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Members With a Mission 

A reorganized Dinnerware celebrates 25 years with its fund-raising auction

Judith D'Agostino and Blake Shell have their art hanging practically side by side at the Dinnerware auction show.

D'Agostino's "Borderlands XX" is a souped-up Southwest landscape, its thick oils tracing out Monument Valley-style peaks and ridges in sunset rusts and sky blues. Big and lush, it's enclosed by a painted canvas "frame" of abstracted canyon colors, its reds bleeding to orange and gold.

Working a completely different aesthetic, Shell's cool to D'Agostino's hot. Her small, slick mixed-media piece post-modernly mixes text and image. An ambiguous photographic fragment, possibly the curve of a woman's body, rolls across the lower half of her work on paper. Words printed in yellow hover above.

Their artworks may be polar opposites, but the two women who created them have something in common: They book-end the 25-year history of Dinnerware Contemporary Arts Gallery. D'Agostino, an accomplished Tucson artist, was one of a gang of relative unknowns who schemed at The Shanty over beers one evening a quarter-century ago, plotting to create the cooperative gallery. Tucson newcomer Shell, a brand-new Dinnerware member as of last spring, hopes she'll be the one to revitalize the place. The Dinnerware board hired Shell as its latest director two months ago.

"I'm a new one," she said cheerfully in the gallery last week. "Dinnerware is ready for some changes. It's a good place. Dinnerware can expand services to artists and the community. We need to figure out what we can be beyond the gallery."

Photographer Shell arrived in Tucson from Georgia last winter. Fortified with a recent master's from Savannah College of Art and Design, she ran two different galleries in Savannah. She owned Pics, where she showed "contemporary art, all mediums, with an edge," and she was the volunteer director of Oglethorpe Row, a nonprofit similar to Dinnerware.

Shell's first order of business at Dinnerware is the annual auction, the main fund-raiser each year. Set for Saturday, Oct. 23, the auction will offer for bid some 86 works of donated art in every medium. The paintings, sculpture, photographs, ceramics, prints and glass works are from a variety of artists old and new, from former Dinnerware members like Cynthia Miller, Laura LaFave and Betina Fink, and from Dinnerware's 10 current members.

New member Barbara Brandel has been known in Tucson for years for her sophisticated weavings and cloth art, but she's chosen Dinnerware to debut her new foray into painting. "The Explanation," a cheerful pattern painting in black squiggles against red-orange, owes a little bit to her previous silk designs and a little bit to Keith Haring-like doodles. Gonzalo Espinosa, another new member who right now has a suite of paintings on view at the Arizona State Museum, shows "Paper Dolls," a riff on Spanish conquistadors. Dinnerware's member president, Tom Baumgartner, shows his painting "Clouds." All the artworks will be on view during the gallery's regular hours until auction night.

"I'm excited about the auction," said Shell, who notes that the gala includes a dinner by El Charro and The Flying Saucer, Fourth Avenue's newest café, and offerings from The Shanty, for old time's sake.

Though Dinnerware relies heavily on the proceeds from the annual October auction, the gallery hasn't had one in two years. Last year's co-directors, Mauricio Toussaint and Lucinda Young, decided against staging an auction, in part because Dinnerware had recently weathered fairly major upheavals. The gallery had just sold its longtime building on Congress Street (now the Wilde Playhouse) and moved into rental quarters on Fourth Avenue. And it had suffered a changing roster of directors and financial woes.

"Dinnerware has had problems that are typical of nonprofits," Shell said. "I can't comment on what has and hasn't worked in the past, but Dinnerware has made it past some important humps. Twenty-five years is substantial. We did some research, and we're one of the oldest (member galleries) in the country. We found maybe two others. The key is for Dinnerware to keep re-inventing itself."

Dinnerware has managed feats of re-invention more than once. The founding members, who included James C. Larsen, Jim Waid, Fred Borcherdt and David Hoyt Johnson, along with D'Agostino and others, first set up shop in a lawyer's storefront office on Congress. There really was dinnerware in its genealogy: The former occupant had been a retail dinnerware shop selling ceramic plates and cups. (That space is now Irene's Peruvian restaurant.) Next stop was at Fifth Avenue and Congress, and then 135 E. Congress St., the storefront the gallery bought and kept for years.

Membership became a rite of passage for young Tucson artists; some of its more famous alumni are Waid, Barbara Grygutis, the late Bruce McGrew, Bailey Doogan and Alfred Quiroz. But over the years, many complained of the onerous load of volunteer work the co-op set-up required.

As a result, last year the structure was changed. From a co-op gallery with work obligations, Dinnerware evolved into a "members gallery whose artists pay a monthly fee," Shell said.

Shell is a full-time paid staffer, and she gets assistance, not from artists but from interns, both paid and volunteer. Member artists used to sit on the board, but no longer. The trustees now are an independent group, separate from the artists. Among the trustees is Nora Kuehl, Dinnerware's longest-serving executive director, whose 11-year tenure lasted from 1989 to 2000. David Aguirre, the ceramic artist who also manages artists' studio warehouses downtown, is on the board, too.

"The board is really strong," Shell said. "They have a good knowledge of Dinnerware's past and present. They're our biggest strength."

Once the auction is out of the way, Shell and the board hope to get more members, put on more project and theme shows and go after more grants. Already in the planning stages is a new First Nights program for galleries in the Tucson Central Galleries Association. The idea is for all the downtown galleries to open their doors in the evening on the first Saturday of every month.

"We're already doing it, and so are Platform and 3Falk," she said. "Everybody should be on board by January."

But for now, Shell is concentrating on the auction, and she's mindful of one venerable Dinnerware tradition as she prepares. Kuehl was famous for her glamorous appearance at the annual festivities, each year wearing a spectacular dress.

"I've already picked my dress out," Shell said. And most importantly, "It passed the Nora test."

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