The majority of Arizona’s museum collections reside in storage. What argosies of art and artifact are concealed in their basements?
There’s a painting hanging in the basement of the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tucson. It alone adorns a muted mustard-yellow brick wall facing rows of six-foot-high racks overflowing with old leather saddles and myriad basement bric-a-brac. Viewed from afar in the musty storage space, the framed landscape painting could be any granny’s dime-store attic art, but look closer, and you’ll see the signature of late Tucson artist Maynard Dixon, whose original oil paintings of the American West typically fetch prices in the mid-to-high six figures. This piece is a one-off Dixon did for a friend. In other words, there could be a small fortune on the wall.
According to the nonprofit Rand Corporation, 72 percent of U.S. museum artworks are in storage, including immensely valuable items boxed and forgotten in basements, only to be unearthed decades later. In 1974, a trove of treasures – from an ivory Mycenaean model of a war galleon to copper and stone seals from the 15th-century BCE – was discovered in the basement of the National Archaeological Museum in Greece. In 2010, fossilized fragments of a previously unknown dinosaur, named Mojoceratops, were found in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In January 2013, London’s National Gallery found a previously unknown portrait in its basement by Venetian Renaissance painter Titian. Apparently, some museum basements are big enough to swallow history.
Museums routinely receive items – often in bulk collections – from other museums, family estates, artists and individual donors. Arrivals must be processed and cataloged prior to storage, and if a museum has a shoestring staff budget, the process can take a while. Some art will be loaned out or deaccessioned – sold to raise money to purchase something else for the collection – but most of the time, it hangs out in the vaults.
“Most museums have one to five percent of their collection on display,” says Ashley Smith, registrar at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe. This fact rankles many museum enthusiasts, including billionaire businessman and art collector Eli Broad, who implored the American Association of Museums at a 2010 meeting in Los Angeles to “Get art out of the basements.”
As elsewhere, the majority of Valley museum collections are in storage – as much as 95 percent, in the case of the Heard Museum in central Phoenix, which is known for its massive network of temperature-controlled subterranean tunnels leading to several large vaults. But these are no cobweb-draped catacombs filled with docents stumbling through the dark with flashlights and tripping over forgotten Picassos. The storage facilities at Phoenix’s museums are bright and bustling with people – curators, conservators, archivists, registrars, security – all doing their part to manage these massive collections, and to find ways to show more and store less.
So what’s hiding in the vaults of some of Arizona’s most notable museums? We took a behind-the-scenes storage tour of four venerable Valley arts institutions to find out.
At the Heard Museum in Downtown Phoenix, people can view a variety of Native American art and indigenous artifacts from Arizona’s history, from 19th-century Hopi pottery to the abstract expressionist paintings of Luiseño artist Fritz Scholder. There are about 2,000 items on display in the galleries of the museum, a sprawling 130,000-square-foot structure with its own auditorium. But the hidden gem of the Heard is its basement, which harbors an estimated 40,000 items, including a dozen or so sculptures by late Chiricahua Apache sculptor Allan Houser, clothing collaboratively designed by Cochiti Pueblo designer Virgil Ortiz and Donna Karan, and more than 400 kachina dolls from Senator Barry Goldwater’s collection, which constitute almost half the Heard’s 1,000-strong stockpile. Most of them sit on basement shelves in clear, air-sealed display cases. “They’re some of the most fragile things we have here,” says Ann Marshall, Director of Curations for Heard Museum.
When the museum opened in 1929, everything was on exhibit. As more items were acquired over the years and the museum expanded, underground vaults were constructed, starting with an expansion in 1967. The largest vault, near a freight elevator that would fit a small elephant, was built in 1999. Each room in the labyrinthine basement has its purpose – one vault each for pottery, baskets and textiles, large-scale sculptures and paintings, plus a giant walk-in freezer, staging area for upcoming exhibits and a conservation room. Most items lie on ceiling-high sliding track shelves, while others reside neatly – all bagged and tagged and numbered – in drawers. There’s a computer in every room, linked to the Heard’s massive database, where every item in the collection is accounted for.
Marshall says curators try to keep current work out of the basement. “Especially when you’re working with living artists, you want their work to get out there and be seen,” she says. Museum curators frequently pull contemporary pieces from the collection to show alongside period work, as is the case with the exhibit American Indian Fashion: From Lloyd Kiva New to Now, opening this month at the Heard Museum North in Scottsdale.
To keep more of the collection off the shelves, the Heard also frequently loans pieces to other museums. Case in point: the bolo ties recently returned from an exhibit at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. “If you have things in your collection you’re not going to show, you need to find a way to show it,” Marshall says. The museum also occasionally sells display-dormant art to purchase something else for the collection. Marshall says they recently sold some Navajo textiles that were sitting in storage to buy something they’ll show. “You want to take in things you’ll use one way or another.”
2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Now on exhibit: Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam and the Land, through March 3, 2014.
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Arizona Historical Society Museum
The storage room at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe feels a little like the setting for an episode of Scooby-Doo. Something that looks like a giant iron torture rack (but which is really a turn-of-the-20th-century coffee grinder) occupies floor space next to a beaten-up blue bike with two flat tires and an inch of dust on the cracked leather seat. An old clown costume puffs out from a wardrobe, providing a glimpse of yellow and blue polka dots among an otherwise ghostly row of faded lace and ecrue dresses. It’s the kitschiest and most cluttered part of this museum, one of eight museums statewide dedicated to Arizona history and established by the oldest historical agency in the state (Arizona Historical Society was founded in 1864). The vault provides visual evidence that much of the AZHS haul is pop-culture-related, and not just territorial shovels and the like.
There are about 50,000 objects in storage in this room, which is about the size of two double-car garages. More than a quarter of the space is taken up by clothing – more than 2,000 pieces in all, including a Pepto Bismol-pink competition gown and “squaw dresses” worn by Shyrle Owens (Miss Arizona USA 1961), one of Barry Goldwater’s suits made with his custom “Au H20” insignia fabric, and every costume Pat McMahon wore on legendary local children’s TV program, The Wallace and Ladmo Show. All the clothes are on hangers with non-bleached muslin cloth padding, or stored in special acid-free dress boxes. There are also numerous boxes of miscellaneous textiles, and an aisle of filing cabinets filled with a hodgepodge of things like old political campaign buttons and a bulky turquoise and silver necklace that belonged to former Arizona governor Rose Mofford, who’s reportedly joked that she plans to donate her famous blue beehive hair to the museum.
Some of the art inconspicuously hanging in the storage room includes an original Ed Mell painting with a gold frame hand-carved by the artist that was on display in the AZHS museum for five years (to preserve the painting, a photo is displayed in its stead), and 19 of the museum’s 20 Marjorie Reed paintings (one is on exhibit). The museum occasionally loans items to other museums or historical societies for exhibit, and in rare cases, deaccessions items. But such permanent removal of items from the collection is complicated with AZHS. An object must meet certain criteria (e.g., it is in unsalvageable condition, it has been stolen or lost for at least five years, it is inauthentic, etc.), and decisions regarding deaccession must be approved by the state board.
AZHS regularly receives new objects from donors. Every donation they keep has to be manually cataloged, and for items with multiple parts – like an old mortician’s makeup kit with two dozen components – every piece is individually numbered. Said kit was part of an acquisition of more than 2,000 items that came to AZHS from a Walker Drug store collection. It wouldn’t look so out of place on the shelf next to the toddler-size, glassy-eyed antique porcelain doll. “Every day is like Christmas,” AZHS photo curator and archivist Rebekah Tabah says. “Or Halloween.”
Arizona Historical Society Museum
1300 N. College Ave., Tempe
Now on exhibit: Day of the Dead, through Jan. 12, 2014.
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Musical Instrument Museum
“No museum has enough storage space,” Katie Anderson says. As head of collections at the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, she’s responsible for helping manage the museum’s 15,000-plus objects, including 8,424 instruments. Two-thirds of MIM’s collection is in storage, which Anderson points out is a lot less than most other museums. “We don’t collect things unless we want to exhibit them,” she adds.
The Musical Instrument Museum is the only one of its kind in the world. The Smithsonian affiliate dispatched more than 100 consultants and five curators around the world to build its collection over a four-year span. Roughly 75 percent of the collection came to MIM before its debut in 2010 at a building down the street from the Mayo Clinic, and things continue to arrive from storage facilities in Tempe and on loan from other institutions around the world. For the eight people who work in collections at MIM, processing, organizing and storing the collection is an ongoing – and slow-going – endeavor. In the stored collections area, Anderson points to a stack of waist-high cardboard boxes adorned with bright orange tape. “Those boxes used to be floor-to-ceiling,” she says. “We’ve unpacked 600 objects in the past month.”
In the sprawling, lab-like storage rooms at the MIM, massive metal shelves roll on tracks to reveal an array of objects, from seven plastic-wrapped goat skin costumes perched on poles to a plucked stringed instrument from India called a rudra veena. Rows upon rows of guitars (stored upright to reduce string tension) occupy shelves opposite an assortment of drums and other percussive objects, including a mid-1900s Maya Achi drum from Guatemala, sitting next to an upside-down aluminum trash can. Other eye-catchers in MIM storage include an ivory flute from 1810 and a set of 2,300-year-old stone chimes played during rituals in the Royal Court of China. Two shelves below the ancient chimes sits a power woofer speaker from Indonesia made in 2010, providing a quirky visual illustration of the chronological breadth of MIM’s musical objects. On a shelf in the corner, a Thermo-Hygrograph records the temperature and humidity of the storage facility.
Ideally, Anderson says, the collection is organized by geographic region, then type, but that’s going to take a lot more time. The museum recently managed to get all the gongs together in one storage space; the zithers are next. MIM staff is currently building custom boxes to store violins, just as they built custom upright support stands for the guitars. There are also custom pillow supports for exotic instruments with curvy shapes; after all, you can’t just set a stringed baglama on its big-bowl bottom. “You have to look at everything [when storing an object],” Anderson says. “Its structure, its weak points, its material – because it may sit here for years.”
Musical Instrument Museum
4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Scottsdale
Now on exhibit: Women Who Rock, through April 20, 2014.
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Phoenix Art Museum
In the basement of Phoenix Art Museum, fashion curator Dennita Sewell is dressing a band of mannequins prior to the September opening of The Cape exhibit upstairs in the Ellman Fashion Design Gallery. About ten deftly dressed mannequins model clothing in the usually-empty back row of the museum’s extensive fashion collection vault. In a small room off to the side, more ivory white mannequins lie in various states of repose and dismemberment – a pensive torso here, an en pointe foot at the end of an orphan pair of alabaster legs there, and the occasional pasty plastic pair of buttocks. “There really is a life down here,” Sewell says. “The reason this gallery exists the way it does, with two shows a year, is because of the richness of the collections... I can think up a theme and come down here and draw from all these objects.”
Started in 1966, the fashion collection at PAM is more than 5,000 pieces strong, and grows by 200 or more pieces every year. The vault itself suggests an epic walk-in closet, with more than 500 pairs of shoes dating from the 1700s to the present filling floor-to-ceiling shelves. Dresses from the 18th century to today hang in special cloth-covered closets, while others occupy acid-free boxes with special-ordered tissue paper and photographic labeling on the outside to minimize handling of the garments. Such gray boxes are stacked to the ceiling in some parts of the vault. Everything is organized first alphabetically by designer, and then chronologically.
The fashion design collection at Phoenix Art Museum is notable not only for its sheer size, but its mere existence. Most cities don’t have museums with fashion collections, says Sewell, who spent several years as collections manager at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before coming to PAM in 2000. She’s helped the museum acquire many of the pieces in its storied vaults, and says the collection is constantly enriched by all sorts of donors, including a collection of clothing from midcentury socialite and fashion icon Ann Bonfoey Taylor.
Sewell also sends pieces out on loan to other museums – like a group of Chanel garments recently on loan to be shown at the MET. Like curators and collections managers at other museums, she really wants things to be seen. “We’re using the collection to create the exhibitions to educate people,” she says. “This is an active collection with a dedicated gallery.”
Phoenix Art Museum
1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Now on exhibit: The Cape, through Feb. 9, 2014.