This week, we speak with Olivia Miller, the interim director at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. We’re going to hear the real life story of an art heist that intrigued the world. And it took over 30 years to get the painting returned to Tucson.
Today is November 6th, my name is Tom Heath and you’re listening to “Life Along the Streetcar”.
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This week, we speak with Olivia Miller, the interim director at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. We’re going to hear the real life story of an art heist that intrigued the world. And it took over 30 years to get the painting returned to Tucson.
today’s, November 6, 2022. My name is Tom Heath and you are listening to life along the streetcar. Each and every Sunday are focused on social, cultural and economic impacts in Tucson’s urban core, and we shed line on hidden gems everyone should know about, from a mountain to the University of Arizona and all stops in between. You get the inside track right here on 99.1 FM, available for email@example.com, also available on your iPhone or Android by using our very own downtown radio app. And of course, if you want
to get us here on the show, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re on Instagram. We’re on Facebook. The podcast, you can find that just about anywhere that you find your favorite podcast. And if you want more information about our show or our book or past episodes, you can head over to Life alongthestreetcar.org what is the fall? That means football season is ramping up as we come to the final stretches and get ready for bowl predictions. And of course, we have the Arizona Bowl here in Tucson. We’ve had the director, Kim Adair on the show a couple of times talking about its impact in the community as it relates to various charitable organizations and the way they donate their profits back into our community. Well, they just announced pre bowl they just announced something last week that the Arizona Bowl is accepting applications for businesses in the area that have been impacted by COVID. They have set aside $1 million and they’re going to do this out and grants up
to $50,000. So if you have a business that’s been impacted during COVID you can apply on their website. You can just simply head over to the Arizonaboll.com and then there’s a link in there. This is happening very quickly. They announced it last week and their deadline for submissions is December 15. So just a little over a month away, but head over to Arizona Bowl. I’m sorry, thearizonable.com if you would like more information, of course we will always link to that from our Facebook page as well. Well, something else that happened in the fall. Back in 1985, I believe it was day after Thanksgiving, a couple walked into the University of Arizona Museum of Art and they walked out with a famous painting to Kooning’s Woman Ochre and disappeared. It’s gone. It was found recently in the home of a deceased couple. Whether or not they were the same couple or not is still up for debates, although there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that would appoint to them. But we had Olivia Miller from
the University of Arizona Museum of Art on the show to kind of tell us the history of the museum and this fascinating story of Woman Ochre and how it’s finally returned here to Tucson after over 30 years. We are here. We’ve got Olivia Miller on the phone today. Got some exciting news coming out of the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Probably been seeing the news and hearing all kinds of good stories. Olivia, thank you for spending some time with us today. I know you’re quite busy with everything that’s going on.
Of course. Thank you so much for having me.
So you are the director of the Museum of Art. How long have you been with the museum?
Yeah, so I’ve been with the museum for about ten and a half years. Most of that time has been spent as the curator of this museum. But beginning this past July, I’ve now taken on the additional role of interim director. It’s such a wonderful place, and I’ve worked with my colleagues for many years now, and it’s the best team to lead.
I’m, lucky, is the curator position director of Cure? Is that what it sounds like, that you just help figure out who’s coming to exhibit and how things get arranged?
Yes, that is definitely a big part of the job. I like to think of us as a really collaborative museum, so certainly no exhibition is done in isolation. We do try to work a lot with faculty and students, so I do a lot of cocuration as well. Another part of the curatorial job is certainly building the permanent collection. We are an actively collecting museum, so even if there are objects not going on view, part of my job is to kind of think about what is it that we should be collecting for the future.
Okay. And just to make sure everyone’s fully aware of where you are, we have the Tucson Museum of Art, we have the Museum of Contemporary Art. Those are more located in the downtown area. But you’re on the university campus.
That’s correct, yes. So we are on the southeast corner of park and Speedway. We don’t have a streetfront facade or we’re a bit inside the campus, but yes, that is where we are located. And it’s such a great environment to be in, because not only does Tucson have the other two museums that you mentioned, which are both wonderful institutions, but the University of Arizona campus alone also has a number of collections here. University museums, I think, are really special, just being on a campus with so many different paths of research and interdisciplinary opportunities for us.
If you’re visiting the campus, walking over that whole area around, you’ve got the center for Creative Photography. The College of Architecture. Planning and landscape architecture has this beautiful desert oasis It’s a really kind of surreal and serene scene and just half a block off a speedway.
Yeah, it’s really amazing. Public art is also an integral part of our campus, so even if you’re strolling at a different end of campus, you’ll still have an arts experience because there’s more than 40 sculptures and public art spaces scattered around the campus.
Can you tell us a little about the history? This has been a venture with university for, like, 100 years, hasn’t it?
Yeah, actually, some of my recent research has been focused on really trying to trace the history of art exhibitions on this campus so far. I’ve been able to track them back from 1912 is when I could see that there was an early art exhibition that happened on campus, and it really snowballed from there. Particularly in the 1920s when the art department was founded, there were a lot of student and faculty exhibitions for our museum specifically. We can really see our founding is kind of happening during World War Two, actually, in we were an art gallery at the university library, which is currently the building for the Arizona State Museum. So we had a one room gallery. Various types of exhibitions happen there. But 1942 was a really important year for us because that was when a University of Arizona alum, who initially remained anonymous, that ended up revealing his name as Charles Leonard Pfeiffer, he made a pledge to sell his stamp collection for $20,000 and to buy 100 contemporary American
paintings. During the years, the gallery not only doubled as the War Information Room, actually for the city of Tucson, but it also started to house a contemporary art collection. And from there, the museum developed and our collection began to grow.
That’s fascinating. Clearly, you got the history going back, but Charles Leonard Pfeiffer, he sold a stamp collection. That’s sort of how you got your more official start. That’s phenomenal.
Yeah. And then the collection got big enough to where the university knew that they really needed a more permanent building to house the art collection and the art department. And so the current building we’re in opened in 1956.
Can you tell us a little bit more about what we would see when we come to the museum outside of your current exhibition?
Yeah, so I like to think that anytime you visit here, you’re going to see something new. You’re going to leave learning a new name. Our museum has two floors, multiple galleries. Downstairs is where we usually show rotating exhibitions, and those change from year to year. Currently, we have a lot of our permanent collection as well as some loans on view. But next year, for example, we’ll be having a solo exhibition of a living artist, a Navajo weaver and painter named Marlow Katoni, who is also a UA alum. Every spring, we host the annual Master of Fine Arts thesis exhibition. So that is all of the students who are graduating with their masters and cutting edge contemporary art. So it really changes from year to year. You know, sometimes we’re reflecting on current events. Sometimes we’re responding to a partnership that we’ve developed with the faculty member. So it really kind of changes. And then upstairs we have permanent collection artwork that ranges and date from the year 2022.
Is it part of your mission or is it just coincidental that you do have a lot of Arizona and University of Arizona alumni, or is that part of what you’re intentionally doing?
I would say it changes. So definitely in our permanent collection we have UA Alum. We definitely have formal faculty represented in our collection. We also understand that we have a responsibility to bring in artists that are not necessarily from Arizona. Just knowing that a lot of students who come here, this might be the first art museum experience that they have. And so we want them to leave not only having perhaps an understanding of more regional artists, but also knowing that there’s a variety of artworks that they can experience and become attached to and connected to. It’s also wonderful that the Tucson Museum of Art and Mocha are here in town because they have great relationships with local artists as well. And we try to not be repetitive while at the same time also serve as a place where we can interact with local and Arizona artists at large.
We’ll be back to the second half of our interview with Olivia Miller from the University of Arizona Museum of Art and really dig into this tantalizing story of Woman Ochre. The painting that was stolen from the university in the after 30 years showed up on the walls of a deceased couple and now, after restoration, is back at the University of Arizona. I want to remind you that you are listening to Lifelong Streetcar Downtown Radio 99.1 FM and available for streaming on Downtownradio.org.
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We’re going to finish up the interview we have with Olivia Miller, the interim director at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. And we’re going to hear this amazing story of a painting taken from the university, missing for over 30 years and restored and returned now on display to Museum of Art. One of the reasons that started I wanted to talk to you for a while and kind of the impetus for this call was sort of the sensational news that we’re hearing about the return of a famous work back to the university and has had quite an interesting life. Can you kind of share with us a little bit about that?
Yes. The artwork that you’re referring to is William Dakooning’s. Woman ochre. So this was a painting that he started in 1954 and completed it in 1955. It was donated to our museum in 1958 by a man named Edward Gallagher Jr. I won’t get too far into his biography, but he’s a really interesting figure who was from Baltimore but had a love for Arizona and decided that he wanted to build a memorial collection to honor the life of his only child, Edward Gallagher III, who had passed away at the age of 13. And over the span of 20 years, he built this collection to about 200 works of art. And he specifically selected Woman Ochre to be part of this memorial collection and wanted it here in Tucson. It was in our collection for about three decades where it was exhibited here at the museum. It also traveled quite extensively to exhibitions, not only in the United States, but in various countries around the world. It went to Belgium and Romania. It went to Brazil and Mexico. So it was a very well
known painting, not just locally, but also by curators internationally. The painting was stolen from the museum in 1985. A man and a woman entered the museum. It was the day after Thanksgiving. It was a quiet day on campus. The museum was just opening up for the day. And quite honestly, there were existent security lapses that, you know, the director was well aware of, and it was definitely it was a situation he was trying to fix. There were no security cameras in the building, and there just simply weren’t enough security staff, so the museum was vulnerable. And when this couple entered the museum, the man went upstairs while the woman distracted the security monitor in the stairwell. In a very short time, no more than ten minutes, he was able to cut Woman Ochre from its frame, and the couple abruptly left the museum. So at the time, in 1985, the campus was much smaller. You could park along Olive Road, which is currently only a pedestrian and a bike path, but back then, you could drive
on that road. And so they had a very quick getaway. There wasn’t enough time to get a license plate. It was a mystery for a little over three decades as to where a Woman Ochre went.
And you keep referring to the couple, because although the painting has been recovered, there’s no concrete evidence as to who the actual thieves were. Is that accurate?
Yes, that is accurate. The facts as we know them, it was stolen November 20, 1985, and it was found hanging in the bedroom of a deceased couple, jerry and Rita Alter, who lived in Cliff, New Mexico. And so those are the facts as we know them. There certainly a lot of people would argue there’s some circumstantial evidence that links the couple to the crime. But as far as the FBI is concerned, they’re sticking to the facts.
Understood. It was found in 2017. It’s made its way back to the university, but it had to go through kind of a restoration process.
I’m assuming the painting was very, very damaged when we recovered it. Much of that damage probably occurred during the theft. So apart from it having 360 degree cut with probably a box cutter or some other blade, it had also been peeled from its wax lined canvas. So just to backtrack slightly, in 1974, the painting had been on loan in a traveling exhibition and it received a small puncture. Something happened during the art handling process where the painting got slightly damaged. It went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where they reinforced the canvas by adhering it to a secondary canvas. So they essentially placed another canvas on the back and adhered them together with hot wax. When this Eve was cutting through it, he didn’t realize he was going to have to cut through not just one, but actually two canvases. And he didn’t make the cut all the way through. And so instead, in his haste, he ended up peeling woman ochre from that secondary canvas. And that just caused an enormous
amount of not just structural instability, but a lot of paint loss, paint cracking. And that was the bulk of the conservation treatment that had to be done. About two and a half years at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it received the best possible treatment we ever could have imagined, with the best team in the world. Very meticulous conservation process. And then, yes, it came back to us in September and it just went on view at the beginning of this month. So we have a special exhibition that tells the full biography of this painting. So you can learn about the artist, you can learn about the donor, Edward Gallagher. You can see a summer associated with the original theft, details about the recovery, and then a lot of information about the conservation treatment. So this special exhibition will be up through May 20. After that time, the painting is actually going to go back upstairs and it’s going to hang on the very same wall that it was stolen from with.
Maybe slightly more security standards.
Yes, a lot, actually.
You’ve been at the museum then for a while. So in 2017, the news comes out and reaches the university. What was the mood like? I mean, obviously it was elation, but, I mean, can you remember that day?
Oh, absolutely, because also I was here in 2015 when we held a anniversary commemorative event. And to be part of this process, where in 2015, we’re begging people, keep your eye out for this painting. We still want it. We want it back. And then to have it actually be rediscovered in 2017 is just I mean, I will truly never get over it because it’s really rare, it’s really unbelievable. And we’ve been able to meet all sorts of wonderful people as a result of it. So I will say it was very overwhelming. We’re a small museum. We have nine full time employees. And so to have this kind of international media attention, it was a lot at first, like, very exciting. But also we were overwhelmed by it.
And again, in researching for the interview, I completely admissed this when it came out, and I’m going to track it down. But in October, as part of this celebration, there was a screening of a documentary called The Thief Collector, which also, in part, tells the story of a woman, Ochre. But also, I think I understand it goes well, much more into depth of kind of the eccentricities of the couple. Where the wall where it was found.
Yes. So there is an independent crew that made The Thief Collector. The museum participated in that. We did interviews for the film and we allowed them to film some reenactments here at the museum. And you’re correct that the bulk of the film does focus on the couple. And that’s where you’ll find a lot of the circumstantial evidence that they could have been the people who did it. One of the most sort of damning pieces is that Jerry Alter wrote a book called The Cup and the Lip, which is a compilation of short stories that he described as based on real life experiences. And there are two stories in there that are about a museum theft, and they both bear similarities to our story. They’re really adventurous couple, traveled to more than 100 countries around the world. It’s not entirely clear how they were able to finance that lifestyle. So that film will definitely leave you entertained also with a lot of questions about who this couple actually was. So it’s still doing sort of the film
festival circuit. It’s not yet streaming on a major service just yet. I think the next film festival it will be at is in Naples, Florida. So you could definitely keep your eye on and try to catch it.
So the Museum of Art, tell us a little bit real briefly as we wrap up here, the hours of operation costs, where do we get more information, how do we participate and enjoy what you’ve put together there?
Yes, we would love everybody to come and visit. Our hours are Tuesday through Saturday from ten to 430. We do have an $8 admission charge, but we have a lot of free opportunities as well. So we offer a discount for seniors. We offer free admission to active military, anyone with a tribal ID, a Snap card, anybody under 18, anybody who’s a student anywhere at any university or community college. And then you can also, if you frequent the library, you can check out a culture pass and that will give you free admission to the museum. And the best parking actually the garage at park and Speedway. On the northeast corner of park and Speedway, there’s a parking garage, and then you can just walk under the underpass.
Well, Olivia Miller, the interim director and a curator of, I think, something around 30, some exhibits at the university. I can only imagine how busy you are with just your daily life, let alone this moment of excitement about Woman Ochre. And I really appreciate you taking some time to share with us today. That was Olivia Miller. She’s with the University of Arizona Museum of Art. She’s been there to curate somewhere, I think we just said 30 shows that she has put together. The one on display now having to do with the famous painting Woman Ochre that was stolen and now returned. I loved what she said, that the exhibit will run and then Woman Ochre will be returned to the wall from which it was taken over 30 years ago. My name is Tom Heath. You are listening to Life Along the Streetcar on downtown Radio, 99 One FM, and available for streaming on downtownradio.org.
You’re listening to Ktdt, Tucson, Arizona 99, one FM downtown radio. I’m Brother Mark, host of a show called Radio Club Crawl that airs every Tuesday at 03:00 P.m.. We try to focus on most of the bands that are coming through Tucson, and we give you a tasty taste of their music. You want to check out what’s happening around Tucson, check out Radio Club crawl. Tuesdays, 03:00 P.m., right here on Ktdt. Tucson, Arizona. 99. One FM downtown radio.
Thank you very much. Enjoy your evening.
Bye bye. Head over to downtownradio.org if you want to check out all of our fabulous DJs coming up next on the show or next on the station after our show, it’s Ted Prazelski with words and work as he talks about writers and members of the labor movement here in Tucson. Specifically, as you know, Sunday has a wide range of show topics. Ty Logan Heavy Mental will take us at the top of the hour and back into the music at 01:00. And then tomorrow through Saturday, fantastic rock mixes. Shows like Arizona four one one with all Arizona made music. Brother Mock has the Club Crawl so you can find out who’s playing in Tucson and where they’re playing. Get a sampling of their music. Jim and Dave’s roadside stop there. They’re on Mondays, and their Roadside show is fairly new to the station. We’re doing really well. Very popular, good eclectic mix and just fun guys to listen to as they’re making their way through this curated list of songs they provide for us on Monday. If there’s anything on the
show you want us to talk about, email us, email@example.com, hit us up on Facebook, Instagram. Those ways are probably the best to get us to interact with these topics that you want us to COVID talking to a lot of people lately and this term of hidden gems just keeps coming up. People are talking. Tucson has all these hidden gems and yep, know all about them. We’re uncovering them one by one here on Lifelong Streetcar and also then showing them to you on the Tucson Trolley tours. Hey, we got some cool shows coming up. A lot of our downtown. There’s starting to be some life. If you watched the Ri and Nuevo meeting last week. Big things coming for the Fox theaters and some of the other stores in the downtown area. Got to take some time for all that to happen. But there’s some more immediate openings happening at the end of November and beginning of December. We’re going to talk about those in the upcoming weeks. We have Ronnie Space from batch. He and his wife Kristin own batch
whisky and donuts in downtown. They’re expanding into the basement, huge space there. That will be next week’s show. They’re going to be opening later in this month. And then we talk with Crystal Popoff. She is activating the space that used to be the proper restaurant on Fifth in Congress. She’s calling it the proper shops. Some more retail in the downtown area. A really cool gallery going in there, which I’m excited to share that with you as well later in the month. But that’s due to open in December. So we’re going to have further show as we get towards the end of the month and talk about all those things that are upcoming. Not just the commercial aspect of it, but the impact and the reason why these people do what they do. And then we got a couple of other cool things lined up. If you ever have a hidden gem for us, as I said, contact a Lifelong Streetcar, hit us up on Instagram, Facebook and tell us what we should be telling the world or the people that are listening, which, you know,
they could be across the world. We’re internet based station now. We’re terrestrial radio, but we also have internet access through downtownradio.org and who knows where you’re listening. If anybody hears of the movie The Collector Thief, that when that comes out, please let me know. I can’t find a release date or anything where it might be streaming. I think it’s still making the circuit, as Olivia Miller mentioned through the festivals. So looking forward to that. But for obvious reasons, I think the song will be pretty apparent why we selected it for you as we head out today. This is a song from 2015. The band is hunted horse about. The album is every burned out sky and the song is stolen. Art. Hope you have a great week and tune in next Sunday for more life along the streetcar.