Arizona Artbeat: Phoenix Art Museum Director

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Phoenix Art Museum Director James Ballinger is retiring after 40 years with the organization. Ballinger will look back at his career and his influence on the Phoenix art scene.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Artbeat" focuses on a major player in the development of the arts in Arizona, Phoenix art museum director Jim Ballinger announced his retirement after years with the organization. He joins us now to talk about his decision and his career. Good to see you again.

Jim Ballinger: Good to see you.

Ted Simons:40 years, how many --

Jim Ballinger: seems like yesterday.

Ted Simons: Yeah. 32 as a director. Correct?

Jim Ballinger: Almost 33.

Ted Simons: So you're -- Why now?

Jim Ballinger: Well, I think it's just -- It's a math problem, basically. 40 years at the museum, 33years as director, and then there's the eighth grandchild on the way, and it's like, maybe it's time for somebody else to have fun, and it's not something you can do immediately when you have led something this long. So I wanted to make sure not only am I announcing a retirement, but asking the board to put a succession process in play, and also to make sure we have a great transition, which could take a year or more.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask, how long --

Jim Ballinger: I don't know, I'm in there to make it go well, because just like the board has their responsibility, I've been there a long time, we've all seen a great institute move forward, and we want to keep the momentum going for new and great things with someone else.

Ted Simons: Was this a difficult decision?

Jim Ballinger: Um, at first it was, but then it started getting easier all along, I think, as you start looking at what's the right thing to do, and what you've got left. I mean, I've been invested in this community for a long time, and Linda and I aren't going anywhere, and we're going to stay involved in many ways, I'm sure.

Ted Simons: You started in 1974 with the museum as curator of collection. What brought you here?

Jim Ballinger: My job. I had two job opportunities coming out of graduate school. One was in North Carolina at the museum there, state run, there was a small recession then, they froze that job, so I had a choice -- Phoenix or no job.

Ted Simons: And we're looking at the new face right there, and that is a young face, mister.

Jim Ballinger: I had a five-year plan. I was going to be here five years, and then go to a real museum. But instead we had the joy of building one over all these years.

Ted Simons: You were named director in 82'?

Jim Ballinger: Correct.

Ted Simons: All things considered, did you see -- When you first got here, when you were named director, when you had all that hair, did you think you'd be here this long?

Jim Ballinger: No. No clue. No plan. And probably years ago I real -- There was a moment where you thought, OK. Either you're in it for the long term, or it's time to perhaps look for greater challenges. But Ted, every time here I look for greater challenges, we always just brought them and built them. And I think it's probably true of a lot of people in Phoenix. The growth is staggering. Few cities have gone through what we've gone through, so when I started, we had staff members. We had a budget of $364,000. Now it's $11.5 million, and it's just -- So each time there would have been that thing to go do somewhere else, we just did it here instead. So it was great.

Ted Simons:72,000 square feet when you started. Four times that amount right now. You're more than a museum director, though. You're a big player in downtown Phoenix. Talk about what you have seen change in downtown, the good, the bad, and the in between.

Jim Ballinger: I don't know that there's a lot of bad. Unless you just call it slow. We've always known that we needed a really active downtown when mayor Goddard had a great plan that didn't quite get funded way back, could have been a great fulcrum, and now with ASU down here, it's huge. But arts and culture are a big player. And I think people -- We may not do a good enough job of letting people know how important arts and culture are to a lot of different things. It's now starting to happen, mayor Stanton certainly grasps that, as does President Crow at ASU. So you're seeing it play out in a lot of different ways. But when you look back, the bond elections that have happened have been crucial to ASU. They've been crucial to arts and culture not only in downtown, but across the community. The one thing I do believe, we've got to do, we've got to get to a position of a new dedicated funding source for arts and culture if we are going to have anything transformative happen in this arena. There's just not enough corporate giving, there's not enough tax capabilities, and Frankly there's not enough philanthropic ability within the state, because we have so many needs and we're so new, that it's got to be ASU arts and culture, human service, environmental issues, all those, quite often the same people are helping all the time. So we've really got to figure out a bigger plan on how to go at it.

Ted Simons: As far as the museum is concerned, your vision when you took over in 1982, what was your vision, has that vision panned out?

Jim Ballinger: You know, I think we've gone beyond what my vision was in many ways. My first task I thought was to really to professionalize the museum. And that's not to say it wasn't before, but it was a way of creating measurement, creating metrics that we could grow the institution. Also that we could get Phoenix on the map nationally. We weren't at all, so we spent a lot of time talking to colleagues nationally to bring shows. So that was the first phase. Then we got the building first expansion done, and then it was how do we bring bigger exhibitions and to bring great from all over the world to the people of Arizona, which we see as a daily mission. And that became kind of that second phase.

Ted Simons: Did you have -- Did you get any advice early on that kind of stuck with you over the years, and second question, what advice now would you give your successor?

Jim Ballinger: I operated one way that my colleagues couldn't believe what I did over the years. When we faced a problem with the board, because we were a new board, we were a new city, I'm a director whose -- My experience was here. I reached out to the very best directors in the country on whatever the issue was and asked them to come and address our board of trustees. Well, my colleagues thought I was insane, why would you bring a star in to make you look bad, because then your board -- It wasn't on my radar screen. I thought we need help to get the very best to come in. So I did that many times -- So I did that many times over the years and would continue to do so, and I would advise anyone in any field to do that. But you have to be confident yourself to do that, and you have to have the confidence of your board to do that in order -- Because when you ask for somebody's advice, I was told years ago, ask me for advice, you have to take it. Otherwise ask me for input. [laughter]

Ted Simons: I like that. So challenges now. You talked about it, trying to get a dedicated funding source for the arts in general. Looking for the philanthropic folks, which -- And you've been here long enough, that has changed, hasn't it? Major players, people who have a stake in this community, they're not here anymore.

Jim Ballinger: You know, you stand back and look at the musical instrument museum, the children's museum, there are new museums doing great jobs here, Phoenix art museum has grown, the science center, on and on. But we're all facing the same issue. We're tapped out, we're stressing, and if you are the size of any of these institutions and get a five or 10% boost, you're not going to transform the museum. So that's where that -- That's very, very important and it's important that that group keep working together, which we're doing very well in the last few years in order to make sure that kind of message gets out there. And many, many ways, education, economic development, these are things that for the future of this state, this community, depends on quality workers. We're part of that. Depends on strong economic environment. We're part of that. And I don't think people sometimes think that way. We're not an add-on extra.

Ted Simons: Why aren't people thinking that way?

Jim Ballinger: Well, I think, again, that comes back around to our responsibility. We don't do a good enough job in our field perhaps of establishing some of those parameters and making them well known. If you look at schools now, where arts and cultural experiences go away, core curriculum, teachers are working on that. How do we make ourselves relevant to core curriculum? So we get marginalized a little bit, and then you have a generation or maybe two generations now of teachers who did not have that experience, so they don't feel comfortable saying, let's go to the art museum, wherever it might be.

Ted Simons: I'd like to get you back on before you finally say goodbye.

Jim Ballinger: I think it's going to take a little longer than what we think.

Ted Simons: Congratulations on many decades of success.

Jim Ballinger: Oh, you bet.

Ted Simons: That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

James Ballinger:Director, Phoenix Art Museum;

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