COINCIDING WITH HIS 10th anniversary celebration as director, Bob Yassin is making a significant expansion the Tucson Museum of Art that doesn't involve bricks or mortar. Julie Sasse, current director of the UA galleries, becomes the museum's first-ever curator of contemporary art on July 5.
Joining Yassin and curator Joanne Stuhr, Sasse will become part of a team of "three fabulously creative minds," Yassin joked. Sasse will deploy all of her know-how in the service of new art, while Yassin will concentrate on western and 19th century art. Stuhr will primarily handle historic Latin American and folk art.
Reached at her office at the Joseph Gross Gallery, Sasse was positively gleeful about her new job.
"I'm so excited," she said. "I've been wanting to move into a museum situation. I was looking elsewhere.... They heard I've got a reputation as a workaholic."
Sasse has had her hands full running as many as five galleries at the UA, including the large Joseph Gross Gallery and several small ones at the Student Union. For years, she's peered at untold numbers of slides of regional artists, the better to find work to fill up those relentlessly demanding spaces. And prior to her university stint, Sasse worked in the commercial Elaine Horwitch Gallery in Scottsdale.
"The reason I pushed for Julie," said Stuhr, TMA's longtime curator of exhibitions, "is that she really knows the Arizona art scene and is committed to it."
Moreover, Stuhr added, the hire presages a significant change for the better at TMA.
"Having a curator of contemporary art is a big leap for the museum. It shows a strong commitment to contemporary art. I'm extremely pleased."
And with the museum growing, the toil had become too much for the small staff.
"With Julie here we'll have a more realistic workload," she said. "We're both looking forward to giving more depth to our projects. The community will benefit."
While Yassin said that he has curated some contemporary shows, it was Stuhr who spearheaded the New Directions exhibitions of local artists. She's still got a few of those on her plate, including a show of by Alice Briggs, who made a stunning debut at last year's Arizona Biennial with a mixed-media painting; and exhibitions of assemblage artist Herb Stratford and painter Barbara Rogers.
When Sasse comes on board, Stuhr said, "I'll still be involved in some contemporary things. I'm not sure how it will break down until we have time to sit down and talk. For the next six months my primary focus will be on the (historical) collections going into the Stevens House."
Around town, art types universally applauded the museum's hire of the affable Sasse. "I have a lot of confidence in Julie Sasse," said Mike Dominguez of Davis Dominguez Gallery. "It's a great move," echoed Terry Etherton of Etherton. "Julie is the perfect person," agreed Elizabeth Cherry, proprietor of Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art. "She and Joanne are some of the few people I can talk to about contemporary art. This will be good for the museum."
For her part, Sasse's full of plans.
"I'll expand on the exhibitions so there's a real presence of contemporary art in the museum," she said. The museum started up a Contemporary Art Society last year to help emphasize newer forms, but the artists who founded the HazMat Gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art "obviously thought there was a niche to be filled."
Those years of straining her eyes squinting at slides have given her a broad knowledge of contemporary art being done both in Arizona and its neighboring states.
"We're in between two wonderful, productive states, California and New Mexico. We need to be aware of what's around us. We're regional but that doesn't mean I turn my back on other states. It's best if I can put Arizona artists in a bigger context, showing that we don't operate in isolation."
Sasse intends to be approachable in her new post. "People can talk to me. I want to know what the community wants in contemporary art. I don't want to do just one strand, not just feminism or multiculturalism, but the whole menu."
The city's alternative arts scene has been struggling of late, and Sasse admitted, "It's a little daunting downtown." TMA can do its part by helping spread the new gospel of eclectic art.
"The museum can talk to patrons and collectors and let them know that those places are good for emerging artists," she said. "We all need each other."
The new curator is not yet sure whether she'll actually have the authority to buy art. "That might stay with Bob. He's made it clear he's not giving up his responsibility."
As for Yassin's famous temper, Sasse is not worried.
"I'm used to strong personalities. Bob and I have already agreed to forgive each other for strong language."