Tucson is home to the ambitious Arizona Plan, to bring the great art of the East to the West.

Tucson: The Arizona Plan

Tucson is home to the ghost of a painting. The original is now in the back of a rambling semi-trailer making its way, like me, to Boston for the Hopper retrospective show at the Museum of Fine Arts.

‘The City’ (1927) is the lone Hopper picture in the C. Leonard Pfeiffer Collection of the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The museum is situated down a blind alley off one of Tucson’s dusty streets.

Tucson's Edward Hopper painting, 'The City' (1927)
The City (1927)

Tucson: A Modern Frontier Town

Tucson is a modern frontier town. An hour north of Mexico, Spanish is as common a mother tongue here as English. The city is surrounded on all sides by rocky, cactus-covered hills where coyotes howl at dawn. Pick-up trucks and Border Patrol SUV’s cruise down its wide boulevards. Afternoon dust storms color the setting sun ochre.

Coyote in Tucson
Coyote, Tucson

The Arizona Plan

The Pfeiffer Collection was known at its inception in 1942 as the Arizona Plan. It was an initiative by a perfume company executive from New York, who had recently received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona, to endow a great collection of American art to the university. C. Leonard Pfeiffer had a vision that, in his words, ‘would help living artists; help in the appreciation of art; bring art to a community which does not have access to the great galleries; help quench the hunger of American universities for original paintings; and stimulate art production among students who would attend the [university].’

‘My stamp collecting was but a manifestation of hoarding.’

In the space of a year, Pfeiffer, a balding, baby-faced man in his fifties, bought one hundred paintings by eighty-nine living American artists. All were painted between 1927 and 1942. His budget was $20,000, money he had gained from selling his stamp collection. ‘My stamp collecting was but a manifestation of hoarding,’ Pfeiffer said. ‘I thought the 20th century plan should be altruistic, sharing, and putting into practice the thought that it is more blessed to give than receive.’

Pfeiffer’s purchases were guided by Bruce Mitchell, a New York painter. Mitchell believed that the Arizona Plan formed part of the war effort. ‘In donating small collections of vital art now,’ he wrote, ‘we are contributing to the ideals for which we are fighting.’

Pfeiffer’s donation, like those of Preston Morton and Virginia Steele Scott, consisted entirely of American art. ‘Through the years,’ Pfeiffer said, ‘I’ve rebelled against America’s inferiority complex in art. We’d got into the habit of thinking that nothing was good unless it came from Europe. Our American artists should have recognition – by purchases.’

The Hopper picture, one of his many depictions of Washington Square in New York, was amongst the first twelve purchases for the Collection. Before it traveled to Tucson in 1945,  the Collection was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Although there were positive reviews, the New Yorker, in typically scathing fashion, opined, ‘Too much haste…and too little money went into [the Pfeiffer Collection’s] preparation, and this air of hurry and bargain-hunting is responsible for the chief weaknesses of the group. It takes time and a good deal of contemplation [to buy art], and it’s the lack of them that has robbed this collection of true distinction.’

We’ll have a chance to revisit this opinion when we see Pfeiffer’s Hopper in a few weeks.

What do you think? Is all collecting ‘but a manifestation of hoarding’?

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