Joseph Beyer dreams big. Real big.
And right now he dreams of turning Rex Ranch, a group of crumbling adobe buildings on 50 acres in Amado, into a nonprofit residency that offers seclusion and creative energy for artists and scientists from around the world.
Beyer has the passion and contacts to make it happen. As director of Digital Initiatives for Sundance Institute — which is not affiliated with the Rex Ranch project — he has masterminded impressive fundraising campaigns for struggling filmmakers.
He is using his contacts and know-how to do the same with Rex Ranch, hoping others will buy into his vision by donating to Save Rex Ranch through rally.org
And it all began with a love affair.
In love with S. Arizona
Beyer, a Midwesterner who lives in Los Angeles and frequents Arizona, was first seduced by the area 13 years ago.
“I never expected to fall in love with Southern Arizona the way I did,” says Beyer in a phone interview from Los Angeles, a day after a trip to our state to coordinate activities around the Rex Ranch project.
Then came the summer rains.
“It was the monsoons that cemented my love,” he says.
He bought a house in Nogales, opening his guesthouse to artists. They, too, discovered the tranquillity and creative energy that Beyer felt in this part of the world.
In July of this year, Beyer took a walk through the countryside, longing for a look at the one-time resort Rex Ranch, where he had stayed in 2003.
“I was heartbroken when I saw the ranch,” Beyer recalled.
“I had no idea it was totally abandoned. It was very shocking. I probably spent 15 minutes standing there and shaking my head.”
Dates to 19th century
Rex Ranch dates to the 19th century, and a few of the buildings from that period still stand. In 1938, Texan Rex Hamaker bought the property and opened the Rex Ranch Resort, which became a stopping place for celebrities making films in the area.
Most recently it was the Rex Ranch Resort & Spa, which closed in 2012. It has been abandoned since. It went into bankruptcy, fell into deep disrepair, and no one seemed poised to rescue it.
Beyer went into action. He hunted down records, made phone calls and hounded the Santa Cruz County assessor until he could find out what happened to the ranch and who owned it.
“It took six weeks to figure out who owned the property,” he recalls, noting the owner wishes to remain anonymous.
He made a proposal: He and his hastily formed board would create a nonprofit, Save Rex Ranch, raise the funds to buy and rehab the ranch, and operate it as an artists’ residency.
He thought they would have time to cement the plans, to secure nonprofit status and to get historic designation for the ranch.
“We expected to launch the project in the spring,” Beyer says.
The stakeholders in the property had a shorter time frame in mind.
“On Oct. 21, we found out our offer had been accepted,” he says. “But they only gave us till mid-December.”
That didn’t leave much time to raise the $725,000 purchase price, plus $10,000 in closing costs.
Going into overtime
Beyer is in high gear.
“It’s been both panic and excitement,” he says. “This is the opportunity we had been working so hard for, but we had to go into overtime raising money. Doing that in such a short time and over the holidays — we know what we are up against. But I’m fiercely optimistic that we can pull it off.”
Beyer has experience with crowd funding through his work at Sundance; he has applied the concept to Save Rex Ranch, teaming up with rally.org. He’s hoping individuals will chip in $10, $20, thousands, to help make the project a vibrant member of the Santa Cruz community and a strong, artistic neighbor to Tucson.
According to the rally.org site, as of Friday, $2,205 has been raised since the launch about a week ago. But Beyer feels the momentum growing and expects donations to take off soon.
“It’s hard for the first person to jump in and make a major gift,” Beyer says. “Once we achieve that, I think others will jump in. We are fighting to get to the tipping point, but I’m confident that once that happens, others will be interested.”
He also has friends with impressive credentials who have signed on as advisers and board members. Among them are actors, filmmakers, artists and musicians, many of them out of Los Angeles and with solid connections. He has also pulled in support from Santa Cruz County and the Tucson area. Like Beyer, those involved are all lending their expertise and energy on a volunteer basis.
“I knew we had to build a coalition of support, and you turn to those you trust the most for that,” Beyer says of those on the board.
“It’s been enormously satisfying to get their feedback. You can’t imagine the great ideas they have. This project has captured people’s imaginations.”
Board member Calvin Case, a Realtor with Tucson’s Tierra Antigua Realty and the agent for the sale, is convinced the artists’ residency will become a reality.
“This is the first time I’ve come across something like this,” he says. “This is a fantastic precedent project, and I really think it will be successful.”
There are 32 rooms, studios and work spaces on the ranch’s 50 acres of gorgeous desert. It will have private quarters for the residents, and a community kitchen.
Beyer envisions monthlong residencies for artists, designers and scientists. They will have solitude if they need it, camaraderie when they want it, and an environment that is primed for thinking and creating.
Residencies usually concentrate on artists in a particular discipline, such as writing or visual arts. Beyer wants to open Rex Ranch to all artistic disciplines, as well as to scientists.
“We want the residents to be multidisciplinary,” he says. “We think there’s something really special about aligning, say, a botanist with a photographer. We think it’s more interesting and diverse.”
And he’s looking to attract residents from far-flung places.
“We want to bring people from different parts of the world here to experience Southern Arizona,” he says. “To me, it is unlike any other place. Something happens to people when they come down there. They are touched and inspired by the landscape to do their work. The desert inspires them to think differently.”
He hopes the first 10 residencies will begin in July of next year.
But he also wants to open the ranch to the community, where people can come to see art, listen to music or hear experts speak.
“The big idea in my head is how beautiful it would be when people from the community drive up to the ranch and experience something exciting. I want there to be interacting between the guests and the community.”
Monthlong residencies are likely to cost about $500 to $600 per participant. That would include room and board.
“The ultimate goal is to keep it ridiculously affordable so we can work with individuals,” Beyer says. Many artists residencies around the country charge a nominal fee for participants.
Eventually, the hope is to raise government grant money that will subsidize the residency fee, and to work with corporations and businesses to establish scholarships.
His vision includes providing local organizations with a building on the property so that they can create their own residencies.
“I think (Beyer) has the highest, best interest for the property,” says Tucson musician LeeAnne Savage, who is on the advisory board.
“I think that kind of thinking, designing and artistry from Rex Ranch is going to flow over to the Tucson market. I see nothing but good, good stuff coming of it.”
ONCE ranch is bought
One might think that if the money is raised, the hard work is over.
The ranch is in serious disrepair, and it continues to deteriorate daily. “It’s such a big property and so isolated that the vandalism is really taking its toll,” Beyer says.
“Every time I go out there, more vandalism has taken place. It’s impossible to monitor the property unless someone is living there.”
Beyer is hoping volunteers step up quickly. Builders, plumbers, architects, anyone with energy and/or expertise — he wants them all.
“We don’t have the resources to pay for repairs, so we are trying to be creative,” he said. “Maybe provide the University of Arizona School of Architecture with a field study, and volunteer craftsmen to help us repair outdated plumbing and electrical systems.”
He isn’t looking to just fix things. The intent is to rehab the ranch in an eco-friendly manner.
“The property is still on the grid, and we think we can move it at least partially off the grid, and to convert the buildings to sustainable energy such as solar and wind.”
Renovation materials will be nontoxic, he says. “Most of the buildings are adobe, so the materials for repairs are right on the ground.”
IF MONEY ISN’T RAISED
Beyer doesn’t think the project will fail. But he’s a realist.
“I think if we are able to get within 75 to 80 percent of the funds raised, we’ll have a chance to renegotiate,” he says.
And if that doesn’t work:
“We felt there would be three ways to go,” Beyer says. “We could refund money; ask the community of backers what they would like us to do with the money — which nonprofits they would like us to donate it to. Or third, if they love this idea and they want us to take this money and look for a similar project.”
But he doesn’t foresee that happening.
“Local support has encouraged us to fight until the end,” he says. “We don’t want people to ever say, ‘What happened to the Rex Ranch project?’ ”