Phoenix museums scrambling to survive recession

The Heard Museum displays no more than 20 percent of its permanent collection at one time. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Heard Museum displays no more than 20 percent of its permanent collection at one time. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

PHOENIX (AP) – Some metropolitan Phoenix museums that face shutdown or consolidation are stymied about what to do with valuable collections of artifacts and art.

The weak economy has taken its toll on the West Valley Art Museum, the Heard Museum West in Surprise and the Phoenix Museum of History, which was acquired by the Arizona Science Center. The fate of the Mesa Historical Museum also is in question.

Some museum representatives are seeking homes for the collections at other museums or putting them into storage. The Mesa Historical Museum, which remains open, may create traveling museum displays in malls, libraries or other facilities. But finding the right place for large collections is proving elusive as more museums in Arizona and across the country fall on hard times. The West Valley Art Museum will mark its 30th anniversary with a foreclosure auction in December unless it is able to raise $500,000 to repay its bank loan. Bankruptcy also is an option.

Since the museum closed in June, its 4,000-piece collection of ethnic dresses and works by Arizona artists, valued at roughly $3 million, sits in a climate-controlled room on-site. The collection also includes fine-art prints, etchings and silk screens from around the world.

Bee Gatliff, president of the museum’s board of trustees, said museum leaders are in talks to place the collection in an undisclosed location for storage until the museum can reorganize and reopen.

When a museum closes, its collection is typically distributed to a sister museum or universities, said Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Association of Museums in Washington.

“There have been some instances in this recession of museums talking about selling pieces of their collection to balance their budget,” Blanton said. “That is a definite no-no.”

Earlier this year, Fort Ticonderoga, a historic site and museum in northern New York, considered selling off parts of its collection to pay its bills, which is frowned upon in the museum world, Blanton said. The state government stepped in at the last minute with an infusion of funds.

Most museums, including the West Valley museum, hold their collection in trust for the public. Sale proceeds must be used solely for the benefit of the collection, according to the American Association of Museums’ code of ethics.

When the Heard Museum West closed in September, the 400 pieces of Native American art were returned to the archives of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the main facility.

“There’s not really any place to display them at the moment,” said museum spokeswoman Debra Krol.

“There will be items that will be pulled from time to time for future exhibits.”

Krol said the Heard displays only 15 percent to 20 percent of its 40,000-piece permanent collection at a time.

Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Historical Society board, said officials at the Mesa museum were talking with city officials about Mesa taking ownership of the 50,000-piece collection and moving it to the town’s center, near other cultural facilities.

The museum’s popular “Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience,” showcasing the history of the Cactus League in Arizona, will move in February to a temporary home at city’s Arizona Museum for Youth.

“One of the things we are looking at is a new model of the museum world,” Linoff said. “We don’t have to do everything within four walls. Instead of expecting people to come to you, you go to the people.”

Linoff said it’s possible the collection could be shown at shopping centers and other commercial venues. The museum’s “Wallacepalooza” exhibits have done well at all three Mesa libraries, he said.

Linoff said the museum would be open at least through the end of the year. If it were moved out of its building, a 1913 schoolhouse, the collection would be maintained by the historical society.

“If we merge into the city, the city becomes the owner of the collection, just the way it is with the Museum of Natural History,” Linoff said.

“Five years from now, the museum may be off on its own, it may have its own building (again). We are not in this tight economic situation forever.”


Information from: The Arizona Republic,

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