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Artists on Fire

When the French government moved to eliminate unemployment support for artists, the demonstrators who took to the streets with giant puppets, musical instruments and circus routines put on a show that made headlines around the world. When affairs between the city of Tucson and the artists of downtown's warehouse district became what Paul Weir calls "jumbled," Weir and others staged the first annual Warehouse Arts Festival--an evening of performances and events free to the community.

Those two examples clearly demonstrate the very reason we, as a broader community, need art communities around: In interpreting the world through eyes that seek beauty--or at least truth--they cannot help but give back.

Weir--an organizer of the festival, member of the pyrotechnic performance group Flam Chen and vice president of the Tucson Arts Coalition, which represents the 300-400 artists of the warehouse district--says a great deal of progress has been made since his group hosted the first festival.

"That first festival was created as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the state of affairs with the city of Tucson," he says. "What was going on as far as the 35 buildings downtown that house the artist community was cause for consolidation, so the first festival was meant as a sort of rallying of support. We got the idea to present a free, outdoor, evening-length festival that people could witness without any pressure to stay, and regardless of whether they paid or didn't pay. We wanted to give our community a gift back, and give other people a chance to be a part of that.

"But now," Weir continues, "I think we're (the artists and the city) on the same page; we're all seeing downtown in the same spectrum. There are still some steps I'd like to see manifest, but we're certainly sharing more of a common vision."

In that spirit, The Tucson Pima Arts Council is actually a co-presenter of the second annual Warehouse Arts Festival, "Creative City," along with the Arizona Commission on the Arts and It's Happening Downtown. And Weir's TAC now has an offshoot called WAMO (Warehouse Arts Management Organization) that was created with city of Tucson representatives.

"WAMO has basically the same constituency as TAC," says Weir, "but TAC is grassroots and WAMO was created with the city of Tucson and the arts commission, to ensure that the city feels happy with their participation in it and that things stay within a certain tolerance. Which is good for the whole community, since it needs to be engaged to ensure that artists can afford to stay in these buildings as property values rise, and hopefully be able to build on that in the future."

Weir also serves as artist-at-large on WAMO's board, which includes representatives from the artistic community, city of Tucson, real estate industry, neighborhood associations and other organizations.

The artists represented by TAC have been installed in warehouse district buildings for almost 20 years; the mission of TAC is, in Weir's words, "to preserve the artistic heritage of the warehouse district for the next 100 years." A great deal of what it'll take to make that happen is, not surprisingly, the antithesis of art--paperwork.

"We need to work on leases on the buildings, stabilizing the community on paper," says Weir, whose own profession background includes aerial dance, rock climbing, Butoh theatre and fire-spinning/-spitting/-eating. "We need to make it difficult to dislodge us just because some developer wants to turn the buildings into high-end living space."

Not that the artists of TAC want downtown to stagnate--far from it.

"I've watched Tucson go through different waves," says Weir, "like mini-renaissances. But then it all dies, goes under the table. This time, there really seems to be something going on. When you see buildings getting knocked down, you know there are actual funds behind that, and this is the first time I'm seeing that actually happen."

What TAC and arts commission reps realize is that a vibrant artistic community is absolutely vital to a vibrant downtown, and exactly the sort of things that makes property values rise as residents and businesses seek to get closer to the action. Weir points to a new pro-neighborhood block grant for a sculpture walk between MOCA and Solar Culture on Toole Avenue, as well as projects like the one scattering luminarias around downtown. "Everything like that brings attention to what's happening here," says Weir. "We have all this incredible talent, and I think it's just getting better."

The second annual Warehouse Arts Festival will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 12, at the Franklin Street Docks on the northwest corner of Stone Avenue and Franklin Street.

"It's going to be a four-hour-long amazing array of diverse talent," Weir promises, "from these Japanese dancers called Suzuyuki Kai to Tesoro Flamenco, the kinetic sculpture/spoken word of Mat Bevel, the Odaiko Sonora taiko troupe, theatrical magic by Sarlot and Eyde, Flam Chen pyrotechnic theatre group, Tucson Puppetworks, the Dambe Project African drum corps, and the special guests are these artists I met from the warehouse district in Montreal--these three fire-performing goddesses called Les Walkyries."

Hard to believe it's all free, right? Call 792-3262 for additional information.

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