Rebirth Again

Dinnerware moves yet again, this time into a refurbished Warehouse District space

Late last week, the new Dinnerware space still looked like a construction site.

Metal scaffolding stood in the middle of the worn wooden floor. Debris was piled high underneath the second-story loft. A tall gash cut through the sheet rock on one long wall, and all the walls were aching for a coat of paint.

But David Aguirre, board president, and Sarah Hardesty, the new executive director of the nonprofit space, couldn't have been more pleased.

"We're going to get this up to exhibition status in a week," Aguirre said confidently. "All we have to do is finish the walls, do the painting, put up the lights and then do the big sweep."

The place has to be spic and span at the latest by Saturday night, when a champagne and fried-chicken reception will celebrate the gallery's re-opening. But Hardesty had an even tighter deadline. Michael Sherwin and Peter HappelChristian, the two photographers in the new space's inaugural exhibition, were scheduled to start installing their work by Wednesday.

"We'll have it ready in two days," Hardesty said, one-upping Aguirre's timeline.

It's been just two years since the Dinnerware folks last rolled up their sleeves and cleaned up a disheveled space. The new digs in the historic Steinfeld Warehouse will be the third home for the 26-year-old Dinnerware in as many years. Back in 2003, former directors sold the longtime space at 135 E. Congress St. (a sale Aguirre calls a "tragedy") and moved to rental property on Fourth Avenue.

The board decided to vacate the former flower shop on Fourth at the end of the lease this summer and move west, to a 1,200-square foot slot in the sprawling Steinfeld, at Sixth Street and Ninth Avenue. (Artist Miles Conrad is opening a new gallery in the vacated Fourth Avenue location.)

"I never was excited about the Fourth Avenue space," Aguirre said. But Aguirre is famously excited about the Warehouse District. A ceramic sculptor, he manages the Steinfeld and several other warehouses (the Arizona Department of Transportation still owns them, having bought them up for a highway project years ago), and he's on the board of WAMO, the Warehouse Arts Management Organization. He has his own studio in the Steinfeld, along with numerous other local artists, including painters Cynthia Miller and Bettina Fink, book artist and poet Charles Alexander and Chax Press, the artisans of Alamo Woodworks, and Nora Kuehl, another Dinnerware board member and Aguirre's life partner.

So when sculptor Ed Davenport left his Steinfeld studio, the Dinnerware board jumped at the chance to take the vacancy. The board likes the creative pairing of the gallery "retail front with the artists' studios behind," Aguirre said. The Alamo Woodworks occasionally puts exhibitions into the space right next to the new Dinnerware, and Aguirre is hoping to lure one or more other galleries to Steinfeld in the future.

In addition, Nimbus Brewery has been consulting with artists about putting a microbrewery across Ninth Avenue to the east, he said.

"That would be exciting and positive," Hardesty said. "With us here, the studios over there, the Museum of Contemporary Art nearby and other galleries," the Warehouse District could get even livelier.

Hardesty, on the job just since early August, replaces Blake Shell, who moved over to the UA to manage the Joseph Gross Gallery. The new director has a brand-new MFA in painting from the UA, and she's had a good bit of artistic success locally. She got a piece into this summer's Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art, and she shows at Platform Gallery. She was one of five artists in a video installation at the old Dinnerware in May.

She believes the new space will make a congenial home for experimental work.

"We want to provide a space for artists to push their work in new directions," she explained said. "The 50-foot wall is exciting. It lends itself to be open to different kinds of works--video, installation."

Case in point is the first show, which features two photographers who challenge the "false documentation" of their medium. The pair both trained in the University of Oregon master's program; HappelChristian now lives in Tucson, where he's shown at Metroform (now defunct), Dinnerware, TMA and the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

Long and narrow, the new Dinnerware venue will stage exhibitions on the first floor; an artists' resource center, complete with computers, will line the second floor. An entry area will offer "flat exhibitions" of work in a large filing cabinet, and student interns from Pima and the UA will staff the desk. Aguirre said the gallery will offer frequent workshops to help artists negotiate their way through the arts biz.

Longtime Dinnerware patrons can expect to see some familiar traditions from the past. The annual art auction, the gallery's most important fundraiser-cum-party, will be held this year on Saturday, Oct. 22.

The new location is the most visible change at Dinnerware, but alterations in its governing structure may be just as significant. Local artists--including icons Jim Waid and Judith D'Agostino--created Dinnerware 26 years ago as an artists' cooperative gallery. Member artists helped run the place, working long volunteer hours and getting regular shows in exchange. The gallery long boasted of being the longest-lived artists' co-op in the country, and membership became a rite of passage for young Tucson artists. No more.

Dinnerware is still a nonprofit, but since 2004, it has been run not by member artists but by a board of directors and an executive director. Artists aspiring to show their work must past muster with an exhibitions committee headed by Hardesty. If they're selected, they'll pay $800 to cover the costs of mounting the show and publicizing it, and feeding the fans who come to the opening.

Some old-timers are disgruntled by the loss of the co-op, but Aguirre countered that board members voted for the new format change because "we wanted to show more exciting work." Under the old system, the gallery showed primarily members' work, with a few exceptions. The new system "opens it up to other artists." And with members paying a fee of about $50 a month, finances had grown precarious, so much so that the gallery lost its Congress Street building.

"This way, we'll try to show more artists' work and pay our bills. It's about sustainability," Aguirre said.

Besides Aguirre, the current board includes a slate of artists: Kuehl, who worked about 10 years in the 1990s as Dinnerware's director; painter Laura LaFave, a longtime member; graphic artist Tom Baumgartner, a more recent member; and sculptor James Cook, a UA art prof. Aguirre was never a member, but as Kuehl's partner, he often lent a hand as a "spousal slave."

LaFave and Kuehl, he said, "provide the history of the place." But he's glad to have the 20-something Hardesty handling daily operations.

"The people on the board are beginning to be old fogies," he said, only half-joking. "Sarah brings the next generation in."

Hardesty said she's well aware that the gallery has had its ups and downs. But "growth comes from that," she said. "Hardships make it stronger. Positive things are happening."