Roaring Twenty

Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery Celebrates Twenty Outstanding Years.

EIGHT PAINTINGS BY Joanne Kerrihard fill the niche at the Davis Dominguez Gallery. They're small, dreamy affairs, oil on canvas and panel, painted in greens and ambers. Circus poles drift through vague background landscapes, plums and pears glisten in the foregrounds.

Kerrihard, one of the more recent artists to join the commercial gallery of Davis Dominguez, used to be with Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, the artists' cooperative. No hard feelings though.

"Joanne Kerrihard is typical of our artists," says Gary Swimmer, Dinnerware's acting executive director. "She was here probably five years. Collectors began buying her work. Davis Dominguez picked her up. You step up a rung. It's time to move on."

An unusual four-venue show celebrating Dinnerware's 20th anniversary demonstrates just how many artists have climbed up the Dinnerware ladder over the last two decades. Dinnerware at Twenty divides the work of some 70 artists, all of them current or past members, among Hazmat Gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Davis Dominguez and Dinnerware itself. The names of the artists showing read like a Who's Who of major Tucson artists: Jim Waid, Barbara Grygutis, Bruce McGrew, Bailey Doogan, Cynthia Miller, Alfred Quiroz, Gail Marcus-Orlen, Fred Borcherdt and so on. But, in typical Dinnerware fashion, the shows also highlight the work of young up-and-comers, the likes of assemblage artist Herb Stratford and of Cindi Laukes, a painter who's showing three dazzling mixed-media works at Dinnerware.

"It's inspiring to get reminded of how many people went through Dinnerware -- almost anywhere you look in the contemporary art world in Tucson," Swimmer says. "No one's going to say that Dinnerware made any of these artists, but maybe we gave them a leg up. People have done pretty well."

The story's often been told of how Dinnerware was conceived over some beers at The Shanty back in 1979. A group of artists would get together regularly to ponder their work over a few cold ones.

"A bunch of us used to just meet, have a couple of beers and talk about art," painter Judith D'Agostino recalled during the 15th anniversary celebration. "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.' "

The founding members -- D'Agostino, Larsen, Miller, Waid, Borcherdt, Robert Boss, Tom Cosgrove, Pamela Marks, Greg Benson, Dean Narcho, David Hoyt Johnson, George Ehnat and Rene Verdugo -- set up shop in the law offices of Debra Hillary. The first Dinnerware building, now occupied by Irene's Peruvian restaurant, actually had been a dinnerware store selling ceramic cups and plates. The early years set the pattern for Dinnerware activities: member shows were mixed in with "project exhibitions" of, say, Native American photographers, and spiced up by performance art and poetry readings.

After a second stop at a storefront at Fifth Avenue and Congress Street, Dinnerware alighted in its permanent location at 135 E. Congress St. For years, the gallery had a deal with its landlord, the Downtown Development Corporation, to preserve the building as a permanent art space.

Photographer Alan Huerta, a 10-year-member who left just last year, says he long pushed for Dinnerware to buy the building, but he credits former executive director Nora Kuehl with pulling off its purchase.

"It was Nora who did the footwork," Huerta says, enlisting the help of finance man Larry Paul. And it was Kuehl "who got the money for the facade program." That $10,000 matching grant, funneled through the city and administered by the Tucson Downtown Alliance, will pay for a re-do of the gallery's street-side facade this summer.

At 11 years, Kuehl had the longest run of any of the gallery's executive directors, and her departure just a month ago injected some controversy into the 20th anniversary celebrations. Swimmer, a former artist-member who's holding the job temporarily, praised Kuehl's long years of advocacy for Tucson artists.

"It's a big testament to Nora that she did 11 or 12 shows a year, got grants, made countless contributions," Swimmer says, but he cites a "lack of chemistry" between Kuehl and the current board, made up entirely of member-artists. The tension was worsened by a disappointing take at last October's auction, the gallery's main annual fundraiser.

"Dinnerware is going to miss Nora," Huerta says. "She was a very important person, as executive director and as liaison to the community. I hope whoever takes Nora's place can fill those shoes."

Kuehl could not be reached for comment. Swimmer says the board intends to conduct a national search for a new director. In the meantime, he sees the transition as an opportunity to recharge the gallery's programs.

"Tucson is a very rapidly growing town," he says. "The new people are bicoastal and sensitive to contemporary art. New places are opening up: Hazmat, Gocaia Gallery among the nonprofits, and Robert Pearre, Elizabeth Cherry and the new galleries at Campbell and Skyline (among the commercial galleries). Dinnerware has a specific niche, but at our 20th anniversary we can reconfigure our identity, redefine ourselves. So we don't become an afterthought but an active, vital part of the new wave."

Swimmer has cooked up a scheme with Elizabeth Cherry to have some of the cutting-edge curators and artists affiliated with her Grant Road gallery come down to Dinnerware to give talks. He wants the gallery to help its members' careers by developing stronger contacts with out-of-state galleries, figure out new and better ways to raise money while at the same time remaining faithful to its commitment to art out of the mainstream.

"It's important that we not shy away from provocative art. The nice thing about a little place," he concludes, "is you can do a lot."

Dinnerware at Twenty continues at four venues. A show of 26 artists continues through Saturday, March 25, at Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, 135 E. Congress St. (792-4503). Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

The University of Arizona Museum of Art (621-5767) continues its exhibition of 10 artists through Sunday, April 2. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The museum is located at the south end of the pedestrian underpass at Speedway Boulevard and Park Avenue.

Hazmat Gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, 191 E. Toole Ave. (624-5019), continues a show of 29 artists through Saturday, April 8. Gallery hours are 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Davis Dominguez Gallery, 154 E. Sixth St. (629-9759), continues a show of seven Dinnerware alumni currently represented by the gallery through Saturday, April 15. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Dinnerware hosts a series of free artist lectures in conjunction with the exhibitions. Bailey Doogan, Joseph Labate, Catherine Nash and Ann Simmons-Myers give a talk at 7 p.m. Friday, March 24, at Dinnerware Gallery, 135 E. Congress St. Joanne Kerrihard speaks at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 25, at Davis Dominguez Gallery, 154 E. Sixth St. Gary Benna, Laura LaFave and Frances Murray lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 30, at Hazmat Gallery, 191 E. Toole Ave.

Alfred Quiroz moderates a panel discussion on "Measuring Success in the Visual Arts" at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at Dinnerware Gallery. Speakers include Cynthia Miller, Jeff Falk, Elizabeth Cherry and Roberto Bedoya, director of the National Association of Artists Organizations.