, Weyland remarks, “That’s a hard thing to gauge—I think that’s an ongoing, evolving process that you often don’t find out about until years later.” Attendance, he’s happy to say, has been increasing, though. “A lot of [the art we show] is challenging, or whatever word you want to use,” he says. The point is to create exhibits in which “the art is not necessarily likable, but has multiple entry points.”
Meanwhile, in Scottsdale, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has nurtured a loyal audience while encouraging curators to take chances working with artists outside the mainstream. For instance, in 2015 SMoCA premiered an installation by the Arizona- and New Mexico-based collective Postcommodity. The group was since invited to participate in this year’s Whitney Biennial.
Claire Carter, who has been a curator of contemporary art at the museum for nine years, realizes she’s taking somewhat of a risk with her next show, which will be SMoCA’s only spring show. Called “I Remember Not Remembering” (February 11 – April 30, 2017), the expansive exhibition is based on the ephemeral qualities of memory and time and how artists manipulate those qualities through video, film and photography, frequently autobiographical in nature. “So much of the show is about being immersed in someone else’s story,” Carter says. The international lineup includes Larry Sultan, Kahlil Joseph, Christian Boltanski and Janet Cardiff/George Bures Miller. The show also embraces regional art with the video work focusing on family by José Inerzia/Adriana Trujillo from Tijuana, Mexico.
“It’s all about balance for us,” Carter says. “I don’t choose artwork just because it’s difficult. But I’m able to show difficult artwork because we’re using our resources effectively,” she adds. The show’s inclusiveness is another deliberate choice. In featuring a good mix of men and women, and representing artists of different nationalities and various ethnicities and ages, she notes, “the show won’t let you escape the fact that, despite our demographics, the things that we hold close and the way that we use video and photography in our most intimate lives, that’s universal.”
Curators like Carter, Weyland, Vicario, Lineberry and Sasse inhabit a cross-section of missions and philosophies, and it’s reflected in their projects. Yet all take pride in their abilities both to find the best of what’s being produced regionally and to reach across the globe, to present works that please, inspire, raise questions, confound and illuminate. It’s an act of alchemy that undeniably enriches the Arizona art scene. As Lineberry observes, “Both in terms of the number of institutions we have that are focusing in a rigorous manner on contemporary art, and the size of our population, we’re a pretty fascinating place right now.”