I have heard it time and again, complaints about the Phoenix art scene. Everyone from the run of the mill civilian (There is no real culture in Phoenix), collectors (There aren’t any local artists worth collecting), artists (No one is buying our work or paying attention to us), gallerists (I can’t grow my business, there aren’t any buyers), writers (There is no quality work to pay attention to), art advocates (I don’t get why this artist isn’t more well known), and even museum professionals (There are good artists here?). I have also heard every excuse and theory about why the Phoenix art scene has yet to explode. So, what is the problem?
Around the turn of the century everyone thought Phoenix was on the cusp of becoming the next major cultural hub; business was booming, downtown Phoenix was crawling with raw creative talent, First Fridays were becoming the place for the bourgeoisie to scope out the dark crevices and buy out the next emerging ( I hate that word) artist’s inventory. Major publications wrote about local artists and exhibition spaces; buyers flocked. Artist’s careers bloomed, some left to pursue the big lights, and some stayed. Then, along with the rest of the world, things started to fall apart in 2001! Strikingly, there was still optimism, culminating with the publication of Phoenix: 21st Century City, in 2006.
Eight years later many of the veterans of the local scene are still grasping to the thought that one big advertisement will change everything (Super Bowl XLIX?). After years of quarrel, debate, struggle, local politics, gentrification, and slight successes here and there, the Phoenix art community still finds itself in a state of limbo. There is as always huge support internally. ArtLink still does what it can to make First Fridays an incredible (and necessary) experience and Art Detour is entering its 27th year this weekend. Luckily we have those veteran optimists, and newcomers who have thrown their hats in the ring along with a diverse, vibrant arts community still pushing for the recognition it deserves. But, there is still a problem… or should I say there are many problems that will continue to haunt this community until those involved learn to grow their businesses better.
Side note: None of this should be perceived as an attack on anyone, I am so proud to be part of a community that has stuck it out through the tough times and those that are still here I look up to and admire incredibly. Also, not everyone is doing poorly, but everyone could do better right? My primary point is that there is so much more that can be done, and if the focus is on honing and marketing your craft (artists) and marketing and selling artwork (galleries), it will pay dividends. The arts are an important part of our city, and with the big changes happening downtown we should all make sure that the arts businesses are not pushed out. I believe the key to this is knowing and focusing on business in order to stay viable and compete.
I myself have been on both sides of the fence. I have been pessimistic about the seemingly obvious areas of need that have yet to be rectified (things that many have been screaming from the rooftops for years and have fallen on deaf ears, shout out to Wayne Rainey and Wayne Michael Reich). I am also optimistic about the opportunity that the gap presents, when we are down there is no where to go but up! I moved to Phoenix in 1999 and caught a glimpse of the downtown scene as I finished my undergrad degree at ASU in Art History. I wandered a few First Fridays into decrepit old houses set up as makeshift galleries, some more established buildings that obviously had some one organizing the shows, and even artist studios with live music or the artist themselves painting and conversing with visitors. As I continued to visit I noticed that some of the artists I found impressive disappeared and one night I swear the same artist was showing in 5 or 6 spaces, but who knows, everyone was still splatter painting like they had never heard of Jackson Pollack. I stopped going downtown and pursued more knowledge by volunteering at a Scottsdale gallery that showed a few local and national artists and specialized in the secondary market, where I eventually became the assistant director. During this time I learned that selling art takes tenacity, a willingness to make sure you are noticed—we did so through our marketing and only worked with artwork we knew we could sell (i.e. known artists) and with artists who marketed themselves very well on their own as well. I found the key was getting attention, adapting to trends, making news, and innovating at every turn. But, as we all do, I began to feel stagnant, something was missing that I dearly needed. This, in addition to some personal tragedy caused me to walk away in search of what I was lacking.
I was in the midst of earning my MA in Art History from ASU and I focused on the art of curating and promoting new art. My thesis was on how Alfred Barr promoted modernism to an unknowing public in the early 20th century and inspired me to explore the keys to exhibiting and successfully becoming a trendsetter, finding the hidden talent and enhancing its viability. With my MA in hand I was full of gusto and sought out a venue where I could put my know-how to work. But, they don’t teach you the reality of the art business in school and what I found was a lack of local opportunities for me to begin my career. I ended up in a “job”. I was crushed, deflated, and went through the motions for a few years, started a family, stuck to what I had to be the unfulfilled provider. I thought there had to be more, there had to be a way for me to do what I love and still meet my needs. So, I set out one afternoon to visit some of the spaces I knew of and maybe start writing about local art shows, a simple blog maybe… I ran into a grad school colleague and they suggested I contact the owner of the monOrchid in Phoenix, they were looking for someone to direct the art shows in the space. I had been there, always enjoyed the building and the art they showed, so I made the call from where I was standing, went and met with Wayne Rainey about what they needed and became the gallery director!
Now, I knowingly went into this position without a salary (and blame no one for it never materializing), so it meant working in my free time around my full time job. But I had the opportunity to make something happen, Wayne has such big dreams and a gravitational personality, he makes you believe it can be done! So, we did it—I ignited a program of vibrant work and innovative, challenging exhibitions of local artists, some known some in the very early stages of their careers. We planned to re-launch the nonprofit Shade Projects as a media center for all things art in Phoenix. We thought if no one else is going to do it, we will!
There are two things that will drain the psyche really quickly, no time and no money. These two things are essential to support big dreams and when they are both lacking and affecting your whole person, and that of those around you, the walls start to crumble. I pushed myself, and my family to the limits, and eventually had to step away because of the physical, mental, and financial toll I experienced from doing too much. I took a breath. I repaired the trauma I created. I stepped into the light and took inventory of what I can viably do that will help me and my family while supporting and hopefully building a stronger community. Here I am now. I realized my passion for working with artists and the businesses that support them. I love this city and see the arts community as one of the most impactful factors in the continued growth of the economy. So art(ist)serv is here to help the two most prominent groups in this development—the artists and the art galleries.
In my career I have seen what works and what doesn’t. I have compiled all those ideas along with the history lessons I have received from the important people I met along the way. Combined with my observations, it struck me… there isn’t one problem that is keeping the Phoenix art community from excellence. It is a cluster of controllable and uncontrollable factors that all merged together to create a perfect storm of desperation, indecision, and many searching for answers. Everyone is affected and everyone is at fault—the art schools, the artists, the galleries, the media, the internet, the financial institutions, the government, the public, the museums and art centers, the potential art buyers—all of them! Oh, and I can’t leave out one person, ME. But I also realized that with dedication and training there is still hope! Over the next few weeks I will be posting articles identifying the key areas of challenge for the Phoenix art community, and offer potential solutions, many of which can be overcome through the services I provide for artists and galleries. The groups I will address are:
1 – BUYERS
2 – ARTISTS
3 – GALLERIES
4 – MEDIA
5 – GOVERNMENT
6 – ARTS ORGANIZATIONS AND INSTITUTIONS
7 – ART SCHOOLS
I look forward to sharing my perspective and hope you find value in all of the content I plan to produce—art business tips for artists and galleries, exhibition reviews, artist features, local and national arts news, and resources to explore.
Don’t forget to get out to downtown Phoenix this weekend, March 6-8 for Art Detour and explore our vibrant scene!