Olivia Miller’s earliest memory is her hands gliding through the water in the fountain at the Kimbell Art Museum in her hometown, Fort Worth, Texas.
Today, she is the director and curator of exhibitions at the University of Arizona Museum of Art where she has plans to make big changes — and hopes to help others make new memories at a new art museum.
Miller established her roots at the UA when she graduated in 2005 with undergraduate degrees in art history and studio art. When she pursued a master’s at University of Oregon, however, she had an epiphany that she needed to quite literally be surrounded by art. The internship she had with the university art museum there made her never want to leave a museum setting again.
The current state of the UA’s art museum does not inspire students to have that “aha!” moment similar to Miller’s — something she is striving for with the construction of a new museum, planned to open in Spring 2027.
A museum designed for art in the desert
The University of Arizona Museum of Art is currently tucked away in a 1950s building on Olive Road where it shares an elevator with the school of art and a courtyard with several other fine arts departments like theater and music.
“We want a museum that is visible, that isn’t difficult to find. We don’t want students to be surprised to learn, at the end of their tenure here, that there is a museum they’ve never been to,” said Miller.
Plans for the new building — a jump from the current 20,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet — are set for the northwest corner of Speedway and Vine, where the museum will be exactly what Miller is shooting for — visible and easy to find.
Andrew Schulz is the dean of the UA’s college of fine arts and vice president for the arts. His vision is to create a beacon of art in the heart of Tucson.
Ample signage and large banners will adorn the building, drawing in passersby. Its architecture will commemorate the campus and desert climate that surrounds it.
University of Arizona Museum of Art
- Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
- Admission costs $6-$8 and is free for children, museum members, students with ID, UA faculty and staff, active military personnel, visitors with a SNAP card, and visitors with Tribal ID
- See exhibits and events
The Arizona Board of Regents has designated four phases of the project including planning, design, construction and occupancy which is set to be completed by Spring 2027.
Schulz said a request for qualifications was recently sent out to initiate the hiring process of an architect who should be chosen early next year. The firm that is chosen will enter a period of stakeholder engagement for about 18 to 24 months when designs will be discussed with the university community.
Schulz sees architecture as an aspect that will draw people in. Perhaps, with the space provided, public sculptures will be built and “even at 40 miles an hour you’d have an arts experience,” he said, about drivers on Speedway.
For Miller, accessibility goes in tandem with visibility. She says the new building will welcome anyone, “no matter their abilities.” Restrooms will be on the ground floor rather than the second floor where they currently reside, and the lobby will be more spacious.
In addition to lobby space, gallery space and event space are necessary for the function of a new museum operation. Miller explained that since food is not allowed near the art, opportunities to connect with the public are limited in the current museum building.
For example, receptions require refreshments, but the lobby — where there is no gallery art — is too small. The courtyard is also a tight fit and construction noise from a campus that’s always changing can prevent a pleasant event environment.
Temperature and humidity are out of the staff’s control in the current building. The art museum’s permanent renaissance collection is especially at risk of damage. The 500-year-old pieces painted on wooden panels require a stable climate due to their tendency to expand and contract.
While humidity control is essential to maintaining the collection’s health, Miller said the previous humidity standards of 45-50% should be lowered.
“People are now realizing that, A: It’s really hard when you’re in a desert. And B: It’s actually really not ethical as we think about the climate crisis that we are living in,” she said.
Rather than cranking the humidity, a new space built specifically for the art museum’s collection will have the needed consistency and stability.
Fundraising for a new vision
The UA has committed $25 million in bonds to the $60 million goal set by the art museum team. The Arizona Board of Regents approved the plan in September.
To support operations, about $10 million is included for things like staffing and programming.
“What I’m really hopeful about is that, from the get go, the university administration has understood that this is not a facade project, this is not a project to just put in a beautiful building on campus and call it a day,” said Miller.
Schulz sees the university’s backing as an exciting starting point that will encourage potential donors to contribute.
Tilghman H. Moyer IV is the executive director of development at Arizona Arts. He works with a team focused on raising private support for everything across the arts division and is overseeing funding for the new UA art museum.
Moyer said there are many supporters of the arts who have been waiting for this project for a long time.
“So it’s exciting that we’re actually going to be doing it,” he said. “And having the university’s backing behind it is really important.”
The museum project is part of a $3 billion capital campaign that includes many other projects. The announcement during homecoming that the UA has raised $2 billion toward that goal was followed by news of a short-term financial crisis with budget cuts and a potential hiring freeze.
Art meets science north of Speedway
One challenge of the relocation, Miller said, would be letting go of the arts oasis established on Olive Road where students can pop by between classes and where many fine arts students circle the same spaces.
A fresh arts district will be established, however, near Speedway and Vine at the new location where the space is presently a parking lot. To the east is the University of Arizona Poetry Center, “a really great potential partner,” said Schulz.
Nearby, the Health Sciences Innovation Building on Drachman Street bears art as part of the El Mirador Project, which may inspire future partnerships blending science with art.
“What we’ve been trying to do in the last couple years is really try and broaden that exposure to the arts,” Schulz said, “and think about how we can create opportunities for all students across campus to have meaningful arts experiences.”
With the new museum north of Speedway, campus will have a branch of the arts in all of its corners: to the east end of University Boulevard, the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre; Centennial Hall on the opposite end; and the arts district down Olive Road.
The space can serve as a hub of exploration for classes, Schulz said, which will allow students to explore “the ways in which the arts touch on and can illuminate pretty much every discipline.”
Similar to athletics — both Miller and Schulz said — museums serve as a front porch for incoming students. With family-oriented events and programs aside from academics, the art museum will have a chance to elevate those opportunities.
“Having a museum on a site that is kind of at an edge of campus,” Schulz said, “is part of that invitation to engage.”