By Laura Latzko
Timothy R. Rodgers finds himself frequently returning to the Phoenix Art Museum.
A native Midwesterner, Rodgers moved to Arizona at 19 years old to attend ASU. While in college, Rodgers visited and attended events at the museum.
On July 1, after spending the last five years as the director of The Wolfsonian-Florida International University in Miami, he’ll head to Phoenix to lead the Phoenix Art Museum as its Sybil Harrington Director and CEO.
“I’ve always come back to the Phoenix Art Museum because my family lives there, and I’ve enjoyed many exhibitions there and have seen so much of the good work they have done. I’ve been a fan from afar and even close up, and now it’s a privilege to become the director,” Rodgers says.
Armed with a background in speech, debate and theater, Rodgers is an ideal candidate.
“The artwork is silent, but it needs a good spokesperson. I’ve often been that spokesperson,” Rodgers says.
As an ASU student, Rodgers visited and attended events at the Phoenix Art Museum. Especially inspiring was a life-sized portrait of a woman by William Merritt Chase.
“It was just so evocative to me,” says Rodgers, who earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from ASU and master’s and doctoral degrees from Brown University.
“She seemed incredibly sad and isolated. This rose that she carries is drooping from her hand. Everything about her seemed to be melancholy, despite the fact that she was very beautiful and in this beautiful white dress. The juxtaposition of how beautifully presented she was but at the same time how sad she seemed was interesting to me.”
In high school, Rodgers planned to study political science and law. He was a competitive debater in high school and college, but he also had an interest in art.
In high school, he started to paint more seriously and attended summer camps for art.
“I always had an interest in art. It just never seemed to me a career path, and then I found art history. It seemed to be a combination of my interests and my skills,” Rodgers says.
Rodgers has more than 20 years of experience in museum leadership positions. Besides The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, he has worked for Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art from 2009 to 2015, vice president of the Scottsdale Cultural Council, an associate professor of art history at Lawrence University, chief curator for the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and co-owner of Saints and Martyrs gallery in Albuquerque.
He says these different roles have taught him the importance of interacting with the public in different ways, on their levels, to make art more significant to them.
“You really have to be available to them to answer those questions as best as you can and to really encourage them to think about more and different questions,” Rodgers says.
One of Rodgers’ recent accomplishments has been overseeing the implementation of The Wolfsonian Public Humanities Lab, a new M.A. and Ph.D. program and a research hub that is geared toward teaching humanities students different skill sets.
While in Scottsdale, Rodgers was part of the implementation of the SMoCA Lounge, an experimental space inside the museum designed for music and performance arts.
“I thought that it gave more meaning and depth to the contemporary art that we showed but also extended our reach to a variety of different communities in Phoenix,” Rodgers says.
A committee of past and current board of trustees and community leaders chose Rodgers. He says he’s honored to be chosen for the position, even though it comes at the difficult time when the museum is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s such an odd moment to be thinking about a move and a new job,” Rodgers says. “I’m, on the one hand, very excited about coming back to Phoenix and seeing all of my friends, colleagues and family,” Rodgers says.
“On the other hand, we’re really unable to move. We live in a condo on Miami Beach. They wouldn’t allow movers in even if we wanted to move. Of course, it’s not a wise thing to do. So, it’s an odd tension to be experiencing joy on the one hand and a lot of fear, concern and trepidation on the other hand.”
While his new position has some similarities to other roles he has had, Rodgers expects running the Phoenix Art Museum to be a very different experience.
“The Phoenix Art Museum is a very large institution, in terms of the size of the building complex but also in terms of staff size and budget,” Rodgers says.
“It has a very robust and large volunteer community as well as a very large and robust board. It will be much bigger in that sense, and there will be even more for me to do with the team. The other way it will be different is the way that the art museum is positioned in the community.
“This is the large major art institution in Phoenix. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art was much more focused and specialized in contemporary art. The Phoenix Art Museum has a much broader mission.”
Directing the Phoenix Art Museum involves overseeing the staff, creation of exhibitions, educational activities, community outreach efforts, membership, facility care and maintenance, and volunteers, as well as working closely with the board on financial matters.
Rodgers has unofficially started his work at the museum by conducting one-on-one video chats with managers at the institution.
Rodgers will enter his new position at a time when nonprofits such as the Phoenix Art Museum are facing challenges not only financially but with engaging with and bringing in the public.
“This is a very difficult moment for all nonprofits. They are suffering, like everyone else is, to chart a course for their future. Everything is new, and everything is unknown. The more I can be helpful, the more I want to be there,” Rodgers says.
The museum has been renovated a number of different times since its inception. Rodgers says it will be important for him, the board, curators and educators to look at where the collections are located in the museum and how the different spaces can be used to display the artwork.
“Where the art is located has a big impact on how you experience that art in the museum,” Rodgers adds.
“Not having our doors open might just give us this moment to really think more clearly about how is it we want the museum to look in the future when we do reopen.”
Virtual experiences are at the center of his ideas for change and growth.
“All institutions are thinking about how much we want and need to invest in digital efforts so that our community is defined much more broadly and we have more reach than simply our city or our state,” Rodgers says.