phoenix rising?

Funky and innovative, Downtown Phoenix remains a draw to artistic urban pioneers. But can it succeed in escaping the shadow of civic neglect and development? by lara taubman

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On the first Friday of every month over 14,000 people flock to old historic downtown Phoenix, Arizona, to visit the galleries, restaurants, bars and shops that have sprouted up in the renovated homes and warehouses along Roosevelt and Grand Streets over the last decade. Summer temperatures in Phoenix can reach up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, yet even so, on the first Friday of every month, the crowds inevitably appear. At 6 p.m., polite groups are strolling through galleries, looking for an early dinner. By 9 p.m., it is difficult to move down the sidewalk at anything but a slow pace; one weaves through the crowds, looking at the street vendors selling crafts, stopping to listen to young wailing rock bands, or just enjoying being in one of the few places in town where people can gather outside the framework of a sports event or a shopping mall. Hipsters mingle amicably with families and small children, while middle-aged creative professionals, tourists, and curious senior citizens provide a cross section of every walk of life.

One might think that this impressive monthly turnout ensures the sort of future success story seen in so many cities boasting economic and cultural gentrification: a scenario built from the ground up, by grassroots organizations, galleries and developments that are eventually turned into high dollar ventures. Phoenix, however, is anything but typical.

To understand Phoenix, it is useful to examine what goes on the rest of the month in these neighborhoods that are home to artists, small business owners, restaurants and families. The vitality that is there for one night a month on First Fridays loses its shine the next day. The monthly visitor would never believe that most days downtown Phoenix sees deserted streets, that only a handful of neighborhood residents come around to enjoy the coffee and homemade breads at Tammie Coe Bakery; to buy an art magazine, book, or object at Made; or grab lunch at Matt’s Big Breakfast. Aside from a popular farmers market every Saturday, the area rests on a central hub of independently owned restaurants, galleries, and boutiques that a small-but-fiercely-determined core group of individuals have fought to sustain and nurture, in the face of many obstacles.

The First Friday visitor would never know that outside real estate developers backed by the city council threaten to overrun the local residents and businesses who are almost single-handedly sustaining this unique artistic oasis. Kimber Lanning, a native Phoenician, and one of the city’s outspoken grass roots gallery owners, states that the city government “gets so focused on the big things that they miss the little things. Local development only constitutes 10 percent of local projects, but these projects are hugely important to represent the city’s vibrant culture and to attract and keep its young entrepreneurs.” Sloane Burwell, head of Artslink, a local organization that hosts and organizes the First Friday event, explains that the overwhelming crowds commute from neighborhoods all over the Phoenix metropolitan area because they seek an experience that is “authentic and personal,” one that is unique to anything that they could find in the city or the region. Crowds that have grown this year alone from 10,000 to 14,000 are certainly a testament to this fact.

The downtown Phoenix arts scene is a city government’s dream: a unique tourist attraction, a central gathering place based on thriving up-and-coming local businesses and development set within beautiful warm weather (at least eight months out of the year). The charming galleries promise the sophisticated, aspiring or amateur collector a chance to walk away with several beautiful art works for under $2,000 on any given First Friday. “People come here for the warm weather seeking a unique experience; they don’t come here to eat at Applebee’s,” Lanning states.

Lanning claims that the city’s disregard for the value of this area would be reversed if the neighborhood were host to a major sporting event, in which case, “we would have fixed streetlights and roads.” A respected businesswoman and a nationally recognized alternative musician in her own right, Lanning has long been at the forefront of this battle. In 2003 she opened Modified Arts, a dual gallery space for visual arts and live alternative music.

Her Roosevelt Row neighbors and artists Cindy Dach and Greg Esser work alongside her as community developers. The couple moved to Phoenix from their native Chicago 10 years ago and quickly realized that an artist community was desperately needed. They founded the eye lounge gallery, a small artists co-op whose members exhibit, curate and commiserate on a three-year rotating basis. The gallery has had great success; several of its members have gone on to enjoy strong careers. Among them is Jen Urso, an installation artist who has participated in and organized numerous local shows; two years ago, she was invited to show at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn, N.Y. Others include Sue Chenoweth, a painter who has had shows all over Arizona, as well as the Cue Art Foundation in New York, and Chris Santa Maria, who recently finished a residency at the Yaddo Artists Colony.

Dach and Esser have continued to develop real estate on Roosevelt Row, founding other artist’s co-ops such as 515 Gallery and The Kitchenette, an exhibit space for photographers. They also founded a writer’s co-op and created the aforementioned boutique Made, where local artisans sell ceramics and wearable art pieces and where one can peruse the extensive rack of art magazines and alternative books.

The efforts of these individuals have not gone unheeded. Their work to establish arts centers in the downtown area has inspired other local and independent developers to follow suit, opening restaurants and bars and renovating the old homes that the city once threatened to tear down to free up large-scale real estate space. Establishments like Matt’s Big Breakfast, the Roosevelt, Pizzeria Bianco, Pane Bianco, and Lux Coffee Shop are integral to the neighborhood’s charm, and to its spirit.

Nan Ellin, director of the Urban & Metropolitan Studies Program on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, observes that, “The city is a canvas for ‘urban artists’.” She explains, “Many who have considered leaving Phoenix for more vibrant cities have stayed because the relative affordability has given them opportunities they would not have found elsewhere. These ‘creative entrepreneurs’ can realize their visions here more readily than other cities, whether it’s a boutique, cafe, gallery, yoga studio, gelateria, performance space, loft building, or whatever.”

Building owner, tireless developer, and artist Beatrice Moore has established eight properties in the Grand Avenue corridor, renovating the spaces to accommodate artists, galleries and project spaces. Her work has transformed a large portion of this once desolate neighborhood into a vibrant arts community where artists work next door to one another, exchanging everything from ideas and materials to mailing lists. Moore states, “We knew eventually, located so close to downtown and the State Capitol, we would have to deal with development coming our direction… As we all know, the arts are a magnet for other types of development, often development that is incongruous with-and that ultimately leads to the displacement of-small businesses.” And yet, instead of the city building on Moore’s and other neighborhood developments, there is a threat that the local culture will be wiped away in favor of quick, ephemeral dollar signs.

Several years ago, artist Hector Ruiz invested in an old body shop on Grand Avenue he named The Chocolate Factory, which has since become a f
avored destination on the First Friday route. Beside his own studio, the space also contains affordable artists studios and a gallery/project space open to outside curators. His space has become an artist community center by default as he hosts Pong, an ongoing high jinx game of ping-pong. Along these streets is a mixture of commercial galleries such as Perihelion Gallery, whose program is lowbrow outsider art and performance/exhibit/alternative music venues like Trunk Space or The Paper Heart. The Tilt Gallery is unique: the only downtown gallery committed to photography, it hosts exhibits, lectures, and instructive classes on obsolete photo techniques.

The Heard Museum for Native American Art and the Phoenix Art Museum are the only two art institutions in downtown and two of the oldest in the Phoenix metropolitan area. As the Heard and the Phoenix Art Museum strive to include contemporary local arts in their program, both experience the growing pains that are complicit with change. Living down its reputation as a strictly anthropological museum, the Heard Museum has over the last few years opened its traditional programming up to contemporary Native American art and culture. In particular, Joe Baker, the Lloyd Kiva Curator for Contemporary Art at the Heard Museum, has made significant contributions to the local arts by showing the work of such Phoenix artists as Hector Ruiz, Steve Yazzie, Will Wilson, and others, connecting them to a national spectrum and thus paving the way for a broader discussion of regional identity.

The Phoenix Art Museum makes substantial financial contributions to the local arts scene through artists’ grants and an annual scholarship at Arizona State University. Their members group Contemporary Forum makes notable acquisitions of internationally acclaimed contemporary art, and some local art, and sponsors extensive educational programs for its 600+ membership. The group recently raised $40 million toward the museum’s formidable new Ellen and Howard C. Katz Wing for Modern Art, built by world-class architecture team Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

Although both of these museums reach out to local artists with funds, scholarships and First Friday programs, there is room for more involvement. Money or space donations alone are not enough, there has to be a vested interest on the part of the institution to help cultivate and sustain this downtown art scene. More sponsored events, encouragement of arts patrons to buy and support locally, and a commitment to presenting annual exhibits of local artists would be a good start.

The Arizona State University’s Nelson Museum in Tempe has forged its own solution. Although not in Phoenix proper, John Spiak, the “Curator of University and Community Projects” has brought the museum to the streets of downtown Phoenix, and vice versa. His projects have brought significant success to local artists such as Matthew Moore, a native Phoenician, whose work with his family’s cornfields addresses issues related to the environment and the rapidly changing backdrop of Phoenix. Other local artists championed by Spiak include Jon Haddock, who makes animations and sculpture using mouse figures; Colin Chillag, a well-known local artist who also shows in L.A.; and Mark Newport, a local artist and professor who knits superhero costumes, and who is a recipient of the prestigious Creative Capital grant.

Last year Spiak and senior curator Heather Lineberry held an ambitious exhibition entitled “New American City.” Encompassing everything from video to sculpture, painting, and installation, the show focused on what it is like to live in a city that is the fifth fastest growing in the country and exemplified by urban sprawl. All of the artists were from the Maricopa County region-a first time effort on the part of a local Phoenix museum to work with and fully support its mature local artists. Spiak also helped create “Dialogue Continues,” a lecture series he began as an offshoot of the exhibit, as well as such virtual online discussion groups as Collective Gesture, an online dialogue initiated in 2003 by artist Sherrie Medina.

There are many ways to define and build an art scene, but money alone cannot do it. There must be both strategy and deep commitment involved. Clearly, there is a steely core of individuals in Phoenix with great and selfless desires to make that happen. Settlers used to clamor through the hills of Arizona looking for gold mines. They still are, but the gold is in downtown Phoenix, and it can be mined in the art galleries, in the bars and cafes, but most of all in the heart and spirit of the individuals whose vision stands up against the odds.