Art Works Blog

Postcard from California and Arizona: Part Two

Here I am in Ajo with the International Sonoran Desert Alliance staff who are working to restore Ajo’s town plaza.

And now, here’s the scoop on the second part of my California and Arizona trip. After Los Angeles, it was on to Phoenix. There, of course, our host was our own National Council on the Arts member Jim Ballinger, who is a great friend and a passionate advocate for the arts. Joining Jim as host was Bob Booker, who is the head of the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Bob and his group are trying to figure out how to survive with less and less state funding---how to try to protect what funding they do have, and how to find alternatives going forward so they can survive and prosper. I was glad that Jim and Bob were able to escort us to our various stops in and around Phoenix.

Our first official stop was at the Tempe Center for the Performing Arts, a beautiful building in Tempe. We met with local arts and cultural leaders there and had a very productive back-and-forth discussion. I told Jim that that’s my favorite part of my job at the NEA---when we have those kinds of forums where we can really hear from the community. They not only hear what I have to say, but I get to hear what their perspectives are. This group of arts folks were the exact right group, and it was, I thought, a very productive discussion, colored especially by what’s happening in Arizona and the challenges they face there.

At the local level, however, support for the arts is very committed. I met with Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who is, as Jim Ballinger says, one of the mayors who actually gets it and who understands the role of the arts in urban areas. We went on to a meeting with Donna Valdes, executive director of the Xico Arte y Cultura, a multidisciplinary arts organization. We met in their gallery where they exhibit works by native artists, indigenous artists. They’re focusing on promoting indigenous heritage and culture through the arts there. Donna’s a dynamo, a very compelling woman. We had a chance to talk to her about the work that she’s doing there and we looked at some of the work in the gallery and at some of the printmaking that they’re doing. They are really very dedicated to the arts in their community.

Next up was a visit to City Hall in Chandler, where there is an arts exhibit space in City Hall itself! There’s not only a gift shop, but there’s a gallery where they invite local artists to exhibit. We had a great tour of Chandler. They’re trying to do everything they can in Chandler to engage the arts, so you go outside and the street signage and the sidewalks and the trash cans and everything have an artistic component. When you take a town like Chandler and start to have an aesthetic consciousness there, it changes the town. Nothing brings that home better than what they’ve done with City Hall itself and its environs.

Then we went on to the Musical Instruments Museum, which was a revelation. I had no idea this was even there. Most of the money was granted by the Chairman of Target. We were hosted by Bill DeWalt, the museum’s director. This is an incredible, state-of-the-art museum. You put on earphones, and as you walk in front of each exhibit---which are divided, by the way, by country and continent---you find the particular music and musical instruments of that country and that continent. And you hear snippets of music played by local traditional musicians, and it's quite thrilling. It’s a combination of very high-tech access with the quality of the exhibits and the earphones that you’re going around with and actually presenting these traditional instruments as they are, some of which were created centuries ago. So you have a real sense of history in this place. The museum was crowded; they bring school groups there. It feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere and yet the parking lot is full of cars. We had lunch there (they have a great cafeteria!), and we heard from Bill about how the museum was created and what it does and it’s very, very impressive.

You know, it’s not so much a musical instruments museum, even though that’s what it’s called. It’s really a museum about the history of music. And I don’t know another one like it. I think the founder felt there was a need for people to understand and know what music there is in different countries all over the world and in different regions and how that came about. Music is universal; every culture has it. And it’s one of the ways we know that art is hardwired into us because particularly young people, young generations, communicate and relate socially through music. And I think there’s nothing more important. We’re talking about now getting a music program at Walter Reed for returning wounded warriors. Music is such an important part of our portfolio. And so it was just great to see what they were doing at the Musical Instrument Museum.

We then were able to tour the Phoenix Art Museum itself. The director happens to be one Jim Ballinger. This was great because the museum was closed as it was Monday, so I had a personal tour of the museum from its director! The neatest thing is that they’re right in the middle of a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit. And not only are there these tremendous Frank Lloyd Wright designs---some executed, some not executed---for houses and for plans that he had, but there was a model that Frank Lloyd Wright built for a culture center for Phoenix that was never executed. The model is incredible---incredibly beautiful and fanciful, pure Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright had a residence in the area and was part of that population for many years. It was great to see the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit as well as the museum’s regular exhibits. The collection is eclectic, but it’s very high quality. Jim and his group have done a great job. You know, it’s always about limited resources, but they picked some very important and compelling works of art that are on exhibit there. It’s a very, very impressive museum, it really is, and I was glad to get the kind of tour that I had. I said to Jim, “You must love coming in here every day. It must be a great place to work with all that’s going on there.”

After that we went to the mayor’s office for a longer visit with Mayor Stanton who is very committed to the arts in Phoenix. After that we toured downtown Phoenix. There is an NEA MICD25 grant project there, which is supporting the redesign of a city block in front of a new market to create more shade through artist-designed shelters. We walked that area and we toured a lot of downtown Phoenix, looking at some of the galleries there, some of the creative re-uses of warehouses and old, underutilized space. We really saw how the arts and artists are making a big difference in downtown Phoenix. I should mention that Edward Lebow, the Public Art program director, joined us for this segment. It was great to see this kind of engagement with the arts and artists in what is one of the biggest metropolitan areas now---and growing---in the country.

The next day we were in Tucson. In Tucson we were primarily accompanied and hosted by Roberto Bedoya, head of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, and Liz Burden of the Warehouse Arts Management Organization. Roberto has a very difficult job considering what’s happening at the state level, but is finding ways for the arts in Tucson and the Pima County area to thrive. He has been all over the country doing arts advocacy, arts work, arts engagement. He knows this territory better than anyone, and I think he’s the leader of what is really a movement now in Tucson.

We started out in the Tucson Art Warehouse District, which is basically, as you might imagine, a collection of old warehouses. We actually had to put on hard hats as they are in the process of physically reconstructing these warehouses as artists’ housing and work spaces. And we were able to visualize how that’s going to be developed. The Our Town project in Tucson will take an inventory of the local creative economy in the Warehouse Arts Triangle. They’ll do an analysis of the economic, real estate, and social impact of the arts and cultural activity in the area. It’s a new, burgeoning locale in which the arts are front and center in terms of what’s going to be done there. In fact, we had a little get-together in one of the galleries there, and one of the guests was Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who is, again, a totally arts-committed mayor. He put on his hard hat, too, and toured with us.

We went to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson (MOCA) and had a brunch and discussion with the leaders of the city’s major arts and cultural organizations. These are the kinds of things I like to do, where I get to engage not only the people running the cultural organizations but, in many cases, the artists themselves. Then we went to a more formal discussion at MOCA that was moderated by Roberto Bedoya. Joining me as panelists were Dr. Maribel Alvarez, who is conducting oral histories of the Yaqui tribe there, and Bill Macky, who is not just an artist, but, a very community-engaged artist working at the intersection of arts and communities and neighborhoods. We also had Gail Brown, the executive director of the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center. The Poetry Center has an extensive history of community partnerships and programs that themselves illuminate placemaking through collaboration among artists and community members. This was a very good panel discussion with an engaged audience, and I was glad we were able to do that. Roberto set a lot of this up, and it was very productive from my perspective.

In the evening I went to a reception at the Tucson Museum of Art for Film Forward, which is one of our programs in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and the Sundance Institute. I spoke at the reception, and I was able to meet the directors of three of the participating films: Mike Mills who directed Beginners, Ali Samadi Ahadi who directed The Green Wave, and Andrew Okpeaha MacLean who directed On the Ice. We also met with Meredith Lavitt, Sundanace's associate director of Film Forward and Utah Community Programs.

After the reception we went to the Loft Cinema and saw a screening of On the Ice, which is a very powerful movie. It was especially powerful for me because it was set in Barrow, Alaska, where I had been in August as part of the Rasmuson Foundation trip. Barrow is one tough town. I mean the economy seems like it’s almost non-existent. There are high rates of crime and alcoholism, and it’s a very, very tough area. You start to think that it’s hopeless until you see a movie like Andrew’s movie, and you see the heart and humanity in the community. The film presents the grimness that is Barrow and the toughness and the difficulties and the problems there and why it’s, in a way, a very depressing place to be, and yet you also see the power of the community there, and how they’re bonded together and how they stand up for each other. How they have tremendous family commitment and community engagement and how, when there’s trouble or difficulty, how they come together. The movie is violent, it’s tough, but in the end, it’s very powerful, and, I think, affirming of the value of that culture, and their commitment to each other and their sense of identity that they have about that particular place. I hope this movie gets a wide audience. It deserves to. I was thinking about that movie for days after I had seen it.

You know there are tensions in that part of the country that I had seen when I was there, and that are clearly in the movie. The older generation wants to preserve the culture and wants the children to join that culture and the kind of subsistence way of life that has been going on there for generations, and the younger generation, some of them, feel that their best chance would be to leave, to get educated somewhere else and to take other opportunities outside the community. You see that tension and that dynamic very strongly in the community, although in the end the movie really is an affirmation of that community and its values and its history and its culture. You know, I think this film is just a really good example of how the arts can reflect back to us our society.

Andrew did a Q-and-A after the movie where there were questions about how the movie was made and what the impetus was for him and how he went about it. He used a lot of family members as extras in the movie, and he talked about how difficult it was to cast. He cast people without a lot of movie experience or acting experience. (You can read more about Andrew and the making of his movie in our NEA Arts issue on "Up and Comers in the Arts.")

For the last part of the trip, we drove down to Ajo, which is near the Mexican border and used to be home to one of the big copper mines. We met with Tracy Taft and Maria Gmuca. Tracy is the executive director of the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, and Maria is the Project Manager of the Our Town project there, which is focusing on adaptive re-use of buildings and outdoor spaces. We toured the Ajo Plaza and Town Center, which was beautiful. Ajo is a tiny town that has really wonderful aesthetic bones. It’s a beautiful, beautiful place and it hasn’t been gentrified and made into a picture post-card. It’s a wonderfully engaging and aesthetic place.

We started at the Curley School, toured the plaza, toured the town center, and really saw what they’re planning. They’re planning to really use the arts to revitalize Ajo and make it much more of a destination. The Curley School, which is, I think, the first thing you see when you come into town, overlooks the plaza and the city, it’s a beautiful, beautiful place and they are little by little starting to reclaim the lower school, the middle school, the high school, and using the arts as a part of that. The rehabbed spaces are  going to be artist housing and artist workspaces. I think the arts are not only front and center in Ajo, but an essential part of its future. And you see people like Tracy, like Maria, who are so dedicated and so all-in on this and so passionate about where they live and where they work and you just have to root for them to succeed. I’m very proud that the NEA is there with an Our Town grant.

You know, you don’t really know how much passion there is for these projects until you meet the people and see their own personal engagement and dedication to what they’re doing. They’re so, well, they’re just all-in, is all I can say. They’re determined to make this happen. I said to them---and it’s true---that I’m looking forward to going back there with my wife Debby and just showing her Ajo and how beautiful it is and hopefully we’ll be able to check up on what’s happening with the Our Town grant. This is a playbook example of adaptive reuse of multiple buildings and outdoor space using the arts. And I think it’s going to be a big success and I’m looking forward to the follow up on that.

So, all in all, it was a very, very long but productive trip. We covered a lot of ground and had a good time.

I’m always thinking about what lessons we at the NEA can learn from our grantees. I think one thing we can learn is it’s very important to be out there on site, that you can learn only so much from an application. You learn a lot more by engaging the people who are actually involved. For me to meet Tracy and Maria, for instance, was an education I couldn’t possibly have had if I had just seen the project on paper. Or, for example, when we went to MOCA Tucson, and I was able to meet Anne-Marie Russell, who’s the executive director, and Randi Dorman, who’s the board president.

These are two women who are literally setting up a contemporary art museum in the desert, and there was a lot of resistance to them doing it. Questions like why should there be any public funds expended on this? And, heroically, they have created this really extraordinary museum in Tucson through their own blood, sweat, and tears. The whole operating budget of the museum is like $300,000 or something, but they have big ambitions. The museum is in a wonderful space, and they have artist residencies. I went upstairs and met Joan Juliet Buck, who has been a friend of my family for years, and who is writing a memoir there as their guest. I really was inspired by what Anne-Marie and Randi have developed.

When you see these kinds of heroic personal stories, and you see people creatively finding ways to survive and to find support and to keep going, that’s inspiring. I think the big lesson for us is to get out around the country and meet some of the people who are involved in these struggles and these fights.

Learn more about creative placemaking in Ajo, Arizona in NEA Arts 2011, #2.


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