Getting Toole'd

Tucson's MOCA gives artists the boot

Charting the diaspora of downtown artists is like scorekeeping for Russian roulette: In the end, it's a damned lonely job. And culprits behind this grim exodus are many, from high rents and looming high-rises to gray government pen-pushers.

But sometimes the bully also lurks within.

At least that's the view held by many former longtime tenants of the Toole Shed Studios, once downtown's most bustling creative hub. Started in the early 1990s, the Shed was family. Funky studios filled a ponderous warehouse, shouldering the railroad where Toole and Sixth avenues meet. There, clay was kneaded, canvasses stretched, photographic prints coaxed to life in cozy darkrooms.

Today, nearly all those artists are gone. In their place is the singular ambition of Anne-Marie Russell, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. MOCA was originally an outgrowth of the Toole Shed. And in the end, Russell's MOCA consumed it.

These days, the director has heady plans for her museum. They include a big gallery in the one-time studios, and a $150,000 renovation fundraising campaign. Already, MOCA is home to a gift shop selling artsy knickknacks. Some studios are now occupied by Russell's growing office, and other space has been staked out by her husband, an architect.

But where are the artists? That's a question former Toole Shed inhabitants like photographer Ronn Spencer are asking.

"I think this woman is an empire builder, and unfortunately, artists have to suffer for it," he says. "When she first took over, she said she was very concerned about keeping people in studio space. But with what's now happening downtown, Anne-Marie is as much to blame as the developers. We're going to have an arts district with no artists in it."

Photographer Stu Jenks is another Toole Shed alum. "There had always been a very good relationship between MOCA and the Toole Shed," he says. "They were separate, but they were supportive of each other. Then Anne-Marie started taking over more studio space. At first, it was very subtle."

Soon, that subtly turned sharp. "Eventually, she made it so I couldn't use my studio as a studio any more," Jenks says. "She said I could only use it as a storage space, which is ridiculous."

According to Jenks, Russell claimed that fire codes wouldn't allow the studio's use--an assertion he calls pure bull. "I found out from other arts-district people that she uses the fire marshal business a lot." As a result, "I don't think she has much of a fan base here anymore."

Her fan base may have shrunk further in March, when the fire marshal actually did close down the separate MOCA building for code violations--and Russell began a final push to commandeer all studio space next door in the Toole Shed.

That put sculptor Beckie Kravetz right in the firing line. Kravetz had spent most of a decade happily creating classical figures in the Toole Shed's east end. "I had a fantastic space," she says, "with great light and 20-feet-high ceilings."

In November, she learned she'd have to vacate, to make way for MOCA. Kravetz says her space had been slated as a visiting artists' gallery for one of Russell's friends. And in return, she was offered a few dimly lit spots and a 50 percent rent hike. "I understand this may not be ideal for you," Russell had e-mailed her. "But I know you understand and respect the needs of MOCA."

Well, not necessarily. Kravetz was among the Toole Shed's last survivors. And that's when she decided to fight back. "Your choice to personally evict well-established professional local artists and contributing members of the Tucson community," she wrote Russell, "in favor of someone you apparently feel is more important to your own vision and agenda is badly timed."

A few days later, Kravetz received a letter from the Lewis and Roca law firm, ordering her out. "If you fail to timely vacate the premises, MOCA will seek eviction under A.R.S. 33-361," said the missive, "as well as any other rights and remedies to which it is entitled, which may include re-entering and taking possession of the premises, asserting liens on personal property remaining on the premises, and attorney fees."

Today, Kravetz has found a new studio in the neighborhoods north of downtown. But bitterness lingers. "It's kind of appalling what has happened," she says. "What she's done is probably totally legal. But it's totally inappropriate."

When the Tucson Weekly contacted Russell with Kravetz' complaints, the MOCA director was chipper. "Not everybody likes contemporary art," she said with a giggle. "I don't know what else to say."

Russell added that she had no choice but to sack Kravetz and other Toole Shed artists. "MOCA got shut down by the fire department in March. We lost 5,000 feet of programming space, and we had to make some adjustments. I can't do illegal things. I have to fix them. And (Kravetz) didn't like the space I asked her to move to."

As for Kravetz, she supposes her former studio will soon be spiffed up for visiting artists, the first of whom she says is Russell's pal and the wife of artist Vik Muniz. To many observers, that's a perfect quid pro quo, since Russell gained oodles of press when she profiled him in a 2003 documentary.

Meanwhile, MOCA is reportedly flush with money, and the fresh crowd includes plenty of architects and real estate agents. But to artists now scrambling to find new creative turf, that's a sour irony. "I think Anne-Marie has made the assumption that everyone is enthusiastically endorsing her plans," says Spencer. "I don't think that actually true."

Jenks agrees--in spades. "As artists, we were always helping each other out," he says. "And then we have this person come in who is completely antagonistic. It all seems to be very selfish and self-centered. It's about her vision, and she doesn't really care about anybody else."

He calls it a sad finale for what had been a "wonderful and laid back" arts enclave. "Anne-Marie has been abrupt and condescending," he says. "If this was happening in TriBeCa or SoHo, no one would care, and no one would notice. But this is a small pond. When you disturb the waters here, all the fishes know."