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May 24, 2022

3 ASU Students Curate ‘Extraordinary’ SRP Art Collection

The offices were frozen in time.

A March 2020 calendar highlighted St. Patrick’s Day. The balloons were deflated in a cabin. Water bottles and half-filled coffee cups remained on the desks.

Like James Burns, executive director of the Western Spirit Museum in Scottsdale, and three Arizona State University students – Jenna Bassett, Alex Fierro and Gabriel Santiago – began their scavenger hunt in February at the Salt River Project’s Papago Buttes facility, they were stunned by the silence and sterility.

“It was like a ghost town, completely empty,” Bassett said of the SRP Information Services building. “It was strange to see all these empty cabins, like an ocean of empty cabins in a building like this, where there is a lot of life.”

The treasure was still there. They just had to find him.

They opened all the doors and looked into every room. They were often alone, except for the occasional caretaker who made sure the building was kept clean and ready for the return of its inhabitants, and the security guard who opened the locked doors.

“It was a little scary to walk into this six-story building that hadn’t been occupied since March 2020,” Burns said.

“I remember Gabriel pointing out that it was almost like we were witnessing history itself, in its rawest form,” Fierro added.

The search lasted six days. A “treasure hunt,” Fierro called it. Eventually, they found what they were looking for: SRP’s art collection, 115 pieces in all, including sculptures, paintings, and photos, including many by Indigenous, Latino, and female artists.

“Who would have thought,” said Bassett, “that an electric company would have been so avant-garde when it comes to art?”

Origins of the collection

Why does SRP have an art collection?

Ileen Snoddy, senior representative of the SRP’s Research Archives and Heritage Department, said the collection was purchased in 1990 to inspire dialogue among employees. SRP also planned to have public viewings of the art, but as security measures increased in the Information Services building – where SRP’s computers are stored – the company realized that this was not possible.

SRP inventoried its collection in 2003. And that’s where this story might have ended had Snoddy not met Burns at an event late last year. SRP had decided to share its art collection with the community, organizing exhibitions and loaning them to local museums.

“The vision was that corporate art shouldn’t stay in your business,” Snoddy said.

There was just one problem. Almost 19 years have passed since the inventory was completed. SRP needed new state-of-the-art reports on whether the pieces could travel, how they should be packaged, what kind of light was needed to display them, etc.

Burns immediately had an idea.

“What would be really great,” he told Snoddy, “is to give some students who are doing different museum studies and education programs at ASU the opportunity to be able to come in and learn by practice what it is to keep something.”

Partnership with ASU

Burns graduated from ASU Public History Program and taught an undergraduate capstone course entitled History in the Wild: Inclusion in Museums and Public History.

When SRP accepted the student internship idea, Burns spread the word to ASU, interviews were conducted and Bassett, a doctoral student in history, Fierro, completing his master’s degree in history, and Santiago, who will be in final year this fall with a specialization in secondary education, were chosen.

Alex Fierro, Gabriel Santiago and Jenna Bassett work with SRP on curating its art collection.

Each student brought a diverse set of skills to the project, making it, as Snoddy put it, “a dream team.”

“Jenna is a strong writer and researcher,” Burns said. “His insights and attention to detail were very helpful in maintaining precise and accurate records. His interest in objects, the people associated with these objects and historical archives is palpable.

“(Alex) has strong reasoning and logistical skills, but also creativity and imagination – a combination not found in many people.

“Gabriel has a sharp critical mind and a great imagination. He also impressed me with his passion for learning, his love of teaching history and his ability to interface well with literally anyone. who.

Their job was to locate and inventory the collection and conduct primary research on all the pieces.

“I think for all of us, we can all agree that studying history teaches you a certain set of skills about how to think critically, how to review documents and translate that into problem solving,” said Santiago said. “I think you could put a history specialist in charge of any investigative stuff, and we’ll figure it out. So I think it was a perfect match.

Burns and the students began their quest by reviewing SRP’s 2003 inventory. Then the search began.

“The inventory report kind of told us what areas of the building we should expect the artwork to be in,” Fierro said. “Over time the artwork has shifted a bit because some people would like a certain artwork and they wanted it in front of their desk, or maybe it would fit in better at a certain place.

“So it was a bit of a scavenger hunt as we went through. That’s what made it so fun.

Highlight various artists

SRP’s collection included 80 artists, many from the Southwest, California and Mexico. Among them: Roberto Marquez, painter of Mexican origin whose works have been exhibited in numerous museums; Mark Klett, a photographer who is Regents Professor at the ASU School of Art and whose work is exhibited in more than 80 museums around the world; Emmi Whitehorse, painter and member of the Navajo Nation; and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, a Native American artist known for her abstract paintings and prints.

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