DINNERTIME: Dinnerware, says artist Pat Dolan, is "a rite of passage for artists in Tucson. You get your MFA, you go through Dinnerware. It's a hit parade of artists."
Dinnerware, of course, is not a set of dishes--though legend has it that the gallery got its name from a store marquee advertising exactly that. Dolan, an artist who's lived for years at Rancho Linda Vista, is talking about Dinnerware Artists' Cooperative Gallery, the Congress Street space that's as much of an institution as an alternative art space can be. Now almost 16 years old, the gallery has at one time or another had on its membership lists such Tucson luminaries as painters Jim Waid, Bailey Doogan and Bruce McGrew, photographers Frances Murray and Harold Jones, and sculptors Barbara Grygutis and Fred Borcherdt.
While those artists have decamped to fame and fortune, right now art newcomers have a chance to take some open slots on the membership roster. The gallery is conducting its annual "roster-screening." Artistic hopefuls need to get in an application, 10 slides of recent work and a resume to the gallery by May 26. Applicants get judged by a "blind" jury of current members.
There's no guarantee that membership will propel a young artist's career onto the national scene, but members do get substantial benefits. Every third year, each artist gets a one-person exhibition. In the intervening years, each member gets to be part of a three-person show. The gallery is so large that even these joint shows accommodate a large body of work from each of the three artists showing. And besides the obvious advantages of getting the chance to exhibit, membership can offer other intangibles.
"It sort of forces me to keep working," says Annalee Poe, a printmaker who joined a year and a half ago after earning her MFA at the UA in May 1993. "I've been in two group shows and I have a solo show in a year. That's a good motivator. I work full time and I'm just as inclined when I get home to read a book as to go to my studio. (Being a Dinnerware member) keeps me feeling sort of ambitious."
Other artists sign up to overcome the isolation of the studio.
"For me it was a great way to meet other artists," says Hoge Day. A painter of mixed-media works who belonged from 1990 to 1994, Day now shows at the prestigious Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale. "I grew up here but I went away to school. When I came back after college, I just wasn't meeting any other artists. Plus it was a great way for me to show in Tucson."
Dolan, who has the odd double speciality of pastels and installation, belonged to Dinnerware from 1992 to 1994. She says that since the place is a co-op and non-profit to boot, "You can do things there that you can't do in a commercial gallery. In my first year at Dinnerware I did 'frame art.' The second year I did an installation. A commercial gallery wouldn't want that."
Unlike a lot of new members, Dolan was already an established artist when she signed up. "But Dinnerware gave me another audience. I got another view of the art world."
The reasons that these artists give for joining are exactly the ones the founders articulated on a hot afternoon in 1979.
"This all started at The Shanty," remembers painter Judith D'Agostino. Now the education director at the Tucson Museum of Art, D'Agostino has been a downtown arts mover and shaker for years, involving herself in all kinds of projects with the Tucson Arts Coalition and other groups. She was in Dinnerware for a total of eight years, in two different time chunks. "A bunch of us used to just meet, have a couple beers and talk about art. I think it was Chris Larsen (watercolorist James C. Larsen) who came in and said, 'Hey, there's a space on Congress. I know a woman, a lawyer, who wants to do a gallery.' "
And so it was. The artists signed up their friends and opened Dinnerware on Congress Street in a space shared with attorney Debra Hillary. Formerly a market vending ceramic dishes, the original gallery is now occupied by Café Magritte. The fledgling operation, which early established a rep for performance art and other puzzling genres, later moved east to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Congress.
"It was a great space with a wooden floor but women would put their heels through the floor because of the termites," D'Agostino says. "We had to move again because the gallery kept getting hit by cars."
In 1987, the gallery switched to its third and present space at 135 E. Congress, through a deal with the Downtown Development Corporation. The DDC guarantees that the building will remain an art space and not turn into still another high-priced boutique.
It's taken a lot of work to keep the gallery going--committee work, organizing regularly scheduled non-member shows, serving at openings, banging nails and painting walls. For some years now there's been a full-time gallery manager to handle many of the tasks that fell to early members. Even so, some artists find that the demands on their time outweigh the benefits of membership and don't stick around too long.
"It's a tremendous amount of work," Dolan acknowledges. But both Dolan and Day both say that the grinding membership duties have taught them some unexpected new skills: everything there is to know about fundraising and grantsmanship.
Adds the enthusiastic Poe: "Even when the work's a pain, I always feel good when I walk out of there."
For an application and more information call gallery manager Nora Kuehl at 792-4503.
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