When the pink-and-white Civic Center opened at Central and McDowell in 1950, it included a "little theater" but the art museum didn't come along for another nine years. Both were considered small confections to the main course: the public library. Things were not much different in 1974, when a young University of Kansas graduate named Jim Ballinger joined the museum's staff as curator of collections.
That the Phoenix Art Museum today enjoys national stature and draws prestigious international exhibitions — and has grown to take up most of the former Civic Center block — is mostly because of Ballinger, who announced Thursday that he will retire after 40 years with PAM. He became director in 1982. No other single figure has done more for the city's cultural landscape — to create, grow and sustain one — than Ballinger.
The reader should know that Ballinger and I are friends. We also were neighbors on Holly Street in Willo. But he first sought me out when I started as a columnist at the Arizona Republic, writing on such issues as the city and state's economic narrowness, lack of civic engagement, poor educational outcomes and difficulty in retaining talent. In our first conversation, he showed his incisive grasp of how such challenges would affect the future viability of cultural institutions.
Phoenix's alluvial soil will grow any crop. But a farmtown-turned-migrapolis was not fertile land for the arts. We had no wealthy oilmen or their wives lavishing world-class museums on us as in Texas, much less the tradition of philanthropy that endowed them in Midwestern and eastern cities and even towns.
In 1929, Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard donated their personal collection and home in the Alvarado neighborhood for a museum focused on the Indians of the Southwest. Much of the works collected by the Santa Fe Railway restaurateur Fred Harvey immeasurably added to the Heard. When I was growing up, it was "the museum," even though PAM was a nice but small place to spend time (admission free), both a bicycle ride from home.
The Heard; Desert Botanical Garden in 1939; Phoenix Symphony started as a non-professional orchestra playing at the Phoenix Union High School auditorium in 1947, and the Civic Center spoke of a hunger to turn a place not far removed from the frontier into something of a civilization. Later, the orchestra would become professional, moved to a (sadly brutalist) Symphony Hall. The Herberger Theater Center was built, adding professional theater to a place sadly lacking that art.
Such things never happen from pure altruism or pure self interest. The two are always married. And they rarely happen in new cities without involvement of government. Thus, the city of Phoenix has long been a supporter of arts, culture and literacy. Rich people help, but art is a hard sell in a place where most of the toffs are from somewhere else and even long-time middle-income retirees send their money "home" to the orchestras and museums in Cleveland and Minneapolis.
Arizona enjoyed a tradition of attracting visual artists, with its majestic scenery and unique light. Sedona and Scottsdale were "artist's colonies" at various times (my great aunt, Eula D. Street, was a landscape artist; she would often set up her easel by a roadside in this great emptiness that once existed and sketch the beginnings of a work and pick palette colors). But for all that, the state lacked a museum worthy of its artistic magnetism.
It found the perfect champion in Jim Ballinger. He has been able to navigate an often perilous and difficult civic and money landscape, presiding over the rise of the "little museum" into what is today arguably the big one, which in no way is to diminish the Heard's stature. Under his leadership the museum's collection and space grew in both size — PAM expanded from 72,000 to 285,000 square feet — and excellence; many exhibitions became national events.
Ballinger is unflappable, able to deal with artists, curators, pols, developers, board members, donors and potential donors with grace, the perfect touch and integrity. He had the guts to persevere against a proto-Kook protest in the 1990s over a flag exhibit. A college tennis competitor, he proved himself a master of the tactics to win the long match: building a big-city art museum in a place with brittle civic ties, few wealthy stewards, the destructiveness of sprawl and the comparative stinginess of the real-estate industry in giving to the arts.
His steady hand in creating and retaining a wide base of support and his experienced management ensured that PAM came through the Great Recession (aka Phoenix Depression) in far stronger shape than other Arizona cultural institutions. And yet he is always out there campaigning for all the arts, not just PAM. If you don't see his fingerprints on something good, that's fine by him. He retains, at 64, an astonishing capacity for long hours and hard work.
Jim Patterson, chairman of the PAM board of trustees, said "Ballinger is a visionary and nationally respected arts advocate who has guided Phoenix Art Museum’s physical growth and extensive reach as part of his overall passion to grow and expand the arts in Arizona. His legacy will be as a savvy businessman, a great communicator and a renowned art expert..."
Yes, all that. But his biggest legacy, his masterpiece, is that he kept faith with the city.
From my front porch, I would watch him walking to work every day. In the evenings, coming home, sometimes he would stop for martinis on the same porch — "bar's open," he would say, and call his wife, Linda, to come from home a block away to join us. Then, often as not, both would head back to the museum for an evening event.
PAM remains anchored in Midtown where it was born, now a convenient stop on the light-rail line (WBIYB) and close to the Heard. This is particularly important given the flight of what's left of corporate Arizona to 24th and Camelback or north Scottsdale, given the toxic cannibalization where every suburb wants to leave Phoenix as the hole in the donut and build their competing arts centers.
Great cities are built on such faith kept.
This is not an obituary. Ballinger is still on the job. He will be working with the board to find a new director, a process that could take a year. His next chapter will likely enrich Phoenix again.
Learn more about the people and forces that build Phoenix on Rogue's Phoenix 101 series.