The great curator: Tim Rodgers readies Phoenix Art Museum for reopening

By Niki D’Andrea, October 2020 issue.

Art is a bit like magic for Tim Rodgers. The new Sybil Harrington Director and CEO of Phoenix Art Museum (PhxArt) says the thing he misses most about experiencing art up close and in person is its transportive power.

“I really miss the way in which a firsthand experience can transport you into another time and place that allows you to focus and get outside of your current reality,” Rodgers says. “And that could be at times fanciful, it could be fantastical, it can be all kinds of different things, but it allows your imagination to really expand and to have a very important human moment that isn’t so much about the immediate circumstances of our lives, but something bigger. That’s what art does for me. I’m sure it does that for a lot of other people, as well. And I think all of us who really appreciate the arts are longing to renew ourselves by having these experiences again.”

The good news: Phoenix Art Museum reopens to members on October 1 and to the general public October 14, and it’s chock-full of exhibitions cut short by coronavirus closures that would not otherwise be running concurrently. The not-so-good news: one of Rodgers’ tasks as director and CEO of PhxArt is to mitigate the long-term financial impacts of COVID-19 — and he says, “there are no magic solutions here.” But there are ideas, and there is enthusiasm and optimism, and with continued community support, Rodgers is confident the venerable institution will weather the viral storm and its aftereffects.

Tim Rodgers photo by Lynton Gardiner.

Rodgers is no stranger to Arizona, or to lauded art institutions. From 2009 to 2015, the Arizona State University graduate was director of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. During his tenure, the museum launched a new website that increased online attendance dramatically and Rodgers served as vice president of the Scottsdale Cultural Council. His resume also includes seven years as chief curator at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, and most recently, a stint as director of the Wolfsonian-Florida International University in Miami.

PhxArt is special to him among the many art museums in his orbit. “The Phoenix Art Museum has always been my go-to museum since I was a very young person. I moved here when I was 19 and I started to go to the museum then,” Rodgers says. “I was an art history and studio art major at ASU. So, I was going to the museum and looking at and enjoying its art and continued to do that over the next 40 years. For me, it really is a very important touchstone in my life. It really helped me formulate my career in the arts. This is really a return home for me.”

Philip C. Curtis, Space Activity (Actividad espacial), 1946. Tempera on paper. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of the Philip C. Curtis Restated Trust U/A/D April 7, 1994.

Rodgers was selected for the director and CEO position after a national search led by a committee appointed by the museum’s board of Trustees. He succeeds Amanda Cruz, who departed for a job as the director and CEO of Seattle Art Museum.

“Tim brings not only deep experience as a director, but as someone who has served many roles inside a museum, from security guard to art installer to educator and curator, he provides invaluable insights into the key ways in which each of these roles contribute to the museum as a thriving cultural resource,” Don Opatrny, Museum Trustee and chair of the CEO search committee, said in a press release. “Tim understands that the role of a museum in the 21st century extends beyond the walls of the galleries and into the community … His substantial management experience, combined with his passion for art and his ability to engage intergenerational audiences, will be instrumental to Phoenix Art Museum’s continued success.”

Rodgers officially assumed the role of director and CEO on July 1. His first few months have been marked by pandemic precautions. “I haven’t been able to meet most of the staff in person because we’re all working remotely. I am going into the museum a little more frequently than many, and there are a core group of staff members that are also coming in, but most of them are working from home,” he says. “So, I’ve only been able to meet them on Zoom calls and telephone calls, and that’s a very peculiar way to start a new job, but that has been my reality.”

Marta Chilindrón, Blue Cube 48, 2006. Twin wall polycarbonate. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of Nicholas Pardon. Image courtesy Nicholas Pardon.

When the museum reopens in October, things are going to look and feel a little different than before it closed amid coronavirus concerns in March. “Masks will be required, and we will be pacing the number of people that will be coming into the museum. We will be encouraging social distancing even among the limited number of people coming in,” Rodgers says. “We have put up plexiglass barriers, so when people need to interact with any of the staff, there will be another level of protection. We have been painting with antibacterial paint in a lot of the high-touch areas in the museum, such as the bathrooms. And then of course, we’re doing a more intensive cleaning schedule so that our visitors can expect to be in a clean and safe space, or at least as safe as we can make it.”

Because the museum had just opened new spring shows at the time of its closure, those exhibits will be reopened, along with additional programming for fall. One of the holdovers is the Teresita Fernandez traveling exhibit Elemental, featuring more than 50 large-scale sculptures, installations, and mixed media works that weave together ideas of nature, history, and identity. At the same time, Stories of Abstraction: Contemporary Latin American Art in the Global Context will be on display in the gallery. “So, we have two major shows that are going to be opening to the public at the same time, which is not something we would normally be able to do just because of the amount of time and effort that goes into these shows,” Rodgers explains.

Also extended: The exhibits Ansel Adams: Performing the Print and India: Fashion’s Muse. “We actually have a lot on view, and I think people are going to be very happy to be able to come in and see all of these shows up at the same time,” Rodgers says.

Fundraisers have been rescheduled for spring 2021. Rodgers hopes they will help diminish the long-term monetary impacts of the pandemic on the museum. There are other methods, but Rodgers says, “There are no magic solutions here. I think that every nonprofit not only in the Valley, but throughout the world, is dealing with changes to their budget. And certainly, one of the first things we have to look at are the expenses. So, we’ve had to make a lot of cuts to our budget in order to better align it with the revenue that we think will be coming in. That’s rather an obvious, although painful, first move that was made prior to my arrival here and then has continued to be examined every day that I’m at work.”

“We’re also looking at how we can do fundraisers,” he continues. “We generally do two major fundraisers a year, so we’re looking at what kind of format we’ll be able to do. We’ve moved them into the spring with the hopes this situation will be better. Just like every other nonprofit, we have to really turn to our community and seek their help during this time of change, because we are going to survive and we will come out on the other side of it, but we’re going to need everybody’s help to get there.”

Pia Camil, Espectacular (telón) (Spectacular [Curtain]), 2013. Hand dyed and stitched canvas. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of Nicholas Pardon. Image courtesy of Nicholas Pardon.

For a museum to thrive, Rodgers says, it needs some key components: a great building, lots of scale, a beautiful courtyard, an abundance of wonderful works of art, and community support. He says PhxArt has all of them. “Particularly right now in such a challenging environment, to know that the museum already has so many different types of assets from people to art to the building, it has really given me encouragement to be optimistic during this time and see a better future for the institution,” he says.

“I think a lot of people are really suffering and we are feeling very anxious and depressed and overwhelmed,” Rodgers continues. “And I try to hang on to a brighter vision for the future of not only the museum, but the arts community and the city and the state, because we have so many wonderful assets here and we’re appreciated by so many. We just have to remember that will return, and we will return to something closer to normal.”

Maybe even something closer to magic.

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