Phoenix Art Museum director James Ballinger to step down after 40 years with museum

XXX (Photo Courtesy of the Phoenix Art Museum)
Phoenix Art Museum Director James Ballinger is retiring after serving as director of the museum for 33 years. (Photo Courtesy of the Phoenix Art Museum)

After serving for 33 years as the director of the Phoenix Art Museum, James Ballinger announced his retirement on April 17. The decision marks the end of a total of 40 years working for the museum.

“A lot of people move to other museums for greater challenges, but, if you think about it, I’ve worked for at least three different museums without leaving Central (Avenue) and McDowell (Road),” Ballinger said in a press release issued by the museum.

Ballinger got his start at the museum in 1974 as the curator of collections. Under Ballinger’s years as director, the museum has grown by 10,000 objects, according to the press release.

“In many ways I view myself as an advocate for our visitors making sure the museum is a special place with special enriching experiences for everyone,” Ballinger said in the press release.

Shelley Cohn was the former executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts until her retirement in 2005. She met Ballinger in 1976, two years after he started working at the museum. Over the years, the two worked together on various projects, including arts advocacy and efforts to create a designated funding source for the arts.

“He has a long history and leaves a strong legacy at the museum. Having recently retired myself after a long career at one institution, I know that it is hard to separate yourself, and at the same time it is liberating to be able to make different choices for what you do in your life,” Cohn said.

Ballinger became director of the museum in February 1982. He has personally organized more than 50 out of an estimated 500 exhibitions put on during his career as director.

Ballinger has introduced a number of high-profile exhibitions for the Phoenix Art Museum, from Splendors of Ancient Egypt in 1998 to the Hollywood Costume exhibit currently at the museum.

Ballinger manages more than 115 employees and operates a budget of $11.6 million a year. Before Ballinger, the art museum was a mere 72,000 square feet. It has since expanded to its current size of 285,000 square feet.

“The physical and programmatic growth of the Phoenix Art Museum during Jim’s tenure has been nothing short of astonishing, and in my view, directly reflects Phoenix’s evolution during the same time period,” said Jaime Dempsey, the deputy director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Dempsey has known Ballinger for nearly eight years. One of the main qualities she recognizes in Ballinger’s leadership are present through his community engagement and economic development.

“Jim has been a thoughtful and committed leader, not just for the institution, but for the local and national arts sector. His are shoes which won’t easily be filled,” Dempsey said.

Catherine Foley has almost 20 years of experience working with Ballinger since her start at the Salt River Project. Foley is currently the executive director for Arizona Citizens for the Arts, a statewide organization arts advocacy organization. The Phoenix Art Museum is one of their prominent members.

Foley said that Ballinger has been a leader for the whole arts community, not simply for the Phoenix Art Museum.

“Jim has really embraced the idea of being an advocate for all of arts and culture in Arizona,” she said. “He had the stage to do that from the Phoenix Art Museum. He didn’t need to do it, but he did it. And we’ve all benefited from that and his commitment.”

Ballinger is a nationally-recognized leader in the field of Western American Art. For 10 years he was a member of the Association of Art Museum Directors Board of Directors and even served as its president from 2006 to 2007.

In 2004, Ballinger was appointed to the National Council of the Arts by former President George W. Bush and recently completed an extended term with the organization. Currently he is on the board of directors for the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, the Phoenix Community Alliance and Papp Investment Trust.

Some of his other accomplishments were receiving the 2013 Shelley Award at the 33rd annual Governor’s Arts Awards and being named Nonprofit Director of the Year by the Organization for Nonprofit Executives of Arizona.

Ballinger will continue in his current position until a successor is named.

Contact the reporter at