FOR A ABOUT a dozen years, the combo toy-and-clothing shop Yikes!/Picante occupied the big corner storefront at Congress Street and Fifth Avenue, its glass windows filled with cheap but clever playthings, handmade duds and ethnic arts.
It was just the kind of artsy retail that helped make the Arts District distinctive. So when owner Hazel Rugg decamped up Broadway Boulevard last winter, the building's glaring emptiness was like a wound, a visual reproach to a downtown struggling to turn around. But things are looking up. Since October 1, the space has been occupied again, by a brand-new gallery, and the artists in its premiere show are no slackers.
Consider Lenore Towney, an elder stateswoman of American art, a pioneer in making sculptures out of fiber, who currently has four elegant collages on the wall, beautifully composed small-scale works that combine watercolor, old illustrations and fragments of texts. Chicago painter Ben Mahmoud is exhibiting a hyper-realist acrylic painting, depicting an apple so true to life that a baby riding by in a backpack one recent afternoon reached out to grab it. Singer Buffy Sainte-Marie has covered a whole wall with three giant digitalized photos, combining Native American themes -- one has a row of teepees in a neon Western landscape -- with the latest in art technology.
In fact, 43 artists from around the country are showing at the Gallery of Contemporary and Indigenous Art, Gocaia for short. Downtown's latest arts space is the brainchild of Moira Marti Geoffrion, a sculptor, UA art prof and former head of the art department. Seated in a chair in the freshly painted space, the broad windows flooding her cheerful face with light, Geoffrion explains that the new gallery's mission is twofold:
"To bring more quality art into town and to bring art that people might not otherwise see," she says. "And to help revitalize downtown and to get people who don't usually come down here."
Geoffrion explains that the building's new owner, Mick Williams, wanted something arts-related, and his inquiries among local artists led him to her.
"People said to him, 'Call Moira.' "
He did, and she was game. Geoffrion was an old hand in the gallery biz, having served last year as president of Central Arts Collective, a gallery for local emerging artists, and for a half-dozen years in the 1980s as director of Isis, an Indiana gallery. And she'd often organized shows at the UA and written essays for catalogs.
"I met with Mick and told him I thought I could make something happen here."
Geoffrion quickly got on the phone with her art contacts in Tucson and around the country, and invited slides for a premiere show that would be a broad sampling of current art trends. True to the gallery's title, the first exhibition is strong on Native American artists who work in contemporary styles. One of its more interesting newcomers is Melanie Yazzie, a Navajo printmaker who recently joined the UA faculty. Yazzie does unabashedly political work examining the gap between Indian stereotypes and Indian reality. "She Keeps Silent," a mixed-media work, features a young Navajo woman wrapped in a shawl. Floating around her are a mix of offensive Little Indian cartoons and geometric Navajo designs, but she's unable to comment on them: a red X has been painted across her mouth.
The gallery will be a non-profit organization and the money to open it came from a number of sources. Landlord Williams contributed, and so did both Geoffrion and her husband. The Gallery Recruitment Program, an innovative Tucson Arts District Partnership project, provided $15,000.
"It's basically a forgivable loan to entice galleries to locate downtown," explains Sarah Clements, executive director of the Partnership. "It could be a new gallery or a second location downtown" for a gallery that's already operating elsewhere. "It's an arts-based program to help fill up some of the vacancy on Congress Street."
Galleries receiving the money are supposed to stay in place for three years; if they do, they don't have to pay back the loan. Clements says the program was funded by a $25,000 grant from the city; the remaining $10,000 went to help DC/Harris Gallery on Sixth Avenue and to pay for a new marketing brochure extolling all of downtown's galleries. Despite its successes, the city has not recommended the project for funding in the new fiscal year, Clements says, though it was endorsed by the Citizens' Downtown Advisory Committee.
"I'm still hopeful we can find some money to continue the program," Clements adds. "It helps us build up the market, little things at a time."
Geoffrion says the new gallery intends to be a good neighbor downtown. She's invited local non-profit boards to use the place at night for meetings, and two groups have already planned high teas in the space. The International Film Festival has been invited to set up its office in a back room. She envisions collaborations with such established galleries as Dinnerware and Raw, staging theme shows and evening events that would help bring the arts crowds in. "Right now people come down for outdoor music and events," she points out. "It would be nice to have an Art Crawl," similar to the Club Crawl that draws alternative music fans by the thousands.
Gocaia also plans to do charity fund-raisers. The opening event, a concert by Sainte-Marie at the Rialto, raised money for Cradle Board, a Native American educational project that establishes links between Indian schools and city schools around the country. Other groups closer to home will come in for some cash as well. "We want to raise money for the Fox and for the American Indian Graduate Center," says Geoffrion, who plans a fundraising fashion show in March.
Clements, accustomed to the weariness of longtime downtowners, is delighted to have the enthusiastic Geoffrion as the new kid on the block. "It's a beautiful space," she says. "Moira has a lot of good energy and ideas. That's the kind of thing that will turn downtown around."