Toole Shed artists celebrate a decade of downtown revitalization.

When the Tucson City Council approved and funded a plan in 1988 to develop the Downtown Arts District, the idea that art galleries and arts organizations could pull people and businesses into the city's center seemed not only possible, but likely. To make it happen, many government and private organizations were created to foster the arts through loans, grants and other programs.

Today, Congress Street's empty storefronts and the city's commitment to Rio Nuevo, a new urban renewal plan, are testaments to the failure of the Arts District to yet revitalize downtown. But one arena in which the Arts District has succeeded is in helping to provide studio space for artists.

Now there are over 250 artists' studios in the greater downtown area, including the Warehouse District and Armory Park. One of the oldest is Toole Shed Studios. In 1991, under the auspices of the Tucson Arts Coalition, four Tucsonans set out to create studio spaces by renting an empty warehouse at 197 E. Toole Ave. from the Arizona Department of Transportation. They financed the renovations with funds from an arts-based development loan program offered by the Tucson Arts District Partnership, according to Dave Lewis, one of the founders of Toole Shed Studios.

In May 1992, Lewis and his longtime friend James Graham got the keys to the warehouse. With Julia Latané and Jon Laswick, they spent three months renovating the space. As Lewis says, "Four of us all spent most every day here: mopping and patching leaks, tearing out really, really filthy carpeting with the help of people who were in rehab and parolees. It was a rogues' gallery of ex-cons and addicts." The result was 15 studios where artists can come in at any hour of the day or night and work in privacy, whether they're developing photographs or welding steel sculpture.

Now Toole Shed Studios is celebrating its decade anniversary with a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art's HazMat Gallery. SPITE: 10 Years of the Toole Shed was curated by Lewis and Graham, and the exhibition features both recent and older work by 27 artists who have worked at Toole Shed Studios through the years. According to Graham, artists have stayed and worked at the Toole Shed for everything from one month to 10 years. For him, the heart of the retrospective is "the quality of craft." As he says, "There are many different aesthetics. There are many different styles and genres and things. It's very, very craft oriented and very strong in its fabrication."

The exhibition does include almost every medium in two and three dimensions. There's everything from Kelly Morris' "Stigmata," a postmodern painting of Christ as a diver in flippers, to Dave Lewis' "Megaphone," a truly mega-sized megaphone constructed of steel and mounted on a tall pole. Latané's forest of "Bamboo" features 13 thick, 7-foot stalks standing in the gallery's center--only the stalks are made of stuffed vinyl in baby blue and pale chartreuse.

John Poole's "Le Wolf or The End of the Breakfast Club" is a wonderfully surreal contraption of handcrafted wood and cast bronze. The form is based on a broken, faceless clock, and it uses cranks, tiny leather ropes, an open box, a face and a telephone receiver to suggest the passage of time and the opening of memories.

This is the first time the Toole Shed artists have ever shown together, and it is interesting to see artwork from what has become a fixture of Tucson's art community brought out and exhibited in one place. It's no coincidence that the Toole Shed's retrospective is showing at HazMat, its next-door neighbor. Both the studio space and the gallery are now part of the Museum of Contemporary Art, although this was not always true in the Toole Shed's case.

MOCA was started in 1997 by Graham, Latané and David Wright. For a year, MOCA was an organization on paper only. According to Lewis, the Toole Shed had originally planned to turn the warehouse space at 191 E. Toole Ave. into more studios, but MOCA needed a space and the Toole Shed didn't need another project. Not only did some of the same artists renovate the HazMat space, but they soon moved the Toole Shed under MOCA's umbrella. For Graham, after the Toole Shed's success in creating spaces for artists to work, MOCA and then HazMat were the next logical steps to provide a nonprofit space where artists could exhibit contemporary art.

MOCA's latest renovation project is the building across the street from HazMat and Toole Shed at 174 E. Toole Ave. What used to be the Pleasure World adult theater is being transformed into Arcadia, a space with six artists' studios. These "quiet studios," as Lewis calls them, are going to be devoted to painters and other artists who don't need the Toole Shed's noisy welding and steel-working facilities.

For Graham, all of MOCA's spaces are concrete proof of the influence of art in urban renewal. He says, "The HazMat building, the Toole Shed building, the Arcadia building: the only thing you could use them for was a porno store. Industry didn't want them because it's not a good industrial zone anymore ... It's not good retail ... There's no demand right now and (in) the foreseeable future for tearing those down for building a development. There's really no better thing that you can do with these buildings than make art spaces."

Even from his new home in Los Angeles, Graham is an advocate for the role of the arts in downtown Tucson. (Graham and Latané, who are married, moved to the larger art market of L.A. last fall.) As an example, he points out that many of the 300 people who attended SPITE's opening reception on June 8 spent money downtown before or after the event. For Graham, even the artists in the studios in the Toole Shed have an impact the way small businesses would. The artists are eating meals, paying for parking, buying supplies and bringing visitors downtown, he says.

For Lewis, Toole Shed Studios is not so much about the community as about the individual artist. He says, "For the most part, people come here to make art. Some people come here, you know, on their lunch hour and paint a little, and then come back in the evening and paint, and then come back at night and do their laundry and paint for however long it takes to do your family's laundry. And other people clock in at 9 o'clock (in the morning) ... . We also feel that our good work is in some sense a credit to the institution. In another sense, it is simply the most important thing: good art."