AT THE STEVENS House, amid the construction debris, there were no signs of the ghost. The phantom in question was Hiram Stevens, well-heeled 19th century merchant and politician. Stevens built himself the fine Territorial Sonoran-style rowhouse along Tucson's main street in 1865. Eighteen years later, within its thick adobe walls, he shot his wife in the head (the bullet was deflected by a Spanish comb in her hair) and killed himself. In the years since, his murderous ghost has lingered.
After the place became Janos, the nouvelle cuisine restaurant, Stevens would occasionally envelop servers in a draft of cold air. Once, after dinner, a family glimpsed him dining alone at a table in 19th century garb. He vanished in a second, along with all his dishes.
So far, Stevens has not been seen among the new cabinets being specially made for the Tucson Museum of Art's pre-Columbian figures and pots. In its latest incarnation, the house, which had undergone a division into apartments and then a restoration of its glories under Janos, will become a series of galleries for the museum's historic collections. Besides the early indigenous work, the house will display Spanish Colonial paintings and sculpture, and Mexican folk art.
On the recent ghost-free day, museum director Bob Yassin strolled through the house with a proprietary air. He showed off the new cabinets and the fashionable mustard and khaki-colored walls, and consulted with a disability expert on a plan to cut through an interior wall to accommodate an elevator. He couldn't be more pleased to have the museum occupying the historic rooms. In a pitched battle that gained nearly as many headlines and as much notoriety in 1996 as the Stevens suicide had in 1893, Yassin dueled restaurateur Janos Wilder for the space and won. The museum is the caretaker of the city-owned house, and forced Janos to vacate at the end of its lease in 1998. Janos restaurant has since resettled in the foothills.
"We're aiming to open it January 1," Yassin said of the new gallery. "We hope to connect the two buildings, the Fish and the Stevens house," restoring the block to its original unbroken 19th century facade.
The tenacity that Yassin displayed in the Janos scuffle, which had him knocking heads not only with the mayor and City Council members but with economic development types, neighbors and historic preservationists, has also helped make him the longest-reigning director the TMA has ever had.
Such longevity is becoming rare. Two of the other Big Three art institutions in Tucson are in transition. The University of Arizona Museum of Art, its longtime director Peter Bermingham displaced by death, in July welcomes Charles Guerin, former head of the university of Wyoming Museum of Art. Just last Friday, June 23, the Center for Creative Photography bade farewell to director Terence Pitts, who's off to the greener grass of the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Museum of Art. A new director is not expected to be named for at least a year.
Yassin arrived in the desert in 1990 from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, following a series of short-term TMA directors who had run the books into the red and operated out of a museum whose building had never even been finished. The lobby was plein air and even the bathrooms were outside.
Marking his 10th anniversary on the job this summer, Yassin can point to such achievements as putting the museum on a firm financial footing and completing the expansion of the main building two years ago. And, of crucial interest to the governing board, he's paid it off.
"I'm very proud of that," he said.
Artist Jim Waid, who filled the museum's upper slopes with his thick, brilliantly painted riffs on the desert in a Stonewall show a few years back, goes so far as to proclaim that "financially speaking, I think he single-handedly saved the museum."
Added and abetted by Joanne Stuhr, the curator the Tucson Weekly once dubbed Joanne d'Art for her successful charge to bring exciting art back into the moribund museum, Yassin can boast of a number of blockbuster shows during his tenure. A giant Chicano/a art show a half dozen years ago drew streams of people; to go along with the exhibition TMA even commissioned local artists David Tineo and Antonio Pazos to paint the Chicano-style mural that still graces the museum's north wall.
Other highlights include a dazzling glass art show three years ago curated by the indispensable Stuhr and by glass artist Tom Philabaum; a traveling Latin American art show that occupied almost the whole museum with everything from a carved medieval Virgin to a butcher's fanciful iron sign; and a provocative contemporary Arizona Biennial last year, a statewide show that for the first time offered up for viewing work in such interesting new media as underpants and holograms.
Such blockbusters were rare when Yassin started out in the museum biz.
"The museum world is much different than when I started 35 years ago," he said. "At a recent meeting of the Flinn Foundation we were talking about things had changed: blockbuster shows, the costs, the fundraising challenges. Museums used to have three clear goals: to preserve, to collect and to educate. We weren't into changing exhibitions too much. (Shows were) mostly based on the collection."
Like other directors, Yassin has adapted to the new economic realities, staging shows that will bring in the crowds. He himself tends to curate the more traditional historical exhibitions--his doctorate is in American art, and he's especially interested in the 19th century--and the museum took some hits this season for a series of conservative craft shows. The Stonewall show, for instance, normally a showcase for a regional contemporary artist like Waid, this past season featured the work of a family of jewelry-makers; another show offered up colorful Talavera pottery.
But at least he's allowed Stuhr's more radical shows space in the museum. Her New Directions series showcased the sometimes difficult work of local artists, such as Amy Zuckerman's photos of families of murder victims and Chris Rush's recent paintings of disabled kids.
It's a commonplace for local artists to complain about being ignored by the large institutions in their own cities, but Yassin has made a point of buying up the works of Tucsonans. An exhibition opening this Saturday, Director's Choice: Additions to the Collection, shows off a sampling of the some 200 works acquired during his tenure.
"He has acquired a great deal of work by local artists," noted Waid. "All the other directors said they would and didn't."
One reason, Yassin said, is that he has a broad definition of "regional museum" that embraces both past and present. "Our collection is both contemporary and New World and colonial, and there's a certain fusion between the two. We try to focus on the museum as a regional (institution). We're not a replica of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)" which takes all art as its province. During his watch the museum benefited from the windfall gift of Susan Small and the late William Small, a tireless collector of present-day painting: The donation added dozens of late 20th century paintings to the TMA's holdings. And next month, he adds to his staff the museum's first-ever curator of contemporary art. (See accompanying story.)
Yassin's proud of the five historic houses in the museum's care, which offer up what he calls a "circle of history." Together they create a Tucson timeline, segueing through the years from the earliest, the Cordoba House, a modest Sonoran rowhouse, on up to the newest, the Spanish Colonial Revival Corbett House. Yassin designated the Corbett House as a historic house museum, and outfitted it with period Arts and Crafts furnishings. The lovely old Fish House provided a deft solution to a cowboy-contemporary rift on the board. Yassin neatly solved the spat by allotting the Fish house entirely to western art--freeing up the museum proper for more contemporary work.
But if he's proud of his history expertise, the ways he's handled the museum's location in the city's sacred ground of early settlement has brought him the most criticism. Widely perceived as autocratic, he ran into trouble over the museum's too-hasty archaeological work during excavations for the expansion of three years ago. And preservationists objected to converting the Stevens House to galleries, on the grounds that in its Janos phase it more accurately reflected a 19th century interior. And in fact, one corner of the Stevens House had begun to crumble--"We were unaware of those problems," Yassin acknowledged--and had to be shored up extensively before the gallery conversion.
"We're done," he said. "The structure's in beautiful shape."
Yassin has always believed that the expanded museum and its historic house collection could play a part in revitalizing the city center. TMA may be eligible for some Rio Nuevo money to help pay for completing the plaza; it's near the projected Presidio Museum and both could be part of a historic trail visitors could follow through downtown.
Like many other arts observers, Yassin said he doesn't "have any great hope for downtown--the city had a heart, a city center and lost it." Yet he believes that Tucson, as a growing town, is developing a greater sophistication about art. Public art projects such as Steve Farley's Broadway murals have won widespread approval, he noted, and even the positive vote for Rio Nuevo signals a belief that museums and history are important to a city.
"There's a real awareness that art improves a city," Yassin said. In a sense, he said, the museum's current growth is "all part of the general growth, and art contributes in a positive way."
And who knows? If Tucsonans are beginning to develop a sophistication that has them appreciating art, maybe the period pieces about to fill the old Stevens place might even please its crotchety ghost.
Director's Choice: Additions to the Collection opens Saturday, July 1, and runs through Sunday, August 20, at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2, $1 for seniors, free for members and children under 12. It's free for everyone on Sundays. For more information call 624-2333.