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.