Thank you for sharing this amazing collection,” Agnes Sziles of British Columbia wrote in the guest book.
Steve Chapperden of Casper, Wyo., is a man of fewer words, but he pulled out a big gun in the punctuation world to make his point.
“Wow!” he wrote.
When I arrive at the Zelma Basha Salmeri Gallery of Western American and Native American Art in mid-afternoon last Tuesday, the guest book tells me that 60 people have preceded me on this particular day.
They are from places like Westerville, Ohio; Nome, Alaska; Lancaster, Pa.; and, of course, points on the Arizona compass.
And they leave behind at Bashas’ corporate headquarters in Chandler, where the gallery is housed, a record of praise and appreciation.
Maybe not for long.
I am at the gallery because the 3,000-piece collection could be sold off as a casualty of the supermarket company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
I can’t just let this happen, I think, without warning people. This could be their last call to see an East Valley treasure.
The art collection belongs to the company, not its chairman, Eddie Basha Jr., who assembled it over the years.
Bashas’ creditors argue the collection, worth millions of dollars, is not essential to the business and should be sold off to pay down Bashas’ debt.
Bashas’ counters that the collection is essential to the business’ public relations.
To the lawyers and the court, the collection is a balance sheet and asset value issue.
There is no room for soul in the deliberations.
And that’s a tragedy — for the Basha family and the East Valley with which it shares history is intertwined.
Gallery visitor Bruce Kilbride told me he has lived in Chandler for 20 years, but he learned about the collection only recently.
“It’s a gem,” he said.
Even if you have lived in the East Valley for several years, there’s a good chance you’ve never been to the gallery.
Before making the trip, the first thing you should know is the gallery is free. For more information, here’s a link to the gallery’s web page: http://www.bashas.com/OurCommunity/BashasArtGallery.aspx
The second thing you need to know is that you can’t imagine what’s in store for you.
Whatever the picture your mind has formed of the gallery, it is hopelessly inadequate.
This is a gallery that is as epic in its scope as the epic story it tells of the Western experience. The collection goes from room to room, from niche to niche, from paintings to bronzes, from old West weaponry to Native American baskets, from jewelry to pottery.
I overhear Rose Mary McKee of Eloy talking to friends from Sun Lakes about Sacajewea’s son, John Baptiste.
A John Ford Clymer painting of the Lewis and Clark expedition inspired their conversation.
Before heading off in search of the painting, I talk with McKee about the bankruptcy issue and the museum.
“I hate to see these big corporations take over, especially because the Basha family has given back to the community,” she said.
The Basha family’s contribution to the Arizona experience dates back to pre-statehood days. The Lebanese immigrant family moved from New York to Arizona in 1910 and soon opened a dry goods store.
It’s not easy to out-Arizona Eddie Basha. He’s a native son and larger than life, just the way pioneers should be.
I know because on my first visit to the gallery I had the good fortune of having Basha as my guide.
I’m sure that the company made a financial case for the gallery, but collecting western art has been a labor of love for Basha. (He named the gallery after his aunt who was an artist and encouraged the collection.)
None of this will matter much to the bankruptcy court, but it should matter to you.
My suggestion is you visit the gallery, sign the guest book and simply write, “Thank you.”
Perhaps a flood of thank yous will help Bashas’ make the case that the gallery is important to the company’s public relations.
If that fails, you will have at least made the most out of the last call.