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Fate of the hidden museum

The Phoenix Bird Ascending is one of several art installations at Burton Barr Central Library.

The Phoenix Bird Ascending is one of several art installations at Burton Barr Central Library.

An oil painting by internationally-renowned artist Fritz Scholder, a painted deer skin from the early 1900s by Tonto Jack, an original lithograph by Marc Chagall and kinetic sculptures by Jerome Kirk. Such treasures can be found at the Burton Barr Phoenix Central Library, where literature and art have long maintained a happy courtship. While the results of the creative processes to write a book and produce a painting or sculpture differ, in the end, the voice of the writer and the voice of the artist, both have the opportunity to engage and educate the public.

As the library approaches its 20th anniversary, the potential and promise of an integrated curriculum of art and literature lie ahead with a renewed focus on the body of knowledge art is capable of contributing to the overall curriculum of the library.

Externally, the library is exhilarating and inspirational, a gem in the desert, its clean lines against the almost every day blue sky, as contemporary as the day it opened to the public. In harmony with the hand-stitched sails on the north side of the building, the canopy system of slanted solar panels shade the parking spaces, while providing low-cost energy to the library building. As inviting are the two airy kinetic sculptures by Jerome Kirk found along the pedestrian friendly walkway parallel to the parking lot.

Across from the main entrance, the weathered steel molds of Totems, 1995, used to precast the columns that support the building and a tribute to the library’s design and construction team, immediately connect each visitor to the library building. An ode to the future is inscribed on the informational plate, “… ready to serve in the building’s expansion!”

Exerting no effort, the parking level extends into the library, allowing quick and easy access to the white, slanted glass-paneled light box surface along the right wall, informing the public of library events.

It’s clear on the outset given the waiting lines for computers and busy, easily accessible librarians that the library is a vibrant hub of human interaction and learning, nourishing and connecting the community it serves. Ahead on the right, in a quiet, sweet space outside the auditorium, a form in repose, Marlo, 1997, one of John Henry Waddell’s many unadorned human-size bronze female figures, a gift from Everett and Elaine Warner, sets the scene for rotating art exhibits. The exhibits are chosen by a panel consisting of the @Central Gallery coordinator, local artists and art professionals. Consistently thought-provoking, like Waddell’s sculpture, the exhibits never disappoint.

Turning Point
Art is a language that all people speak, cutting across racial, cultural, social, educational and economic barriers. Akin to the library’s book and media collections, the art is capable of making an intellectual contribution to the library. Let’s envision this! Il Cubo, the monumental bronze by the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Promodoro, released from its imprisoned location outside the glass doors of the auditorium and moved to the center of the newly designed park planned for the south side of the library, where we can  finally stroll around its pointed corners appreciating Promodoro’s fascination with technology. Or imagine the George Edward Burr etchings along the fourth-floor wall across from the Rare Books Room, with signage for the information-hungry visitor linking our smart phones to a short artist biography, information on the etching process and an exposé on how the work relates to the history and literature found in the library.

Relocating and informing are only partial solutions to some of the art currently at risk of being ignored. Many paintings have been hanging in the same place for so long that we don’t even notice them, hung as an afterthought, on any available blank wall. Take for example, Genevieve Reckling’s oil painting of Stone Waterfall Sabino Canyon, 1989, hiding behind the book shelves in the second floor Arizona Room. And Soloist, 1994, by Gayle Novak, almost touching the ceiling and behind a bright green desk in front of the government document area. Thoughtlessly presenting this art work is attuned to placing the library’s book and media collection in a draw.

Time for Action
With renewed respect for creativity, the thinking, the imagination and the hard work that artistry requires, consider a well presented and thought provoking exhibit around a theme, a series, a timeframe, an artist, or an art movement. Consider selecting new quality work from the city’s Municipal Art Collection or other possible sources and using gifts and donations that better suit the library space, with deliberation given to scale, proportion, lighting and building materials, in harmony with the clean lines of the exterior. Consider a partnership with university internship programs to introduce a yearly online exhibit catalog written by a team of students who inspire to be writers, artists and librarians. The publication could refer its audience to well researched resources found in the library. With emphasis on public speaking, the internship program could expand to short spontaneous art and architecture tours guided by interns with special interests.

There are so many alternative paths the art curriculum could take, most easily achievable and aligned with the original spirit and aesthetics of the library’s architecture and the times we live in. For certain, the library’s art program is ready to come out of the shadows, go beyond its comfort zone, and use new and multiple platforms that will resonate well with the community it notably serves.

— Jo Baker is an Arizona-based freelance travel writer interested in the marriage between art and place.


  1. Great article, I appreciate more like this!

  2. Jo Baker has a unique and inclusive writing style. Shortly into the article, I was captivated with not only the interesting topic, but the thought provoking messages of the relationship between art and place.
    The article was so vividly well written that I plan on visiting the library next week just to observe the architecture and art work.
    I hope to see more articles from this talented author.

  3. Baker’s recent article about Burton Barr Library was very insightful. I didn’t expect to find such gems there and would now like to visit the library!

  4. Patricia Rose Cavalieri

    Jo has a way of writing that has you walking right next to her threw this wonderful Burton Burr Library.

  5. Yes, the arts certainly play a role in nurturing the soul and spirit. Baker seems to have captured this in her article.

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