A Great Adventure

The new UAMA curator brings a lot of experience to Peter Briggs' old gig

Lisa Fischman, new chief curator at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, originally intended to be a doctor.

"I went to the University of Chicago as a pre-med, planning to be a pediatric oncologist," Fischman said last week in her makeshift office, a temporary space so close to the museum microwave that the smell of soup wafts in.

But that was before she immersed herself in Chicago's first-year curriculum of "great humanities classes." And before she met art history professor Barbara Maria Stafford. Stafford taught a class in the history of still life, which--let's face it--could be suffocatingly dull in the wrong hands.

But "she was fabulous, quite a character," with a penchant for teaching, say, Japanese art in kimono and full whiteface, Fischman said.

"She was a romantic, crazy, brilliant intellectual. I thought, 'I should be an art historian.'"

So Fischman gave up the lab for an art historical mix worthy of her mentor, studying pop culture, material culture, high culture and mixes thereof. She has a bit of her mentor's showmanship, too. On this particular day, she's dressed in bright red, in a neckline that plunges just enough to reveal the tattoo on her décolletage.

The Chicago art history department turned out to be too conservative for her tastes--another professor there reproached her for writing a paper comparing the new physics and cubism. She switched to the University of Minnesota for grad school, where there was much more cross-disciplinary emphasis, and eventually turned out a doctoral dissertation on the "Davy Crockett phenomenon of the 1950s."

The thesis, Coonskin Fever: Frontier Adventures in Postwar American Culture, turned a curious eye on the popular Disney TV show, on the kids who watched it in coonskin caps, on the moms who lined their kitchens with knotty pine cabinets. These peculiarities gave her a chance to deliver a scholarly exegesis on the "notions of frontier that resurge" periodically in America.

"The things that interest me are the surprising connections between spheres that generally don't intersect," Fischman explained.

She could be describing the UAMA's eclectic collection. The Retablo of Ciudad Rodrigo, a series of 15th-century Spanish oils documenting the life of Christ, fills one room upstairs at the museum, while 20th-century modernist sculpture by Frenchman Jacques Lipchitz fills another downstairs. Thanks to the proclivities of the late director Peter Bermingham, the museum also has a formidable collection of works on paper from all eras. Then there's 20th-century art, including a single painting by Georgia O'Keeffe.

Add to that mix a commitment to showing work by UA faculty and grad students, and high-ranking local and regional artists, and you've got a museum that's a very mixed bag.

"University museums are always peculiar, with quirky collections," Fischman said. "They can't be encyclopedic. You have to use their strengths."

To prove her point, Fischman has made her first major project a show this fall of Depression-era Works Progress Administration prints taken from the museum's own holdings. But she plans to do more than just hang pictures.

"Printmaking was a very big part of the WPA program. But rather than just have the prints on the wall, we're going to build a printmaking studio inside the gallery. Artists will come in and pull prints."

She's already lined up artist Jenny Schmid of Minneapolis to pay a printmaking visit, and she plans to enlist UA professors to deliver related lectures and stage workshops for students.

"I hope to work closely with the folks in the art department. I'm curious to see how it will work."

Fischman's been specializing in contemporary art for a while. She last worked as director of the contemporary Atlanta College of Art Gallery. Among her proudest achievements there, she said, was the installation this spring of a site-specific work by Native American artist Edgar Heap of Birds. Evoking the Trail of Tears, which began in northern Georgia, Heap of Birds made sculptural pieces that conjured up Indian mounds, and did a provocative piece of public art on busy Peachtree Street that alluded to the Indians' long, dangerous walk.

"I'm not sure Atlanta was really ready for this," Fischman said.

Before Atlanta, she was an associate curator for contemporary art and education at the SUNY Buffalo Art Gallery. And before that, she worked for the prestigious Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, another beacon of contemporary art. By contrast, the UAMA holdings, ranging across five centuries, will "allow me to use my art historical chops," she noted. And she's delighted to be back in a university setting.

"The university environment is great for cross-discipline," she said. "I'm thrilled to be back near a university library. It sounds nerdy, but a lot of interesting things happen on campus, that a museum can connect with."

On the down side, as Fischman well knows, university campuses are rife with politics. She quit the SUNY Buffalo job when the director of the gallery "was not renewed, because of politics."

Her new job, which she started May 15, was available only because the previous chief curator was similarly not renewed. Last year, director Charles Guerin, who had been at the museum less than four years, triggered an angry outcry in the art community when he chose not to renew the contract of the respected Peter Briggs, who had worked at the museum for 14.

Fischman said she was aware of the dustup over Briggs, who has since taken an endowed position at Texas Tech in Lubbock.

"The controversy was a good sign that the local community cared about the museum," she said. "And it's important that the institution respect his years of service and good will, his care for the collection and his devotion to the community."

She hopes to forge the same kind of connections, visiting artists in their studios, and working with other museums, though it might be hard to keep up with their changing personnel. (The Tucson Museum of Art has just hired a new director, Robert Knight, who will arrive in August to replace Laurie Rufe, a controversial leader who resigned unexpectedly this spring after less than three years on the job.)

Meantime, Fischman is working on a five-year exhibition plan, and she's already started a little remodeling. Last week, the Lipchitz installation was getting a "facelift," and Fischman was looking over carpet samples for the lobby--she's partial to red. She's also given orders for the blue and gray walls of the upstairs galleries to be repainted white.

Guerin, she said, has been "very supportive" of her plans.

Fischman grew up in Buffalo, where her father taught in the SUNY Buffalo dental school, and her family is a little puzzled by her exotic move west. She herself admits that her career trajectory would have been expected to take her to New York, capital of contemporary art.

"But that's devoting yourself to the choir. I gave it a lot of thought. I said to myself, 'Why not go someplace where my skills could contribute?'"

And she's enchanted by the desert. Atlanta friends gave her a membership to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum as a farewell gift, and she's already made use of it.

"It's one of the very best museums," she said.

Her new house near Reid Park is the "smallest, funky, funny house you could imagine." She discovered belatedly that the house has no gas line for her new dryer, so she made like an old-time Tucsonan and strung up a clothesline in the back yard. She hangs her laundry at night to keep it from fading ("everything else I own besides this dress is black"), and one dark evening recently, she had a magical Tucson moment.

"There are no streetlights, which is great. I was under the moonlight, smelling the desert smells and hanging the laundry. It was the most lovely, unexpected thing.

"I'm feeling good about this job. I'm delighted to be here. ... It's a great adventure."

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