Brush Off

The Tucson Museum of Art dumps a popular, respected curator.

Joanne Stuhr, longtime curator at the Tucson Museum of Art, was summarily fired Aug. 4.

The creator of the acclaimed mini-museum of the art of the Americas in the historic Stevens-Duffield house, Stuhr was given just hours to leave the museum, with a security guard dispatched to her office to make sure she left. After 13 years on the job, Stuhr was sent packing without severance pay.

Laurie Rufe, director of one year's standing, fired Stuhr the day the curator returned to work from a trip to Mexico, where she had been researching a major exhibition on Mexican photography. The exhibition, a planned collaboration with such institutions as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Center for Creative Photography, has now been canceled.

The museum issued a terse statement noting, "TMA curator Joanne Stuhr is leaving the museum. Her many friends wish her well in her endeavors."

Rufe said she could not comment because "this is a personnel issue. We're looking at the best interests of the museum and Joanne's privacy. Personnel changes are difficult and painful for all parties involved. We plan to move forward."

The museum did not take long to move forward with the search for Stuhr's replacement. On Aug. 6, just two days after she was fired, the TMA posted a lengthy job announcement for a new curator of the art of the Americas at the Western Museums Association Web site.

Reached at her home, Stuhr declined comment. Once called by the Tucson Weekly the "best friend to the local arts" and "Joanne of Art, restorer of the Tucson Museum of Art," Stuhr was credited with bringing a steadying hand to an institution that's been chronically troubled by management woes. During the turbulent years of the Robert Yassin directorship, she curated dozens of exhibitions that were both critical and popular successes. Among the most spectacular was 1997's Calido, a museum-wide exhibition of glass art, co-curated with glass artist Tom Philabaum--a show the Tucson Weekly named "show of the year."

Her surprise firing outraged the local arts community, where Stuhr is widely respected and well liked.

"She's a consummate pro," Philabaum said. "I found her to be professional, deep-thinking and brave. Some of the things I learned from her I applied to exhibitions in my gallery."

Echoed Terry Etherton, owner of Etherton Gallery, "We're all stunned because of the level of professionalism she always displayed. A lot of things at that museum happened only because of Joanne. It just doesn't make sense."

Paul Ivey, a UA professor of art and a board member of the museum's Contemporary Art Society, agreed. "She was the engine behind the scenes. Just look at the number of shows she curated. She started the Directions exhibitions of contemporary artists of the Southwest. She'd come and give talks at the Center for Creative Photography. Her whole thing was creating a center in Tucson where the community and artists came together."

Anne-Marie Russell, new director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, said she interned under Stuhr at the TMA in the early 1990s and the two became both colleagues and friends. She said Stuhr's reputation for integrity, as well as for fine exhibitions, extends beyond the local community, and not only because of her years of service as a board member of the international Glass Art Society.

"She is very well respected," Russell said. "Among her colleagues in New York, she has a great reputation. Because of her, people in New York say, 'There's a great museum in Tucson.'"

Peter Briggs, curator of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, praised the depth of Stuhr's exhibitions, especially her 1999 Adolph Gottlieb show and this winter's Casas Grandes pottery exhibition. In the well-researched Gottlieb show, Stuhr demonstrated that the painter's angular abstractions were in part inspired by his little-known sojourn in Tucson's spiky desert.

"That's the kind of show that you really relish," Briggs said. "It brought out something new and interesting. It was very special."

Likewise, the Casas Grandes pottery last winter was the first-ever museum exhibition to scrutinize the colorful ceramics of 1400 A.D. Chihuahua. Its scholarly catalog, edited by Stuhr, was published by the University of Arizona Press.

STUHR'S FIRING HAS ALREADY triggered some repercussions among donors to the museum. Gloria and Spencer Giffords, collectors of Latin American art, are threatening to withdraw major loans.

"I have nothing but the absolute greatest confidence in the woman," Gloria Giffords said. "We have lent to the TMA, purely on our relationship with (Stuhr), hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of art. Depending on what shakes out, it's going to color our relationship to the museum. ... We are seriously thinking of withdrawing 100 items."

Giffords also planned to spread the word of Stuhr's abrupt dismissal to other donors and collectors.

Pete Cecere, a retired Foreign Service officer who lives in Virginia, gave the museum 225 Latin American folk art works he'd collected during his years of living abroad. Those pieces are valued at $100,000. He has 12,000 more that he was considering donating, but the news of Stuhr's firing, which left him "absolutely devastated," may put a stop to those plans.

"After meeting Joanne and seeing what kind of person she is, I decided to donate to TMA," he said by telephone. "She has integrity, and builds community confidence ... I won't give anything to Tucson again unless I have some confidence in her replacement. That might take a while to build up."

All parties to the dispute remain mum about the reasons for the firing. Board member Bob Joyce would say only that Rufe had called board members individually after the fact to inform them that Stuhr "has left the museum.

"Obviously the Palice Pavilion was one of her great projects," Joyce said. "Everyone responded positively to that. It was a worthwhile endeavor for the museum. As to how any of this might relate to the current situation, I don't know."

Rufe's firing of Stuhr likely will be discussed when the board next convenes, on Sept. 8.

It's not uncommon for a new museum director to want to assemble her own team. But Stuhr's supporters fear that the abrupt, and unexplained, firing will hurt her professional reputation. And they're downright furious about what they say is the humiliating way she was treated.

The atmosphere at the museum has been tense during Rufe's first year. One local artist calls morale there "atrocious." One controversial Rufe act was changing Stuhr's title from "curator" to "curator of the arts of the Americas." Because the new title restricts Stuhr's activities to one field, some interpreted the switch as a demotion.

But no one was prepared for what happened to Stuhr when she returned from her Mexico trip. According to numerous sources, Stuhr was summoned to Rufe's office on Aug. 4. Board president Harvey Spivack also was present. Rufe handed Stuhr a termination letter and told her to be out of the museum in three hours, by 5 p.m. Stuhr spent the afternoon packing up her office. At closing time, the administration sent a security guard to escort her out of the institution where she had worked more than 13 years.

"It's unfortunate it happened this way," Briggs of UAMA said. "You'd think it could be done with some dignity."

For years, the museum's administrative woes have received nearly as much ink as its shows. Before the long Yassin tenure, the museum seemed to shed directors as quickly as it bled money. Yassin became director in 1990, and as one of his first acts, he hired Stuhr. Yassin restored stability to the museum's finances while Stuhr restored luster to its exhibitions. Yassin worked on some shows, but Stuhr was the only curator, responsible for dozens of shows, until 2000, when Julie Sasse was hired as curator of contemporary art.

Yet Yassin's directorship was marred by repeated controversies. Most famously, he tangled with city leaders and neighbors over the decision to boot Janos restaurant from the historic home that now houses Stuhr's Palice Pavilion of American art. Endowed with a famous temper, he got into conflicts with archaeologists, with historic preservationists, with museum neighbors and with his own staff. The weary board finally nudged him to resign in the fall of 2001.

After nearly a year without a director, the board last summer hired Rufe away from New Mexico's Roswell Museum and Art Center, where she had been director for four years and deputy director for 11. At the time, some observers questioned whether her résumé was hefty enough to lead Tucson's major art museum. She holds only a bachelor's in art history, unusual for a museum director, and the TMA's budget is nearly three times the $1 million budget of the Roswell. While the TMA's total collection is smaller, all 6,500 of its pieces are artwork. The Roswell, by contrast, has a repository of rockets and historical artifacts in addition to its fine-arts holdings.

Nevertheless, painter Jim Waid of Tucson had nothing but praise for Rufe's management of a major exhibition he had at the Roswell. "I've never had a show that was more professionally handled," he said.

The selection process for the new TMA director also came in for criticism, with critics noting that it was remarkably closed for an institution that receives public funding. The museum is a private nonprofit, with an annual budget of about $2.9 million, but it gets some financial support from the city of Tucson. This fiscal year, the city is contributing an $86,000 general grant, and $140,000 for the care of the five city-owned historic houses on the museum block. The museum in turn uses all five of the houses for its own purposes and pays the city just $2 in annual rent.

Despite misgivings in some quarters, local art lovers hoped that Rufe would restore calm to the museum after the tempestuous Yassin years. She promised a new era of openness. In an interview with The Weekly last year, Rufe praised both the TMA's curators, and said that her own greatest strength was in "museum management," adding, "My style is team-building and communication."

Rufe's firing of the popular curator now promises to become another tempest in the museum's continuing storms, and a dispiriting sign that the struggling museum has not yet righted itself.

"I'm completely perplexed," said Waid, who also serves on the Contemporary Art Society board. "I've known Joanne for years. I have great respect for her, and I respect Laurie too. I'm mystified. It makes no sense. I just want the museum to function."

Russell, the MOCA director, said, "MOCA picks up where they (TMA) leave off. It's in our best interest for that museum to be great. But this is like cutting the heart out of that institution."

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