When Jim Ballinger came to work at the Phoenix Art Museum 40 years ago, he got a crash course in curating.
“I was the curator, the only curator. The curator of everything,” says Ballinger, an art historian with a focus on Western American and American Modernism.
And the museum, which originally opened in 1959, was like a blank canvas. There was no enticing family entry, no grand great hall and certainly no modern art wing in the Central Avenue structure. “It was more of an art center,” Ballinger says of the 72,000-square-foot space he encountered in 1974.
Only 17 employees ran the entire museum, with many juggling multiple jobs. “The same person was doing membership, public relations and events,” says Ballinger, who became the museum’s director in 1982.
Now, as he prepares to retire from what has become an internationally recognized art institution, Ballinger says his longevity is an oddity and his pending departure is in part about the numbers. He’s been at the museum for 40 years, and director for 33 years. He has increased the square footage, the number of personnel and the museum’s budget. Finding his replacement won’t be easy, especially when one reflects on his legacy.
The Phoenix Art Museum has quadrupled in size (to 285,000 square feet) and employs 115 people. The budget grew from $1 million to more than $10 million in four decades. Some 500 exhibitions have been showcased during Ballinger’s tenure. The collection grew from 8,000 to nearly 18,000 pieces.
Shelley Cohn, former executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, says Ballinger’s ability to help secure $20 million in the 1988 Phoenix bond election was critical to the museum’s expansions: “Following that, the museum was able to attract significant exhibitions that are now called blockbusters.”
Ballinger led another $41.2 million expansion campaign in 2006 that helped complete the 18-year master plan for a lobby, sculpture garden and modern art wing. That growth gave the museum great cachet with other museums, which allowed Ballinger to send homegrown shows on the road, including Copper as Canvas: Two Centuries of Masterpiece Paintings on Copper and Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art.
Being president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and appointed by President Bush in 2004 to serve on the National Council of the Arts didn’t hurt. “When I started out, not many people were aware of what we were doing, but we got the message out around the country,” Ballinger says. “That helped bring shows here and get shows out. One fed the other.”
One of the first blockbuster shows in his tenure was Splendors of Ancient Egypt, in 1998, followed by Monet at Giverny from Paris in 1999 and then Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, which opened to sell-out crowds in 2001.
A nationwide search has been launched to find Ballinger’s successor by early 2015. The list of potential candidates is confidential. Whoever the new leader is, they’ll have some storied shoes to fill. “It will be hard to find another Jim,” says Jim Patterson, board chairman for the Phoenix Art Museum. “But what makes this a great opportunity to attract top candidates is we are very strong financially. Jim is leaving behind a great leadership team and wonderful support organizations.”
In the meantime, the countdown is on for Ballinger, whose departure is about his professional and personal numbers. He turns 65 this year and has eight grandchildren he’d like to see more. “Linda and I will keep on contributing to help make our community a better place while also having more time with our family,” Ballinger says. “On top of that, I am a firm believer that as one door closes, another will open for us. As you might imagine, I am receiving a great deal of advice.”
Ballinger’s Big Score
In the late 1970s, Jim Ballinger was a regular visitor to the New Mexico studios of Transcendentalist painter Raymond Jonson. When Jonson doubled his prices from “one dollar to two dollars a square inch,” Ballinger persuaded art collectors and the Phoenix Art Museum to scoop up several of his works, including the 1932 oil painting “City Dynamism” (pictured above). The colorful work came about while Jonson was creating a series of Southwestern abstract landscapes titled Variations on Rhythm. Inspired by visits to New York City, the artist applied his rhythmic composition to a colorful, abstract rendering of an industrialized city. The painting was acquired for the museum’s collection in the early 1980s by Dr. and Mrs. Lorenz Anderman. It is one of Ballinger’s favorite acquisitions. – Niki D’Andrea