At the Valley’s Most Venerable Museum, It’s All About What’s New The Heard marries rich history with
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
By Tom Evans
When my mom and I moved to Arizona (in year I don’t want to mention; think big hair, neon and wanting your MTV), one of the first things we did was visit the Heard Museum. That’s because the Heard, even back in the New Wave era, was up there with the Grand Canyon as one of the state’s major must-sees.
If it seems like the Heard has been here forever, that’s because it basically has. The museum is celebrating its 90th anniversary this upcoming year as the preeminent collection of Native American art, culture and history. But as the Heard hits this milestone, the conversation isn’t about its history — it’s about its future.
First, some context, courtesy of the Heard’s director and CEO, David Roche. This will make a lot of sense when you think about it, but museums are having to change. In this era of instant entertainment, when you can see any image in the world in your hand within seconds, museums are having to adapt to become more interactive, inviting and interesting.
For the Heard and for many cultural institutions, this reality intersected with the economic downturn of the late 2000s. Not only did people have less money to give and spend, there was the rise of smartphones and tablets. As a result, museums had to figure out new ways to stay in the public consciousness and ingrain themselves in their communities.
So the Heard’s leadership decided the museum’s entire mission would have to change. It was going to have to be about more than just celebrating Native American art.
“We are and continue to be all of the things people love about the Heard Museum. There’s nothing like the Heard anywhere else in the world, which I think makes us very special,” Roche said. “When I got here about 3½ years ago, we worked on a new strategic plan and direction for the museum that emphasizes advancing American Indian art, but also looking at the intersection of American Indian art with broader artistic and cultural themes.”
That’s why over the past few years, after opening a new 7,000-square-foot Grand Gallery, the Heard has been more ambitious about its shows and exhibitions. The big ones so far have been the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition in 2017 and “Yua: Henri Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit” in late 2018 and early 2019.
Both exhibitions called upon non-Native American artists who are widely known, and intertwined their work with the Native American theme. And both shattered attendance records for the museum.
“It’s unexpected to find these shows at the Heard Museum, but I mean that in the best possible way,” Roche said. “People are figuring out that there’s a lot going on at the Heard and some of it is different, and it’s giving people a reason to come back.”
Roche said that people may have thought the Heard was “sleepy” around the time he came on board, but today, the museum’s membership is at a 10-year high. In the past year, the museum opened 10 new exhibitions and produced more than 150 programs.
“It’s really part of a larger conversation with museums in the 21st century — it’s a whole new ballgame,” he said. “There’s a clear mandate that museums need to be more than just custodians of art history and culture. They need to be part of the community, and the community needs to be able to see themselves in museums.”
The approach is purposefully multigenerational as well. The museum has started a project called “It’s Your Turn,” where every exhibition in the Grand Gallery is accompanied by a program for children to help them understand the art in front of them. At the other end of the spectrum, the museum has received funding to explore creative initiatives for seniors.
“We want to be a reflection of the entire community — kids, adults, families, the whole gamut,” Roche said.
The 90th anniversary celebration will include an exhibit by the well-known painter David Hockney and his work around Yosemite Valley, paired with indigenous basket weavers from the region — who, despite working a century before Hockney, drew their inspiration from the same natural environment.
But it’s not just programming that’s being refreshed. The museum received a $1 million grant from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust to update its courtyard and improve the lobby to improve the overall visitor experience, a project being done over the hot summer months with the goal of opening the Heard even further to Valley residents and visitors.
“I like to point out that the Heard is literally in the heart of Phoenix, and I like to think we function like a heart — we breathe life and vitality and passion into the community.”
The Heard is not being reinvented, but its innovation in presenting programming plays well into the increased energy toward the arts that’s already being generated in the Valley.
“I think culturally Phoenix is truly coming alive,” Roche said. “We have a real benefit — we’re not New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago — we’re a young city and we have all this energy. The timing is actually great if you are in the museum world. There aren’t any real expectations that are attached to museums in Phoenix, and we can write our own script for the 21st century.”
To learn more, go to Heard.org.