In a downtown basement, thousands of ancient relics, sculptures and original paintings remain tucked away.
About 80 percent of the Tucson Museum of Art’s collection rarely leaves the dark reaches of the sprawling complex.
“That’s always the challenge with a museum, how to get your collections on display,” Tucson Museum of Art Executive Director Robert Knight said.
As the museum continues to expand and acquire new works, more and more of its artworks remain under lock and key. That’s part of the reason museum officials have begun to look for a new home: There simply isn’t enough floor space to accommodate the growing collections.
A member recently loaned the museum a collection of more than 500 Asian antiquities.
Some of the ancient Chinese statues, weapons and furnishings date back thousands of years.
Space limitations, however, allow the display of only 34 of those works.
Hundreds of the Asian works and pieces from other genres line shelves, fill cabinets and adorn walls in museum’s temperature-controlled basement.
“My position is: Responsibly, we have to think about 50 years from now,” Knight said.
Last week, he spelled out for the Oro Valley Town Council the museum’s space restrictions and desire to find a new or satellite location.
Town leaders began courting the museum last month, and recently released a map showing six potential sites that could house a new facility.
Founded in 1924, the museum today occupies five historic buildings dating from the mid-1800s, plus a main gallery built in the 1970s.
The historic houses hold various collections from Latin America and the American West.
One of the historic residences, the Stevens/Duffield House, holds works from pre-Columbian eras, Mexican folk art and colonial works.
The row house also was home to a 19th-century murder mystery.
Businessman, political luminary and the house’s namesake, Hiram Stevens, in 1893 shot his wife Petra Santa Cruz in the head and then turned the gun on himself.
But as luck would have it, a heavy comb in Mrs. Stevens’ hair deflected the bullet and spared her life.
Mr. Stevens, however, was not so lucky. He died on the floor of the home.
The museum’s historic block traces back to the time of the American Revolution and sits within the area of the old presidio.
Spanish military forces founded the presidio in 1775. The fortress’ adobe walls were constructed to protect inhabitants from Apache raiders.
Over the centuries, most of the adobe structure crumbled or was built over. Archeologists in recent years have unearthed portions of the stronghold, including a section near Tucson City Hall, across from the museum on Alameda Street.
Added to the museum’s spatial woes, a problem of parking persists.
More than 180,000 people visit the museum each year, yet it has parking spaces for just 50 cars.
A second lot across from the museum’s entrance on Main Avenue has metered parking. But the future of parking at the city-owned lot appears uncertain.
Tucson officials have floated the idea of building condominiums on the site.
If the building project goes forward, there’s no guarantee that museum guests would have access to parking at the condos.
After Knight’s presentation in Oro Valley last Wednesday, council members asked Town Manager David Andrews to write a formal letter of interest to the museum’s board of directors.
Andrews also will invite museum officials to tour the five sites in Oro Valley. However, the town owns just one: the Naranja Town Site.
Councilman Barry Gillaspie asked to have that location highlighted in Andrews’ letter.
“The reason is that we control it and it’s ours to offer,” Gillaspie said.
While the town owns the site, it’s currently little more than an urban desert in the center of town, exactly as it was when the town bought it nearly 10 years ago.
The site, which faces Naranja Drive between La Cañada Drive and First Avenue, lacks plumbing and electricity.
Hiking trails crisscross the desert stretch, and town road crews store equipment, rocks and asphalt in its northern reaches.
Townspeople will have the opportunity to decide the future of the Naranja Town Site in the November General Election.
A bond question on the ballot asks residents if they want the town to borrow $48 million to build a municipal park there.
Passage of the bond would mean imposing for the first time a town-wide property tax, which would remain in effect until the bond debt is paid off.
Museum officials have not yet visited the Naranja Town Site, nor have they made any decisions on a move.
Other potential museum sites include: Hilton El Conquistador, Rooney Ranch Town Center, Steam Pump Village and Honeywell.
All the locations face Oracle Road, except the town-owned park site.
While the town could offer the museum land within the Naranja site, Knight said the Oracle-facing locations were better options.
“Being on a main thoroughfare is always more preferable,” Knight said.
He noted a site on the grounds of the Hilton El Conquistador as an attractive option.
But the museum has other suitors as well.
Recently, a museum member offered to donate land for a satellite facility located near the Westin La Paloma Resort on Sunrise Drive.
“We’re at the same point with them,” Knight said.
Museum officials also have explored moving into a Rio Nuevo-funded space downtown.
Rio Nuevo, the city’s ambitious plan to renew downtown, envisions a museum and historic district west of Interstate 10.
But recent developments put the plan’s future in doubt.
“Putting all our eggs in that basket,” Knight said, “may not be the smartest move for us.”
Tucson Museum of Art
140 N. Main Ave. • 624-2333
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m.; closed Mondays and on major holidays.
Admission: $8 general admission; $6 seniors (60+); $3 students (13+); members and children under 12 get in free; free admission on the first Sunday of the month.