Reimagining the UA Museum of Art

'Fires of Change’

Margaret Regan, Jacob Chinn photos

When W. James Burns ’92 switched his major to history as an undergrad at the University of Arizona, his adviser wanted to know what the young man planned to do after college.  

Burns wasn’t sure. The adviser, history professor Jack Marietta, now retired, pointed to a chart on his office wall that he kept for just such occasions.  

“It was titled, ‘Careers in History,’” recalls Burns. “I read down the list and saw ‘museum curator.’ I liked that idea.”

So Marietta dispatched Burns to the Arizona State Museum across the grassy UA Mall from the history department.  

“I began volunteering,” Burns says. “I helped [Associate Curator] Diane Dittemore curate the Donald Cordry Mexican Mask collection. I was hooked!”

That opportunity helped set in motion a career that has taken Burns to no fewer than 12 museums across the country over 25 years. 

He cataloged photos at the Arizona State Museum and interned at the Center for Creative Photography. He worked as an aide in Phoenix’s Pueblo Grande Museum, as a photography curator at Flagstaff’s Museum of Northern Arizona, and as a researcher at the Cyprus Sawmill Museum in rural Louisiana. 

“I researched 400 years of the history of cyprus-tupelo swamps,” he says with a smile.

Burns went on to stints as registrar at the Atlanta History Center, curator at Booth Western Art Museum in Georgia, and executive director of Desert Caballeros Western Museum, in Wickenburg, Arizona. 

A year ago, after building a resume that included every position possible in the museum world, he was offered his dream job: the directorship of the UA Museum of Art. 

“We are sitting on the most significant collection of art in Arizona,” he says. “It’s an amazing collection.” 

The art ranges from the 15th-century “Retablo de Ciudad Rodrigo,” a suite of 26 exquisite Spanish paintings depicting the life of Christ, to 20th-century masterpieces by Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jackson Pollock. 

He’s beyond thrilled to be back at his alma mater.

“I started my career here,” he says. “The UA was the only place I applied to for college.”

Burns was raised in Rochester, New York, a photography mecca whose economy was long dominated by Eastman Kodak.

“I had a great-great-uncle who worked there,” he says. “He loved photography. He willed me all of his Arizona Highways magazines. On cold winter afternoons, looking at the magazines, I fell in love with Arizona.” 

And when he arrived, “Arizona exceeded my expectations. I never wanted to leave.”

Still, he says, though he’s worked in both art and history museums, “I realize I am an unconventional choice” for director of the University’s art museum. 

He minored in art history at the UA, but he has no art degrees. What he does have is a UA bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in public history from Arizona State University, and a doctorate in educational policy studies from Georgia State University. 

“I have the utmost respect for classically trained scholars of art history,” Burns says. But as a historian, “I look at art through a humanities lens.”

With his expertise in educational policy, he sees art as a means of educating not only the surrounding community but also the University’s own students. 

“Art is for the many,” he says. “We have 40,000 students on campus and they don’t always look at art through the art history lens.” 

Burns believes it’s critical to reach out to the UA’s academic departments and to undertake collaborations wherever possible. He already has students in optical sciences working on a new high-tech lighting system for the museum — the current one is 60 years old — that will be individualized to bring out the particular colors of each painting. 

And two exhibitions this fall have a science focus. “Wavelength: The Art of Light,” showing works by acclaimed Arizona artist James Turrell, will look at the beauty of light — and its scientific properties. “Fires of Change” will examine the links between climate change and wildfires.  

“Art,” he says, “can be used as a means for teaching science.” 

And he’s not ignoring the humanities and social sciences. An upcoming show about the art of Rome will be a collaboration with classics professor Cynthia White including an evening at the UA Poetry Center on travel writing and poetry. Also, Burns will co-curate a show at the Arizona State Museum this fall on the western painter Maynard Dixon, lending some Dixon drawings from the UAMA’s own collection.   

Burns has been busily organizing community advisory groups and inviting in visitors who’ve never before set foot in a museum. An Art Sprouts program for preschoolers brings in pint-size artists and their parents, and Mapping Q serves LGBTQ high school students. 

“I love the idea of the museum as being a portal for kids,” Burns says. “Now these kids see the University as a place that could be for them.”

Burns acknowledges that the UAMA has weathered difficulties in the last decade, grappling with personnel changes, a relatively low visitor count, and tough budget cuts. 

“I like a challenge,” Burns says. “I was brought in as a change agent.”

He’s dealt with difficult situations before. When he arrived at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum, where he was director for four and a half years, attendance was low and the budget was precarious.

Burns undertook a capital campaign that exceeded expectations. “We were hoping to raise $1.3 million, and we raised $2.75 million. 

“Our goal was to rebrand the institution, and we turned it around. We had a huge increase in membership and attendance, going from 50,000 a year to 75,000.” 

He hopes to energize the UAMA in similar ways. In a city of one million people — and a campus of 40,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff — “we get 20,000 visitors a year,” he laments. “We’re going to work on building our audience.” 

Fans have long dreamed of a larger building for the museum, where more of its 6,100 artworks could be on display. 

“A new building would be wonderful,” Burns says, “but I have seen too many museums that have built new buildings that turn out to be an albatross. We have to shore up our operations first. We must work on our endowment.”

Burns is confident that he and his staff can pull off the transformation with the help of the museum’s supporters. 

“I have the greatest team I’ve ever had in 25 years,” he says. “We’re reinventing ourselves as a modern institution. The possibilities of this museum are limitless.”