A Life in Museums

Robert Knight returns to Arizona to head up the often-controversial Tucson Museum of Art

Years ago, when Robert Knight was working at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, he got an offer he almost couldn't refuse: a job with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

But the woman who would become his wife had other plans.

"Let me take you to the Mogollon Rim," she told him. "You can see another side of Arizona."

Her camping-trip strategy worked. Knight turned down the big-city job in favor of pine forests and desert canyons.

"At the last second, I thought: I really like Arizona," Knight recounted last week over lemonade at the Tucson Museum of Art's Café a la C'art. "I never regretted that decision."

Knight moved on from the Scottsdale Center for the Arts to become founding director of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and ended up staying in the state 14 years. Now, he's back.

After a four-year detour to Montana, where he headed the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, Knight, 50, took over as director of the TMA in late August. (The previous director, Laurie Rufe, resigned this spring after a controversial tenure that lasted not quite three years.)

"My wife and I fell in love with Tucson," Knight says. "I'm excited to be here. My wife is thrilled. We hope to be here a long time."

Knight's stint at the multifaceted Yellowstone, three hours from the national park, may help him at the fractious TMA, chronically beset by battles between cowboy art partisans and contemporary art fans. Yellowstone began as an alternative art space, he said, but over the years, its "mission expanded to include all art of the region, from indigenous to Western to contemporary."

TMA likewise has a mixed mission, showcasing traditional Hispanic folk arts in one of its house museums, Western art in another and lately, more often than not, contemporary work in the main building.

"When I first left New York (after grad school), I was the biggest art snob," he said. "I thought there was no art west of the Hudson. But over the years, I have come to appreciate all types of art. As I told my board in Montana, we should 'fear no art.'"

Rather than drawing false divisions between, say, outsider and insider art, the TMA could do ravishing shows that explore both, he says. For instance, an exhibition could pair the Navajo rugs that Knight loves with the abstract paintings of a Frank Stella or Jackson Pollock.

"These artists used those materials as reference points," he said. "Imagine putting a Stella next to an old chief's blanket. We need to get away from categories, the 'my team versus your team' mentality, the Sharks versus the Jets. Once we let go of that, we can do anything."

Knight also hopes for interdisciplinary collaborations with other institutions, and not just art museums.

"Maybe we could collaborate with the (UA) department of physics of Kitt Peak," he said, adding that he's already been in contact with the director of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. "I don't know exactly how it will work. But we shouldn't be myopic."

Knight's plucky optimism reflects his Midwestern roots. He grew up in Lincoln, Neb., where his father was a zoologist turned oral surgeon, and his mother, now 83, was a "first-generation feminist."

Lincoln was a plain town, set in the plains. And though Knight loved the local zoo, where as a teen he helped raise three orphaned bears, he jokes that as soon as he figured out how to transfer out, he did: He had a brief stint at Arizona State until a family illness called him back to Lincoln and Nebraska Wesleyan University.

But his parents had family in Chicago, and his father, a museum devotee, spent hours hauling him through the city's rich treasure-troves, the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute of Chicago.

"That's when I developed a passion for museums," he said.

And at Nebraska Wesleyan, as a student double majoring in art history and anthropology, he worked with anthro professors who had studied under Margaret Meade at Columbia. Their classes enthralled the "kid from Lincoln, Nebraska. To learn about Tierra del Fuego, the Bushmen, the South Pacific was very mind-expanding."

One art history professor, an old Harvard man, persuaded him to apply to his alma mater for graduate study. But when he arrived at the Cambridge campus, he felt a bit like the anthropologists he had studied. He was bewildered both by the students' costumes--as a clerk in a clothing store, he swears he encountered preppie polo shirts, khaki pants and moccasins for the first time--and by their wealth. In a class on Abstract Expressionism, a well-heeled fellow student brought in his "dad's Jackson Pollock, from the library at home," he said. "It was an eye-opener, a fascinating experience. These guys were so smart, and so cool."

Still, after he picked up a master's in aesthetic education, he heeded the advice of Paul Rotterdam, a painting professor he admired. Dressed in the requisite artist's black and speaking in a German accent, the professor commanded: "If you're interested in art, you must go to New York."

Knight spent the next six years happily living the "life of an artist" in then-ungentrified Harlem, in a rough district near the Cotton Club. He earned a master's in studio art and art history, and then a doctorate in fine arts and education at Columbia. At the university, he absorbed the ideas of such art history luminaries as Irving Sandler, Dore Ashton and Theodore Reff, and in the city, he reveled in the punk explosion and the East Village arts scene.

"It was an exciting time to be there," he said.

But New York was expensive, and after finishing his education, he "invited my painting buddies over and divided up my canvases, and moved to San Francisco, the hippest city in America."

He worked as a bookkeeper in a San Francisco gallery for a year ("I've done it all at museums," he joked) before getting his first curatorial job, at the Art Museum of South Texas, in Corpus Christi. The Texas job led to Scottsdale, where in 1986 he became visual-arts curator in the multi-disciplinary Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

"The center's major emphasis was in performing arts, but I tried to cannibalize all the space I could for visual arts," he said. Knight exhibited a number of Tucson artists, including David Pennington, William Lesch, Will Saunders and Bailey Doogan, whose TMA retrospective coincidentally opens this Friday night.

By the mid-'90s, Knight and others proposed a separate museum for the visual arts, and succeeded in establishing the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Architect Will Bruder was enlisted to redesign an old movie theater, and Knight became founding director.

At SMOCA, his biggest show was on Frank Lloyd Wright, staged in collaboration with Taliesin West. The show came complete with a collapsing Usonian house, a Wright effort in the direction of affordable housing, and toured around the country and as far afield as Japan.

"We were doing wonderful exhibits. James Turrell (the Arizona environmental artist) was my final exhibition. But it was time to do something else."

He and his wife, Jana, had been nursing a fantasy of opening a bed and breakfast or a fishing lodge in the North Country, when the Yellowstone Art Museum came calling. Though he's an avid fly fisherman, he put aside the lodge scheme and took the art job.

"Museums are my life," he said.

He's particularly proud of an Andy Warhol print show he mounted there, as a well as one on Deborah Butterfield, an "American sculptor who does horses." The Yellowstone sent her sculptures on national tour that will end at the TMA, "in a piece of total serendipity."

The Butterfield show, scheduled for late spring, and the Doogan show opening this week, both bring Knight full circle back to Tucson. And Tucson, he added, "really feels like coming home."

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