Can an organization raise $735,000 in 40 days to buy an abandoned dude ranch in the southwestern Arizona desert? It just might be possible with Joseph Beyer—eternal optimist and Director of Digital Initiatives at the Sundance Institute—personally leading the cause, armed with the vision of transforming the historic Rex Ranch into an interdisciplinary arts and culture mecca. Built in the 1880s in the small town of Amado (off the I-19) Rex Ranch has 35 buildings over 50 acres, and has been a resort and spa for the past few decades until it closed in 2012. With no buyer wanting to fork out the original $2 million cost, the sale price has dropped over and over, and now the land is close to foreclosure.
Beyer isn’t new to the fundraising scene—already in his 11th year working at Sundance, he oversaw the Kickstarter collaboration (which was yet a novelty at that time) that would raise $6 million for Sundance alumni. This time, however, the clock is ticking fast. The Save Rex Ranch campaign has launched into overdrive as they learned that the bank accepted their proposal, provided they raise the necessary funds by 16 December. We spoke with Beyer (who actually lost his voice towards the end of our conversation) to learn more about the social funding campaign and the future site of artist residencies, workshops, public programs and more.
How did you first discover the area where the Rex Ranch lies?
The first time I saw it was around 2000. It’s a while ago; when I was in college, I went to school in southern Indiana. I had a friend who was from Sante Fe, and during one ill-fated spring break, six of us got into a very small car and drove out to Sante Fe. And that was the first time I had ever seen the southwest. (I grew up in Michigan so I feel like very much a midwestern boy.) I had never seen cactus, and sunsets and vistas and mesa—every single thing that I saw on that trip was like a dream. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the American southwest.
Over the next couple of years I just found myself being drawn back there. Southern Arizona is a very interesting place, not at all what you might expect—it’s actually a very lush desert called the Sonoran Desert. One time I was there when they had the monsoon seasons, when the rain just pours for hours during the day. And the next day, I just couldn’t believe what I had seen. It was as if the landscape had been completely transformed, instantly.
Where this ranch exists, it’s a county called Santa Cruz county and it’s nothing but small towns, mainly villages. I went down there and I couldn’t believe how much history was there, too. There are so many incredible buildings and ruins; it’s a very, very old part of the country that overlaps with not only Mexican history but Spanish history, Native American history…
I saw the ranch probably for the first time when somebody invited me out there for a drink or a bite to eat. Back when [Rex Ranch] was a hotel and a resort, they had a restaurant and a bar there. And there aren’t very many bars in the Tubac area; I think now they’re up to four or five. At the time, there was Abe’s Old Tumacacori Bar and the bar at Rex Ranch.
It just captured my imagination of the the southwest. [Rex Ranch] originally was a dude ranch, a destination for a lot of people from the East Coast looking to get away from the cold, harsh winter, enjoy the sun, do some horseback riding, throwing horseshoes. That’s what the place was designed for and operated that way for many decades. It’s just a magical place; the feeling that you get is that you’ve walked back in time, I think.
So when did the idea for needing a cultural arts destination converge with the location of Rex Ranch? I’m sure you’ve been thinking about the idea for a while.
I have been thinking about it for a while. This is my second most serious attempt to try and make this idea happen.
What happened to the first attempt?
It’s a good quick story. One of the members on our board of directors is a woman named Susannah Castro, she used to run the Tubac Center for the Arts which is the only arts and cultural center of any kind within 75 miles of the area. She worked there, and I found another ranch that was for sale, called the Rancho Santa Cruz. That was also an abandoned dude ranch—not nearly as beautiful and lovely as Rex Ranch was—but she and I faithfully looked into that for four months in 2008. Eventually, we had to abandon that plan because that ranch sits in a hundred-year flood plain, right on the Santa Cruz river. It had flooded multiple times that were somewhat catastrophic over the years, And we could not get insurance quotes for the property, so it would have been impossible to actually insure. After a lot of work and a lot of love we poured into that project, we had to walk away and admit that it wasn’t the right property.
So when Rex Ranch became abandoned and the situation got very dire in the last couple of months, I called Susanna again and we were able to ramp up our ideas very quickly because we had worked together on that project. It helped us a lot because we had already looked into a lot of the things we’re trying to apply to this project: Historical preservation status, tax-exemption for the property, historical experts in the area, partner organizations we might turn to, etcetera.
Was Rex Ranch chosen specifically for its location within southwest Arizona? What do you think this future art center’s relationship will be within the residing region?
The biggest thing that we’re hoping is that Southern Arizona has no—there’s nothing like this that exists down there. It’s the poorest county in the entire state, it borders two Native American reservations and the Mexican border. And to be perfectly honest, over the last five to 10 years, it’s become—in many people’s minds—a bit of a war zone, just in terms of the policies. Border security has affected every part of people’s lives there. There was a sense of, it wouldn’t be bad if there was an occasional thing that happened that was delightful and human and had nothing to do with the border, and could give back to a community. Lots of people come to this area from all over the world, it’s incredibly eclectic. People snowbird there, so to speak, where they have a second home and they come in for the beautiful weather and gorgeous place, but there’s no movie theater.
There’s very limited ways to gather in any kind of social way and to enjoy, for example, a gallery or a concert. We’re not thinking “high art” here, we’re just thinking community art. Things that would get people out to drive this long dirt road and cross the Santa Cruz River and drive up to Rex Ranch and spend a couple hours out there interacting with people and ideas that they may not otherwise have access to. There’s definitely a very strong philanthropic sense that we’re bringing something new, and what we’re bringing may stimulate other activity in the community. We have a lot to do, but eventually I would love to have international artists using these residency programs.
One of the cool ideas that I think is interesting is this restaurant that they have. It’s very difficult to operate, it requires a ton of money in terms of licenses and permits and taxes. We want to change it into a community kitchen. So when people come to the ranch, they cook for each other and over time, I have this dream that the patina of the kitchen evolves. Someone from halfway around the world comes and brings a recipe and leaves it there; one night, another cooks for 20 people and they leave their spices or a pot there. Over time, this thing builds from the identities of all of the people that can come there. The idea is to bring people in and allow them to experience what’s happening and explore the area.
The reason so many artists love this part of the country—and I’m talking about the vast southwest, but Arizona in particular—these desert landscapes are just beautiful blank canvases that people project ideas onto. They seem to get stimulated by the environment itself; it provokes something in them. Sundance Resort in Utah, where the Sundance Institute runs our artist development workshops and labs, that’s definitely a model. Marfa‘s definitely a model. We want to try and magnetize the region in some way. I want to draw people in from Texas, Nevada, California, New Mexico and Southern Utah—and over time, have a reputation that’s tied to the southwest as a whole. I’m anxious to introduce it, hopefully in the near future, to an international audience. We have potential right away with Mexico as our border neighbor. We’re trying to find organizations right across the line in Sonora, Mexico that can become immediately involved.
You’ve raised $6 million for over 200 Sundance artists through Kickstarter, when crowdfunding was a new and untested concept. How has crowdfunding changed today, and why did you choose to go with a different platform this time around?
There are over 2,000 websites globally that have something to do with crowdfunding; it’s been an explosive amount of growth. I mean, every single day there’s a new crowdfunding platform, but we chose Rally.org, which is one of the newer players, but has shown and proven that their model works based on this type of funding. Kickstarter, over the past years, have tightened their terms of service to restrict certain types of projects—Kickstarter doesn’t allow you to raise money for prototypes, or buy real estate. Rally.org can also process donations up to $100,000 per transaction; Kickstarter has a limit of $10,000.
So when I had this idea, I immediately knew I needed a strong partner, somebody that wasn’t just going to be a platform but was going to get involved. So I dragged Rally.org into it and started having calls with them very early. They saw the place, they saw the opportunity to do something from a community redevelopment standpoint and they’re very much a partner on this. Their team is regularly giving our team notes and actively involved in trying to drum up support. I’m hoping to apply the best practices and my experience to making this happen.
Support the Save Rex Ranch project by donating to the Rally campaign. The organization has applied for 501c3 (non-profit) status in order to make donations tax-deductible; visit their website for news updates and more information.
Images courtesy of Sarah Lee Photography