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Photo Finish

A Vicious Political Battle At The UA Threatens The Center For Creative Photography.



IN THE PRESIDENTIAL conference room at the University of Arizona, an array of Ansel Adams photographs lines the elegant walls.

The black-and-white prints, exquisite views of etched cliffs and moonrises over New Mexico and mountain majesties, are borrowed from the university's Center for Creative Photography, a treasure house founded 25 years ago by Adams and then-university president John P. Schaefer. Adams' life work is just one small part of the Center's incomparable collection of photographs. People who put a price on the priceless estimate its value at around $60 million.

A curious thing happened one recent day in the conference room, where genteel discussion is the usual order of the day. The long-dead Adams interrupted. President Peter Likins was meeting with senior administrators when, suddenly, an Adams photograph flew off the wall. It came very close to bonking new UA Provost George Davis upside the head.

Some say the ghost of Ansel Adams is abroad, and not just because Halloween is near. Adams' baby, the Center for Creative Photography, has been the target of a vicious struggle within the university, and Davis had just finished authoring a report of pivotal importance to the Center's future. The Center's staff, arguing passionately that the Center's museum functions must be protected, had been trying to get cut loose from the authority of the university library. Provost Davis, recently plucked from the geology department, ruled in September that the Center must remain under the thumb of controversial Dean of Libraries Carla Stoffle.

Is the Center primarily a museum, enriched by an archive of primary materials and a library? Or is it an archive and library first and foremost, with a subsidiary museum function? The defenders of each proposition carefully peruse Adams' letters to support their claims, but the great photographer can be contradictory.

He opposed naming the place an archive, writing in March 1975 that the word "implies the backward look." Yet he conceded in May 1975 that the Center's prime purpose was a "scholarly Archive of prints, documents, etc., dedicated to advanced study of photography." But he wasn't happy with Schaefer's plan to put it under the library's jurisdiction, and Schaefer reassured him in a May 1975 letter that "affiliation ... with the Library is more a political expedient than a rational ultimate setting."

And Adams adds a caution the following January: "Dilution of the Center by extrovertal activities might be very harmful. Yet, the Center is definitely not 'dead storage!' Continuing exhibitions are essential."

For fans who always thought this most unique of Tucson's treasures was comfortably all three things, a triple-strength museum-cum-archive-cum-library, the need to make the distinction is baffling.

But the secret fight for the Center's future, thus far carried out behind closed doors, goes way beyond semantics. If the Center is mostly a museum, then it can be liberated from the library's grip and enjoy relative autonomy under the authority of the vice president for research, as do the campus's two other museums, the UA Museum of Art and the Arizona State Museum. If it's primarily a library and archive, then it's just one of many special collections owned by the university library, and its staff must perform innumerable outside duties within the library system.

Depending on what happens in the next few months, the Center could become a very different place from what it is now. Provost Davis has ordered up an "articulation" of the Center's mission by a Stoffle-led panel; after that, the provost says, a new director will be recruited, with librarian Stoffle in command of the search. Though the library/archive camp swears it won't happen, the museum proponents worry that a re-emphasis on the archives will dictate more exhibitions drawn solely from the archives, putting a chill on the Center's world-class program of exhibitions of the work of contemporary artists not in the Center's collections. One wag prophesies a menu of "All Ansel, All the Time." Arts professionals such as Tucson's Terry Etherton believe such a move will scare off living photographers who are potential future donors, and fix the Center permanently in the past.

THE CHAOS HAS badly tarnished the Center's silver anniversary year. The casualties are mounting, and they're not just bodies. They're also the tatters of university process.

· The center's longtime director, Terry Pitts, long at loggerheads with Stoffle, was fired earlier this year. Luckily for Pitts, who as a tenured librarian could have found himself back at the reference desk, he got a job as director of the Cedar Rapids Art Museum in Iowa and was able to quit before the letter announcing his termination came in.

· Nancy Lutz, acting director of the Center since Pitts' June departure, submitted her resignation in protest a week after Provost Davis ruled that the Center will remain under Stoffle's control. Her last day is December 1. Lutz declined to be interviewed for this article, but she released this statement: "The reason I'm leaving is that I felt strongly that the Center is a collection and an art museum that should report with its colleagues. When that recommendation was turned down, I couldn't support the decision."

· An entire university department, the faculty of Geography and Regional Development, signed a letter to Davis protesting his "very closed process" and "the lack of wide-spread consultation (both on- and off- campus). We strongly believe that the principles of co-governance require that the large number of interested parties across the campus, in the Tucson community and beyond be consulted before any final conclusions are reached in a decision of this magnitude."

In response to the geographers, Davis invoked the classic administrative excuse: The process was secret "because personnel matters were a part of the discussion." He promised them more openness at the next stage, but the decisions he already made in secret will necessarily control future discussions. After all, Stoffle, who has unambiguously thrown herself in the library/archive camp, will lead both the "articulation" of the Center's mission and the recruitment of its new director.

After he heard from the geography department, Davis wrote a memo to the university's deans to reassure them about the Center's stability and to quell the rumors that the exhibition program will come to an end. In the message, he registers his support of the Center's mission statement by quoting it at length, but unbeknownst to the deans, he carefully deletes its all-important first sentence declaring the Center to be "an internationally recognized museum and research center." And while he tells the deans that both the dean of libraries and the Center's staff support the mission, he writes in a private memo to Likins that "there is no accepted clarity of mission."

Ultimate responsibility, of course, lies with President Likins himself, who last June rejected a report that favored moving the Center out of the library. (Likins did not respond to a request for comment.)

Asked to investigate the matter, outgoing Provost Sypherd reached an unequivocal conclusion: The Center should be liberated from the library. He wrote a blistering seven-page confidential report, and submitted it to Likins on June 30, his last day on the provost job. In the document, he levels harsh criticism at the methods of Stoffle, who is soon coming up for a five-year review. He finds it ironic that Stoffle, for all her passionate defense of the idea of the Center as library, has deprived the Center's photography library of the services of a full-time librarian. More broadly, her reorganization of the library, he said, has impaired the Center's ability to do its job.

"The imperfect fit (between Center and library) ... has been significantly exacerbated in the seven years since the Library's reorganization," he wrote. "The reorganization has provided strategic direction for the UA Library, but has imposed significant barriers to CCP's ability to address its mission ...

"Let us--finally--take the step so many of our predecessors contemplated ... : move the CCP into an institutional position that will give its integrated mission the prominence and support warranted by such an internationally recognized resource."

The next day Likins tabled Sypherd's report. He dumped the Center/Library mess into the lap of geologist George Davis on his first day on the job, and told him to get on the case. Two months later, Davis duly overturned Sypherd's recommendation and ruled that the Center would remain under Stoffle's thumb.

LOCAL ARTS PROFESSIONALS are scratching their heads in bewilderment that the University of Arizona would allow the internationally acclaimed Center to be threatened by petty campus politics. Owned by the Arizona citizenry and operated courtesy of its tax dollars, the Center is a premiere art destination in Tucson. A mecca for photography scholars and arts tourists alike, the Center attracts 96,000 visitors a year. An Old Pueblo high school student has as much right as a visiting Fulbright scholar to handle an Edward Weston in the print viewing room.

Legions of schoolchildren, students and art lovers visit its exhibitions, which offer up cutting-edge contemporary work as well as luminous shows drawn from its incomparable collections, now numbering about 60,000 prints by some 2000 photographers. Besides Weston and Adams, the Center owns the works of such luminaries as Paul Strand, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Frederick Sommers and others. Scholars regularly turn out dissertations and books from the in-depth studies afforded by the Center's extraordinary archive of manuscripts, memorabilia and even cameras.

Etherton, Tucson's leading photography dealer, moved to the Old Pueblo years ago specifically because of the Center's riches. He's convinced that the university administrators salivating over its spoils--none of them art specialists--haven't a clue as to what they're dealing with.

"As someone who is out there in the world of photography, I know the perception of the Center," Etherton says, "and what that reputation is based on. Among dealers, curators and writers, the Center has an unbelievable reputation. It's not just because of the archive. It's also because of the great exhibitions and the great publications."

He cites the 1996 William Christenberry show as a prime example of the outstanding contemporary exhibitions organized by Trudy Wilner Stack, the Yale-trained scholar who has been the Center's curator since 1992. (Wilner Stack declined to be interviewed for this article.) The show, so big it filled the Center and the whole first floor of the UA Museum of Art across the way, was an epic exhibition of the artist's photographs and three-dimensional work exploring the cultural heritage of the American south. Christenberry's risky Klan images were both disturbing and illuminating, and Wilner Stack incisively analyzed them in the exhibition catalog, which was published by the University Press of Mississippi. Like most of the Center's shows, it was paid for by grants won by the Center's staff, in this case NEA, Rockefeller and Andy Worhol funds. Etherton notes that such contemporary exhibitions of living artists frequently attract new donations of art to the archive, thereby increasing its value.

"That show was bold; it went out on a limb for Tucson. And it ended up in a tremendous donation by Christenberry to the Center (of the photographs in the show). Trudy did a phenomenal job."

Moreover, Etherton, like the university geographers, is disturbed by Davis' secret deliberations. "There's been no public input--that's the heart of the matter. Nobody asked us."

But he's mostly baffled. "Why are they doing this? It's a big mystery."

OUT ON THE east side of town, John Schaefer presides over a sleek office adorned, not surprisingly, with black-and-white photographs. Nowadays, Schaefer heads Research Corporation, an enterprise that finances scientific research projects, but in an earlier life he was the University of Arizona's youngest president ever.

A chemist by training, Schaefer came to the UA in 1961, and 10 years later, at the age of 36, he became UA president. The Center would be the greatest legacy of his administration.

"I had a longtime interest in photography," said Schaefer. "I'd been photographing for a number of years and in the late '60s I took courses at (the Tucson Museum of Art). I got interested in photography as a fine, serious art."

In 1971, Ansel Adams, then about 69 years old, had a one-person show at the UA Museum of Art.

"I asked him if he'd be interested in donating his archive," Schaefer recalled, smiling at he boldness of the request. "He said the Bancroft (Library at Berkeley) wants that, but in a basement. He didn't want things in a mausoleum. He said, 'If you're interested in photography in the broadest sense, I'm in.' I spent a week at his house, and out of that came the Center for Creative Photography."

The original concept, said Schaefer, was of an archive that would include not only an artist's entire body of work, including negatives and prints, but also his or her letters, publications, and in Adams' case, such priceless objects as his camera. "Scholars could come in and define a photographer, and his evolution as an artist."

The archive of this scholarly enterprise would be available to academics and students. The Center would also do public outreach, through "exhibitions you'd generate out of the archives that exist." Schaefer adamantly supports keeping the Center in the library chain of command because that "reflected my commitment (to Adams) that it's an archive. It's a special collection."

In person, Schaefer offers only mild criticisms of the Center. He "absolutely" favors continuing an exhibitions program, but he wants the balance tilted back toward archival exhibitions. He's disappointed with what he sees as a drop-off in scholarship, and cites in particular the W. Eugene Smith archive as one that should be studied more often.

Contacted in Iowa, Pitts said he had analyzed the numbers of archival and contemporary exhibitions, and over the life of the Center the proportion has hewed closely to 50-50. And the Smith archive, contrary to Schaefer's assertions, is one of the Center's most studied collections.

Sypherd notes approvingly in his report that Spanish scholar Jesus de Miguel recently spent three months studying Smith's famous Spanish village photographs, and that the Center right now has a grant proposal in to the NEA to pay for restoring the tapes Smith made of jazz musicians who used to visit his studio. French scholar Gilles Mora recently completed a book on Smith, and the archive recently generated two Smith shows that traveled abroad, one in Japan and the other in Europe.

If Schaefer's views are out of touch with the facts, his assertion that as a member of the advisory board "I do only what I'm asked to do" is belied by his own writings. In an e-mail message he wrote to Provost Sypherd, Schaefer reveals himself a major behind-the-scenes player. And the message's angry tone demonstrates how personal the debate has become.

"What has gone wrong (with the Center)?" he asks Sypherd rhetorically in the e-mail. "The short and brutally frank answer is that the stature of the Center has descended to the level of incompetence of its most recent director." He goes on to excoriate the faulty scholarship of Pitts' staff and to denounce their exhibition program.

"Meanwhile, putting photographic exhibits together has clearly been a lot of fun and offered opportunities for the director to travel to exotic places and put on parties at openings and receptions on someone else's checkbook. As a consequence, the role of the Center has gradually been weaned away from its strengths and purposes as the staff has been co-opted into converting the extraordinary potential of a first rate archive into a second-rate museum." (Pitts declined to comment to the Weekly on Schaefer's charges.)

To bolster his case that the Center has strayed too far into contemporary art, Schaefer approvingly quotes from a critical review of a Center publication. John Szarkowski, a former photography director at the Museum of Modern Art and an Ansel Adams curator and author, excoriates the Center for abandoning its archival role in order "to devote its resources to projects that might be entertainingly tendentious or divertingly trendy."

Schaefer blames the Center staff for dredging up the old quote from his May 1975 letter to Adams in which he says that the Center's placement was a "political expedient." Schaefer angrily writes to Sypherd that that statement was taken out of context, and concludes by ordering the provost to discipline the Center's staff. It's an extraordinary direction from an ex-president of the university to the university's chief academic officer. And it's aimed at employees duly charged by the university to run the Center, and who are presumed to have academic freedom to voice their opinions.

"The Provost's office should send a strong message to the Center's staff letting them know that their behavior borders on unprofessional conduct," Schaefer writes, "and their interference and character assassinations are unwelcome and will not be heard."

CARLA STOFFLE, DEAN of libraries and the Center for Creative Photography since 1991, is known as a take-charge administrator. Last week, she left a meeting in Washington, D.C., several days early, flying into Tucson just before the rainstorms broke, specifically, she said, "to deal with" the outbreak of publicity on the Center's woes.

Dean Stoffle holds a master's in library science from the University of Kentucky, but her advanced course work is not in librarianship. She never received a doctorate, but she's ABD (all but dissertation) in the field of higher education administration at the University of Wisconsin. A hire in the Pacheco administration, she's firm in her view that the Center belongs in her domain.

"From the beginning it was part of the library," she said by telephone. "It was conceived of as a new kind of creature, a photo archive that would be a gem for the campus, to study not only photographs, but materials and related items, a wonderful resource for campus and to strengthen the programs in photography."

Stoffle has been both reviled and lionized for her ambitious reorganization of the library under the principles of Total Quality Management (TQM), wherein the vast library was reconstituted as a dizzying array of teams. TQM chopped up the Center for Creative Photography into an alphabet soup of university-wide groups. Some staff ran with the Research Archives Museums Special Collections (RAMSC) team; the former Center librarian, Tim Troy, was relegated to a Fine Arts/Humanities (FAH) team. Terry Pitts was no longer just director; he had an equally important job as team leader of RAMSC.

TQM paralyzed the campus in a wave of endless team meetings when fromer President Manuel Pacheco first introduced it; by now it's been all but abandoned elsewhere in the university. Stoffle still staunchly defends it, and she eagerly explained its function in management-speak.

"You're trying to focus on your users, your public," Stoffle said. "You're trying to organize work so you maximize the benefit. You do needs assessment. You say, what is it that people do? What can you do to advance research and learning? We're focused on measuring outcomes." The teams must measure their outcomes every month and a half. "All of our teams report every six weeks on their progress on their ongoing strategic plans .... The Center reports to the library every six weeks on their improvement. They probably feel it's not a productive use of their time. We feel it's helpful."

Provost Sypherd slammed Stoffle's teams hard in his report. He counted 4,000 hours of Center staff time devoted to team meetings in the 1999/2000 fiscal year, representing the equivalent of two full-time jobs, out of a fulltime staff of 15. He wrote that the highly trained archivist Amy Rule, keeper of the precious manuscripts and ephemera, had doled out more than 600 hours that year to a bewildering array of TQM teams, to wit: the Library Infrastructure Action Planning Team, the Library Needs Assessment/Data Management Team and the Library Sabbatical Review Team.

"In satisfying the Library's demands for staff participation in strategic library work, CCP (the Center) finds it increasingly difficult to serve the University and its diverse international customers, to achieve its goals, and simply to get its work done," Sypherd wrote. "Needless to say, this reallocation of staff time and energy has the effect of lessening CCP's ability to maintain donor and artist relations, to invigorate and broaden public outreach, to keep abreast of trends in scholarship, and to appropriately care for collections."

Sypherd also found the dean's increasing emphasis on technology at odds with the Center's caretaking of priceless objects.

"The strategic shift of the Library away from collecting original materials--'zero collection growth'--to digitization, creates a philosophical barrier in direct conflict with CCP's mission to collect and preserve our cultural heritage through original materials."

And he finds it "a real blow" that an institution hell-bent on proving that the Center is primarily a library and an archive would deprive the Center of a full-time librarian. The Center's library is considered one of the best photography libraries in the nation, second only to the George Eastman House in Rochester. But once Stoffle's TQM was put in place, its librarian had numerous team duties elsewhere.

"Now the CCP Library is staffed part-time by a librarian who has no in-depth expertise in photography (he also serves as the fine arts librarian) and is often covered by students with only minimal procedural training," Sypherd wrote.

Stoffle conceded that the current librarian, though a full-time employee, "is not in the (Center) library 100 percent of the time," but she argued that her staff deployments are shaped in part by budget cuts.

Marv Waterstone, a professor of geography, agrees that Stoffle's effectiveness has been hindered by the parsimonious legislature of the 1990s. But as a researcher and a teacher, he faults her allocations of the money she does have. "When there's a choice between technology and personnel, she always goes for the technology. She's given us 'access' to find out what we no longer have."

In an April 20 to letter to Sypherd, in which Stoffle argues her case to keep the Center under her command, she warns that without the Center the UA's library rankings would drop from 27th nationwide to around 40th. Though she doesn't spell it out, it's clear that such a drop would diminish her stature within her profession. In reply in his report, Sypherd finds that the library is effectively dining out on the Center's riches.

"Frankly," he writes, "I was surprised by the dependency of the Library on the CCP's expenditures, collections and staff in this regard."

The dean's management style has been a point of contention, and in talking to me she extended an olive branch to the disaffected Center staff. "I look at issues of breakdowns not as failures but as opportunities for breakthroughs. There are some extremely talented people there."

But in her letter to Sypherd she displays a different style altogether. Trained neither in photography nor museum practice, she nevertheless complains that "the staff at the Center have resisted changes that could make them more efficient and successful in the future. This has been a leadership issue and I must admit the problem was worse than I knew until a year ago. I have moved to address the problem." (Pitts announced his resignation around this time.)

Stoffle goes on to write that taking the Center from her control would be tantamount to rewarding the staff's insubordination. "For the University to reward such behavior by moving this unit, would be, in my view, a major morale problem for the Library and signal that the Library's directions are not supported by the University administration."

Dean Stoffle assured me that she favors an exhibition program and that as a staunch defender of academic freedom she would never interfere with a show's content. In her letter to Sypherd, though, she complains about the Center's exhibitions, and her criticism is a curious echo of John Schaefer's, even down to his beef about the parties: "In the last few years, the Center has given priority to exhibits and gala show openings, which has confused its central mission."

AS A GEOLOGIST, George Davis has spent a lifetime looking at rocks, and he allows that he's taken thousands of photographs of his specimens over the years. He knows there's some grumbling at the notion of a rock scientist making decisions about the Center for Creative Photography.

"I'm a very visual person," he said by telephone recently, speaking in the measured diction of careful scientist, or else of a careful administrator. "I have a natural inclination and a love of photography."

In ruling on the Center's future, he said, he consulted with the Dean of Libraries, the Center's staff and its advisory board, but his primary concern was "the best interest of the university." And he works in geologic time. The dramatic personal disputes and players will erode eventually, while the Center and the university will endure.

"We know the players who are here now. We need to look further down the line. If the structure is good, we shouldn't ship it off because of (poor) working relationships."

In the Center quagmire, he came to the opposite conclusion of Provost Sypherd, and he won't comment on their disagreements. (Sypherd did not respond to an interview request for this article.) Davis is firmly in the Center-as-archive camp, but he's agreed to give the Center relief from Dean Stoffle's teams.

Acknowledging that "there's been a tremendous power struggle," he said, "I'm completely persuaded by the Center that the team-based approach is not working .... The team approach has been suspended. The Center staff is to direct its time and energy to key activities of the Center. That will tend to remove one of the very significant conflicts and help resolve the breach."

I asked him whether putting the library dean in charge of the "articulation" of the Center's mission and the search committee for a new director is a setup guaranteeing a foregone conclusion. He didn't answer directly, but said he's told Stoffle "to look at creating the Center in a freestanding way within the library." He promised to involve not only faculty and staff in the deliberations, but also people from the community. Jerry Hogle, chair of the UA Faculty Senate, has already been tapped, and so has Andy Polk, head of the School of Art.

Now that the Center has been forced to stay in what even the circumspect Davis characterizes as an "unstable" relationship with the library, the question is how long the Center's staff members will remain. Archivist Amy Rule is protected by tenure, but the rest of the professional staff, inluding curator Trudy Wilner Stack, is not. And the Center's supporters are questioning what kind of director will be attracted to the troubled institution.

"I recognize there has been a struggle. It looks to outsiders like win/lose," Davis said. "My hope is people will stay. My respect for the staff is why I spent so much time over there .... I hope they can continue to do their best work."

The community will be watching. If the Center as presently constructed were dismantled, Etherton said, "It would be an unbelievable tragedy. It'll go away and people will say, 'How did that happen?' And if it does, we'll never get it back."

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