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Phoenix Art Museum CEO Responds To Investigative Article, Criticism

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Amada Cruz moved to the Valley four years ago from San Antonio to take over as CEO of the Phoenix Art Museum. Her tenure has included expanding the museum's diversity outreach and an increased focus on creating exhibitions that the museum could essentially rent to other facilities around the country. Recently on The Show, we spoke with writer Robert Pela about his Phoenix New Times piece that contained considerable criticism of Cruz and how she was managing the museum, including the venerable docent volunteer program. Earlier, I spoke with Cruz about aspects of that article. I started though by asking her what her mission was when she first stepped into the CEO role.

AMADA CRUZ: Well I was actually tasked to actually think about the museum in terms of where we are now in 2019. What has the city actually become? As you know, Phoenix is actually, surprisingly to many people, a young city, very diverse. And in my interview, what I really talked about was reaching out to audiences. So I was actually hired with a mission to broaden the base of support for the museum, but not just in terms of fundraising, which of course goes without saying, but also in terms of really thinking about, what is the community in Phoenix and the greater Valley right now? And my task was really to make it relevant for 2019 and certainly for beyond that.

GOLDSTEIN: So how challenging is that and what are some of the specific challenges behind that?

CRUZ: Well it's an interesting process, because you really need to start by thinking about and looking at what the city has become and getting to know a city very quickly. Especially for someone like me who came from out of town, I had to sort of learn very, very quickly what I was dealing with. The challenges are trying to sort of balance a couple of things — being as accessible as possible, which is really my priority. I very, very much want the museum to belong to everybody in the Valley. I do not want to belong to a select few or particular demographics, let's say. That's really not my intention. And so how do you balance making sure that you do not lose the folks that have been in the museum membership for a very long time, but also how do you actually broaden that support and broaden that audience for the museum? And that's been incredibly exciting and I think, especially for the staff, we just love it when the museum is full of people, when it's full of energy, when they're young kids. I always like to say that I want the museum to be loud because that means that they're really engaging the art and in everything that we do, and that to me is my big priority and also my mission.

GOLDSTEIN: When it comes down to that, are the things that have worked really well so far and things that are still in progress?

CRUZ: Well we know that younger generations really like experiences, and that's what really we provide at the museum now. So for example, First Fridays have become such a big wonderful celebration for us about the artwork on display, and what we usually do is have a First Friday theme. So for example, the recent Teotihuacan show which was an extraordinary show of archaeological material from Mexico. We had a First Friday where we really had a lot of sort of Mexican themes going on. We had 5,000 people come in the museum that night, many of whom had come for the very first time. And so I think as you provide experiences, but also again — relevance. Make it as relevant as possible to the audience that exists today. Because I can't really do a whole lot about what the museum was in 1959, but I certainly have a sense for what it is right now.

GOLDSTEIN: When it comes to big exhibitions, and then it comes to sort of the day-to-day operations and having the school groups and more kids and that sort of thing, what's the balance there when you're expanding? Because, like anything, you need money, but you also want to give more people the opportunity. Is that a balancing act, too?

CRUZ: It's always a balancing act, it all is, absolutely. So, you know, again, one of my biggest priorities is this accessibility. And so what we tried to do was really raise as much money as we possibly can to provide free days, so we have a lot more free access hours now so that families really can come to the museum. Money is definitely not a barrier for enjoying the museum. We do think, specifically in terms of exhibitions, we balance that. In any given year, there are popular exhibitions like Teotihuacan. We pretty much knew that would be a popular exhibition. It actually exceeded our expectations. We had 72,000 people coming through the doors and it made money for the museum. There are other exhibitions. For example, we have a beautiful show up now of the work of a painter, Agnes Pelton. It's a bit more academic, perhaps a bit more refined, but it's such a beautiful show and it has something to do with our collection because the works were actually — the show was inspired by our collection, so it also has this local importance which I think is something to celebrate and that is actually turning into a little bit of a sleeper hit. So even though we may not have anticipated the kind of numbers that we got for Teotihuacan, I think Agnes Pelton is going do quite well for us. And it's also an exhibition that we knew would be interesting to other museums around the country, so another priority for me was actually expanding what we did in terms of exhibitions and actually exporting the scholarship of the museum. So that exhibition is travelling to four other museums around the country, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, which is a first for the Phoenix Art Museum. We are extraordinarily proud of the fact that our exhibition is going to the premier American art museum in the country.

GOLDSTEIN: Should The Phoenix Art Museum be a leader in this community? Should you be focused on doing the best you can and accessibility, you mentioned? Is this something where a particular entity is supposed to be one that sort of leads the pack? How do you view that?

CRUZ: If you're asking locally, I certainly do think that we need to be a leader in the community. I think we lead by example, right? So I'm actually on a lot of panels and I speak publicly all the time, and I'm always pushing for this idea of accessibility and also for diversity. Diversity is a huge priority for the museum. In terms of nationally, I think we can be leaders. I think we actually should strive and have large ambitions to be known for a lot of the programming that we're doing. I just got back from New York and ironically, sort of nationally, we are really known for all this Latino outreach. We are going to be premiering a new website in the spring, and it's going to be the first major museum website that's going to be fully bilingual. I think that's something that we're very proud of, and to be celebrated. Our bilingual programs, in general, are now being known across the country, and we're even getting grants for them from national foundations. So you really try to balance the local and the global, and I think, you know, again everything that we do is a bit of a balancing act, but we're pretty proud of the place we are right now.

GOLDSTEIN: Were you surprised that anyone publicly would come out and criticize the museum and you?

CRUZ: I am a sort of semi-public figure in this town, so I figure it's actually okay that the arrows come to me. I certainly take them for the staff, let's just say. I was surprised by the level of vitriol.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you have the impression going forward that people are concerned that some changes are being made they don't like, or that there are some things that you could improve?

CRUZ: Well, there's always room for improvement of course, right? Everybody should have the modesty and the humbleness to sort of, you know, realize that. But I do think — this is the way that I describe it. There's a huge network of people that started the museum. This was actually a volunteer-generated museum, and they are still around, and the way that I describe it is that every little change that I make is a revolution for a certain percentage of our audience, and we try to manage that change and I certainly try to be as gentle as possible. I firmly believe that if you explain things logically to people about why you're doing certain things that they will come along or they will give you feedback that you can then respond to. But sometimes, people are just resistant to change, and I knew coming into this that there would be some of that.

GOLDSTEIN: How important is the docent program to what you do?

CRUZ: Extremely important. The docents, as they know — I call them the ambassadors for the museum. They are very often the first people that visitors interact with when they come to the museum. We have an incredibly robust docent program. We have over 300 docents. That's actually three times the number of the Art Institute of Chicago, which is 10 times our size. So we do have a robust program, and we've made some changes so that, again, the museum and the docents are actually responding to the local situation that is at it is in 2019, and that means that our museum is all about public service. We serve our public. In the last year, even though we lost some docents, we've actually increased our school tours by 24 percent. So these changes, which again were generated by the docents who are in leadership positions of the docent program, have actually been incredibly productive for our audiences, and they have a lot to be proud of.

GOLDSTEIN: Has there been a change in the education program, as is posited in this article, to the point where the docents who are giving more tours maybe know less?

CRUZ: It's actually not about them knowing less. I think that's actually a mischaracterization. It's really the way that they impart information, and this actually is a change that I didn't start. It actually started 10 years ago, before I got there, and this really mirrors what other docent programs around the country have done, which is, instead of having someone lecturing to you — which, let's face it, most people don't want to be lectured to — it's much more of a dialogue between the docent and the audience member. I know when I give tours, and I actually love to do that, I'm pretty much reading the group. Who is in there? How old are they? And then you kind of respond and go back and forth because I think all of us learn better when we engage rather than passively receive information. So yes, the style of delivery has changed, but the actual knowledge has not changed. Now the one thing I can say is, when we have a particular exhibition, like Teotihuacan, of course, that year the curriculum will change because the docents have to be able to speak about that work and frankly, so do I. So we're all learning together.

GOLDSTEIN: Amada Cruz, CEO of the Phoenix Art Museum. Thanks for coming in.

CRUZ: Thank you so much for having me.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.