Rufe Rules

When aliens at TMA say 'Take me to your leader,' here's who they meet.

Never mind that Laurie Rufe, the Tucson Museum of Art's new director, grew up near Doylestown, the bucolic Pennsylvania town where Sign's movie aliens terrorize poor Mel Gibson.

And put aside the fact that Rufe's most recent residence was Roswell, N.M., UFO capital of the universe. Not to mention that she now lives in Tucson, where astronomy and dark skies rule. Alienology conspiracy theorists might have trouble dismissing the three paired facts. "Coincidence?" one imagines them saying. "We think not."

Nevertheless, inquiring minds skeptical of ufology still want to know: When Rufe was director of the Roswell Museum and Art Center, how did she respond when patrons marched in and demanded, "Take me to your aliens?"

Rufe, newly ensconced in the spacious corner office vacated last November by longtime TMA director Robert Yassin, answers good-naturedly.

"People will stop in and ask, 'Where are the aliens?'" she said, and the staff likes to respond, "Somewhere in the museum." "It's a phenomenon in the community."

In point of fact the Roswell Museum, where Rufe was deputy director for 11 years and director for four, has not only a planetarium but a rocket collection, which once belonged to pioneering rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard, late of Roswell. And while many Roswellians are weary of the alien hoopla, which intensified after the 50th anniversary of a 1947 alien invasion, the museum does go so far as to stage an annual Alien Costume Contest.

"It's one of our premiere festivals," says Rufe, who keeps correcting herself to reflect her current relationship with the Roswell, replacing the word "our" with "their," and "is" with "was." "We do go along with it (ufology). We've done thematic exhibits. In the 50th anniversary year we did an invitational quilt show on an alien theme. We got wonderful quilts from all over the country."

The Roswell Museum has an annual budget of $1 million, a collection of 8,000 objects and square footage of 48,000, by contrast to TMA's $2.9 million, 6,500 objects and 77,000 square feet. And the Roswell harbors many more things than stuff from the sky. There's a historical collection, which features, among other artifacts, Plains Indian beadwork and Pueblo pots, and there's also what Rufe calls a "wonderful fine arts collection ... one of the finest collections of modernism in the Southwest.

"The museum has some American Western art, and the early Taos and Santa Fe modernists. There's a Georgia O'Keeffe skull that's a beauty, and work by Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis ... and Peter Hurd and Henriette Wyeth."

Contemporary artists in the museum include Luis Jimenez; Tucson's Jim Waid (Rufe curated a Waid exhibit in 1998); Harmony Hammond, who divides her time between Tucson and New Mexico; and Elmer Schooley, a Roswell painter who was the TMA's Stonewall artist back in the early '90s.

In fact, Rufe says, in the art world, "my greatest love is contemporary," and she pronounces herself lucky to have arrived at the museum in time for the opening this weekend of the big Stonewall exhibition by Mayme Kratz, an artist who works in resin and plant parts. "I love her work."

Here at the TMA, where she is the first woman ever to hold the position of museum director, she doesn't necessarily expect to be doing a lot of curating. She notes that the museum already has two well-regarded curators, Joanne Stuhr, who specializes in the museum's pre-Colombian and Hispanic holdings, and Julie Sasse, curator of contemporary art.

"I may do something with [curating] Western art," says Rufe, a lifelong horsewoman whose three horses just arrived in town "safe and sound," but "my greatest strength is museum management."

That strength may have won her her new position. Yassin, who moved on to head an art center in Ranchos Palos Verdes, Calif., is credited with expanding the museum tremendously and tidying up its finances in his 11-year tenure. But he had a famous temper and he could be downright cantankerous. Disputes often spilled outside the museum walls into the community, and he battled intermittently with city officials, neighborhood groups and historic preservationists, mostly about his plans for the five city-owned historic houses in the museum's care.

Rufe knows little about the storms that preceded her arrival, but she hastens to declare that "My style is team-building and communication." She'd be happy to meet with community members who've been alienated by previous museum actions, she says. "We all need to move on. This museum is a great asset to the community."

Her past museum experiences, in Virginia, Pennsylvania and all over the West, should serve her in good stead as she tackles the TMA, with its varied collection of contemporary, cowboy and Hispanic arts, its arts-and-crafts house museum, and its other historic properties. She holds a bachelor's degree in art history from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and that city afforded her internships in both a fine arts museum and a historic house museum. Back in Doylestown after college, she took a job at the Mercer Museum, which owns such famous colonial works as Edward Hicks' "A Peaceable Kingdom," and fine examples of early Pennsylvania and German furniture.

A new job for her husband, Mike Rufe, then a computer programmer, now a blacksmith, took the couple to Wyoming, where Laurie Rufe worked on an oral history project at Northwest College. Next stop was Colorado, for a position at the Douglas County Council for Arts and Humanities in Colorado Springs, followed by a directorship at the Custer County Art Center in Montana. In the far north country, she honed her fund-raising skills, she said.

"Fund raising was a big issue at the center, and I'm good at it," she said, adding that she also learned the delicate art of lobbying state legislators for art money.

Rufe moved to New Mexico in 1987 to take the job in Roswell, and in her 15 years there did the full complement of museum tasks, from curating, caring for the collection and writing catalog essays, to fund raising, long-range planning and community outreach. The TMA is not the first place where she's made a little bit of women's history: When she was named director at Roswell in 1998, she was the first woman to hold the top job there as well.

First order of business in Tucson, she says, is the arduous task of getting re-accreditation from the American Association of Museums. (TMA spokeswoman Sherry Stepleton reports that the museum's accreditation had been "overlooked" and inadvertently allowed to lapse during the construction period of the late '90s.) Another priority is "developing a long-range plan and raising the funding we need to take this museum to another level. ... Building the collection is a big challenge ... (and) developing a collecting policy for the future."

Rufe wants to beef up the museum's successful educational programs and do more community outreach, and she's looking forward to collaborating with the other museums and arts groups in town. She "loves the environment" in Tucson, and she' s delighted to note that ironwork, her husband's craft, is a long-established local tradition. Various family members have already settled here. Her brother and his family have lived in Tucson half a dozen years, and her parents lit out from Doylestown two years ago; her father, she says, has transformed himself from an eastern woodlands moss farmer into a desert cactus aficionado.

His daughter won't have to metamorphose quite so much. She's already an experienced western hand, not to mention a museum veteran, but she considers the TMA job a big step up. "It will be a great challenge! And an opportunity to grow."

Tucsonans will be watching--and who knows who else?