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The Master Builder

The UA Museum Of Art's New Head Aims To Assemble Fresh Programs, And Maybe A New Building.

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WHEN CHARLES A. Guerin came to the University of Arizona to interview for the top job at its art museum, he got lost.

"I couldn't find the museum," he said one recent morning, now securely ensconced in the executive director's office behind the Jacques Lipschitz exhibition. It's easy for Tucsonans, let alone a job candidate, to have trouble finding the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Constructed almost 50 years ago, the building is set in the fine arts complex at the north end of campus. The courtyard itself is congenial, but the whole place turns a forbidding back on the city.

"It's difficult to find. It's difficult for the not-able-bodied, for people who can't walk long distances," Guerin said. Compounding the architectural access problems are parallel problems of artistic access. Exhibition space is so cramped that much of the permanent collection is locked away, and inadequate storage has actually prevented the museum on occasion from buying or accepting gifts of new treasures.

"This museum is bursting at the seams," Guerin said. "We have outgrown our storage capacity. It's a crime how little of the collection can be shown at any one time."

Guerin is not alone in thinking that the museum's dual access problems are a big part of the reason he got the job, succeeding the late Peter Bermingham. UAMA supporters have long dreamed of a new building, and Guerin looked like the candidate most likely to deliver one. (Passed over by the search committee were longtime UAMA administrator Lee Karpiscak, who had been acting director after Bermingham's death, and Elaine King, an East Coast curator and critic with an art history Ph.D.)

"By hook or by crook, I developed a reputation as someone who works in institutional change," Guerin said. "I suppose that's what attracted the UAMA to me."

He's fresh out of a 14-year stint in Laramie, Wyoming, where as executive director of the University of Wyoming Art Museum he presided over the construction of a brand-new building, completed in 1993. He shepherded the whole project, from fundraising to installing the collection, and managed as a bonus to snag the services of hot-shot architect Antoine Predock, who also designed ASU's Nelson Fine Arts Center. Even before the Laramie project, when he was curator of fine arts at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, from 1980 to 1986, he oversaw a "significant renovation ... of the glorious 1950s Art Deco structure." He's also consulted on the design of a U.S. Figure Skating Museum and the Fort Carson Museum of the Army.

If he gets the chance to plan a new UAMA building, Guerin said he'd look for a more welcoming design that would not only invite the community in, but be big enough to show the community much more of the art that it has.

"I'd be in favor a facility at the edge of the campus that helps soften the relationship between the university and the neighborhood, (that) creates an open door."

However, he added, "It's premature to say I came here to build a building." Just for starters, the Regents would need to approve it, a site would have to be selected and funds would have to be raised. "My approach will be to listen quite awhile to the community and to the staff, and then to map out the museum's future."

For his part, he said, Guerin was attracted to the museum job by Tucson itself, which "has a reputation for being supportive of the arts," by the museum's fine holdings and by an impressive acquisitions budget, funded by a private gift. The UAMA, he said, of all the places he was considering working, "had the strongest collection and a fine reputation for exceptional work." Among the museum's treasures are a surprisingly strong gathering of historical European works, including the superb Retablo de Ciudad Rodrigo, a Spanish painted chronicle of the life of Christ, and significant numbers of works on paper. In the works right now, he said, is a plan to buy some important Dutch still lifes.

Curator Peter Briggs has already lined up the next year's worth of shows, so it will be awhile before the community gets a look at Guerin's curatorial tastes.

"A museum's primary concern is to exhibit the highest caliber shows," he said. "I hope to see an exhibition program of individual artists, thematic art and name-brand artists. ... Our program wants to be broad and balanced," ranging from early modernism to contemporary to decorative arts.

He'll stick with the annual MFA show, a typically in-your-face exhibition by bold young artists, and he'll continue mounting the occasional show of high-quality local artists, such as last year's Barbara Kennedy retrospective. And he intends to do the fund-raising necessary to pay for big-ticket shows that bring in the crowds. The traveling Rodin exhibition of several years back, which also went to the University of Wyoming Art Museum, was an expensive show that fortunately came with its own funding, Guerin said. He noted that in Tucson, as in Laramie, the Rodin brand name brought in people who typically don't find their ways to museums.

But he doesn't plan on a conservative blockbuster-only program. Guerin works in university museums by choice. Not only does he enjoy learning from the young student artists who visit and work in such museums, he said, he relishes the lively intellectual atmosphere that prizes the cutting edge.

"There are so many scholarly and intellectual resources, not only in arts and art history, but in history, women's studies, Latin American studies." At the University of Arizona, he noted, "there's a built-in opportunity to collaborate" with the academic departments as well as the powerhouse Center for Creative Photography right across the way, the "extraordinary" Arizona State Museum and the Arizona Historical Society.

The last show Guerin put together in Laramie was The Landscape Project, a major exhibition that fills 11 galleries and takes an innovative look at art of the last two centuries. Timed to coincide with the turning of the millennium, the show investigates the relationship between 19th-century landscape art and late 20th-century environmental works, teasing out the way both schools of art addressed Americans' relationship to the land. He's particularly proud that the show has made it into cyberspace, in the form of a virtual show on a new museum website (www.uwyo.edu/artmuseum).

A working artist himself, Guerin is a modernist landscape painter who used to show at the now-defunct Elaine Horwitch Gallery in Scottsdale, and now exhibits at a Denver gallery. His day jobs don't give him enough time to paint as much as he would like, "but I will always continue to do it." The Chicago native holds double master's degrees, in printmaking and painting, from Northern Illinois University, where he also studied printmaking as an undergraduate.

He's looking forward to life in Tucson, where he finds the high temperatures a nice change from Wyoming weather ("I left a place where winter is 10 months long"), and where he and his wife will be nearer his in-laws in San Diego. He's eager for the UAMA to work in tandem with the Tucson Museum of Art, and to find a way to link up with the local galleries, and offer moral support to those that are struggling. He's impressed by the citizens' forward-looking vote to fund Rio Nuevo South, a complex of museums and historical reconstructions planned for Tucson's birthplace along the Santa Cruz River. A well-publicized and well-attended University of Arizona Museum of Art, he said, should join with other local cultural institutions to help revitalize the city and "make Tucson a cultural destination point."

At the UAMA, he said, he's the beneficiary of an institutional memory preserved by such longtime staffers as Briggs and Karpiscak.

"I'm sorry (my hire) wasn't under different circumstances," he said, referring to the death of the beloved Bermingham, who was director some 21 years. Had he gotten the job after Bermingham's planned retirement instead of after his sudden death, Guerin would have had the "opportunity to gain his friendship and connect to the (museum's) history and issues."

But he expects to chart a different course from the late director's. "I have no interest in filling his shoes. He did what was exactly right for his time. I want to be the next person, to do what's right for this time."

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