Arts Supporters Make Yet Another Attempt To Salvage A Deteriorating Downtown.
By Margaret Regan
IN BETWEEN THE tidy Hotel Lewis and the Tucson Community Cable Corporation downtown, a small parking lot is beginning to take on new art dimensions.
A sinuous rammed earth wall lines the sidewalk along Broadway, and a trio of thriving mesquite trees bend their green boughs around a Ned Egen sculpture, a metallic flower that's been permanently installed. And late into last week, intermittently hampered by the rains, a squad of teenagers was painting a new mural on the TCCC west facade.
Welcome to Art Square, downtown's newest art space, and an oasis of optimism in a Downtown Arts District pockmarked by empty storefronts. Most days, the lot is filled with cars belonging to artists who work in the studios out back, or who live in the low-rent artists' apartments upstairs at the rehabilitated Lewis. This Saturday night, though, the asphalt will metamorphose into an art arena alfresco. Some 35 artists will display--and maybe even sell--their wares there in a new outdoor event called Art Square Fine Art Market.
"Artists need viable, quality outlets," says Claudia Jesperson of the Tucson Arts District, the market's sponsor. "And there's something magical about the site."
The idea is simple: Give artists a designated time and place to plant their fine art, jazz the spot up with music, refreshments and special lights, and wait for the crowds to roll in. If the plan sounds suspiciously like the original scheme for Downtown Saturday Night, it is.
"Downtown Saturday Night started as art openings," agreed Jesperson, sitting in the nearby office of the Arts District Partnership, which runs the twice-a-month Saturday night extravaganza. "Then it changed and teens started dominating."
Galleries were hard-pressed to handle the kids who found downtown a cool place to roam on Downtown Saturday Nights, and art buyers made themselves scarce. Jesperson said the Partnership recently has had some success changing the mix of Downtown Saturday Night, by injecting family programming along the lines of big-band music and street theatre, but the art problem so far hasn't been solved.
"We tried to do an art section in the Ronstadt Transit Center," Jesperson said, "but we kept hearing from artists that, 'One, we don't want to be mixed in with the vendors and craftspeople; and, two, the lighting is a problem.' "
The antidote, the Art Square Fine Art Market, took a test run last April. Despite unseasonably cold weather, people showed up and some artists actually sold work. If it takes off, the market could become a monthly affair, "a new, visual component of Downtown Saturday Night," Jesperson said.
Artists can show at the market by invitation only, so street vendors are weeded out, and the Partnership and the space's landlord, the Business Development Finance Corp., are paying for lights and providing electrical outlets for the artists. New lights on Arizona Avenue, the tiny alley by the old Café Magritte, should help lure people south from Congress to the Broadway location.
A whole welter of other arts events have been carefully planned to coincide with the market. The Catalina Chamber Orchestra will play in the transit center from 7 to 10 p.m. Nearby artists' studios will be open, and so will most of the downtown galleries, including Etherton and Raw galleries on Sixth Avenue, and TCCC and Meliora Gallery next door to Art Square. Central Arts, a hop skip up Broadway, is staging multimedia performances inspired by its current show, Encroachment, a scathing look at the nation's worship of sprawl. Around the corner on Fifth Avenue, Quintessential Theatre will be playing No Exit. (See reviews in this week's Arts section.)
Jesperson acknowledged that the downtown has "hit a low," so she was surprised and pleased that so many artists were enthusiastic about taking a shot at another downtown art scheme. Two artists who helped plan the market, painter and sculptor Susan Kay Johnson-Hannon and photographer Kathryn Wilde, said they will open their studios that evening, Johnson-Hannon at 113 E. Broadway, and Wilde in the Julian Drew annex at Art Square. They're pleased that the market will give local artists a venue to show their work free of charge. And they see it as a sign of hope in an Arts District beset by hard times.
"Energy is up," Johnson-Hannon said. "It's a good time to start something."
Both artists have been living and working downtown a dozen or more years, and they're upset that skyrocketing downtown rents are displacing artists from their old haunts, helping to create an Arts District free of artists. Johnson-Hannon's personal tale is instructive. Like scores of other artists, she lost her first downtown studio when the buildings at Sixth and Congress were demolished to make way for the Ronstadt Transit Center. She moved a block South to Broadway, and has been paying steadily increasing rents ever since.
Besides the high costs, "We have problems with the homeless and the alternative kids' stuff (teen programs headquartered downtown)," she said. After a teen got pushed through her plate glass windows, she had to install expensive metal gates. Now, despite all her years of commitment to downtown, she's ready to go. She's looking to buy a place of her own, in the Dunbar/Spring neighborhood just north of the tracks.
Wilde sees the artists coming together as evidence that hope springs eternal. "I feel positive. (Art Square) has a synergy. It's bigger than the individual artists."
"I can't stand a lot of the things happening downtown," she said. "They make me angry. But this will be like reclaiming our community. Our Arts District."
The Art Square Art Market will run from 4 to 9 p.m., Saturday, September 19. Art Square is at 186 E. Broadway, at Arizona Alley, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Admission is free and free parking is available in the lot across the street. Turban Jones Band provides music. If it rains, the market will be postponed. For more information, call 624-9977 during regular business hours.
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