Adaptive Renewal: A new midtown art studio space has sprung up on Grant Road

For a less-than-charming property not blessed with the three things that matter most in real estate—“location-location-location”—the only remaining option may be “vocation-vocation-vocation”—and preferably an exciting one. That’s why a handful of midtown neighborhoods hope that turning an abandoned strip-shopping center into the newest industrial studio space for artists may turn around the area’s struggling reputation.

The fledgling Art and Design Center, which opened earlier this month at 3778 E. Grant Road, has the potential to help out a notoriously hard-luck locale over time. 

Located just west of the mean, miserable intersection of Grant and Alvernon Way, the collection of buildings now known as the ADC has long been an eyesore for residents and rush-hour commuters alike. Over time, the properties housed a variety of interior-design-related businesses, including a Southwest-themed furniture store, an upholstery and fabric workshop, a wicker furniture restoration operation and a lampshade repair service.

A few years ago, the city decided to purchase the 42-year-old, ivory-colored complex to make way for the accelerating Grant Road Improvement Project, and since 2018, the property had been festooned with store closing signs and later, giant MOVING SALE - EVERYTHING MUST GO banners. Then it sat empty for months, while landscaping ground to a halt, weeds flourished, a once-leafy tree died, and the abandoned property’s shady porch collected lost souls and rail-thin addicts on the nod.

But the times, they may be a-changin’.

“Sometimes, (buildings) that artists can afford are the places that other people don’t want to be—but when artists move into neighborhoods, they can convince everybody it’s about to change,” said Jim Wilcox, project manager at the non-profit Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO). “Then other people want to be there. But artists are there first.”

WAMO is an artist-led group that manages studio space for about 65 working creatives in Tucson. It has renovated and subleased space at, among other sites, the Steinfeld Warehouse Community Arts Center, 101 W. Sixth St., and The Toole Shed, 197 E. Toole Ave.

The Grant Road complex, formerly named the “Wicker and Rattan Design Center,” was rechristened the Art and Design Center partly because artists wanted to repurpose part of the existing façade signage. One of the artisan welders crafted a striking, taxicab yellow “ART” sign, suspending it from the parapet next to the remaining letters. Et Voilà!

As the Grant Road widening continues to gobble up property and buildings along the thoroughfare, the two-story ADC will lose its single-story attachment buildings to the west, along with much of its front parking lot. It will retain its large back property, with plenty of space for parking, events and artist workspace.

Inside, 18 artists labor in separate studios, ranging from utilitarian metal sheds in the outside courtyard, to spacious, climate-controlled spaces inside the main building. The ADC artistic clan includes sculptors, painters, photographers, fine-art metalsmiths, mixed-media artists, musicians, jewelry artisans, a glass sculptor, a fire performer and a latex-fetish-fashion designer.

Several have worked together before, at rough-around-the-edges Citizens Warehouse, 44 W. Sixth St. Earlier this year, the 92-year-old concrete bunker (located next to a brace of Union Pacific Railroad tracks, and across the street from tony, red-brick Steinfeld Warehouse Community Arts Center) was emptied of artists as work accelerated on the Downtown Links Project. When the project is completed, a four-lane corridor road will skim past, crossing beneath the tracks to connect Interstate 10 with Barraza-Aviation Parkway and State Route 210.

Months ago, when touring the derelict Grant Road property, photographer-painter Monique Laraway said she could see that it had lots of potential, but would need “a lot of work and love” to pull it together. Today, she occupies a cozy, air-conditioned studio just off the front lobby, and husband Colin Holmes has his evaporative-cooled artisan welding studio ensconced in the back.

The ADC occupies a lot of geography: It sits on an acre lot, and boasts about 8,700 square feet of inside studio space, not including a second-story loft used by painter David Lopez Jr.

Lopez—an unfailingly optimistic man who paints under the pseudonym “Nezah”—captains the building, and helps guide the passel of independent artists to group consensus when important issues need to be addressed. He also helped organize a recent, well-attended grand opening that essentially introduced the heretofore quiet venture to the neighborhood, as well as a larger, Aztec-themed celebration last weekend. 

Lopez, along with others, used his construction skills to help get the sprawling building into shape—tearing up stained carpeting, erecting steel framing and drywall to carve out individual studios within the open-floor plan, and painting the wide hallways a dazzling gallery white. They also saved room for a glassed-in display lobby, beautifully suffused with natural light.

Other elements of the renovation included additional fencing, improved lighting, repair of the building’s air-conditioning system, and replacement of an aged swamp cooler.

The work went on for months, Lopez said, and “was like watching a child grow up.”

And not unlike child rearing, opening the ADC has involved plenty of growing pains along the way. 

Homeless camp issues have arisen. Tools and other items have been stolen. An alcove just outside the lobby door attracted loiterers, so metal artist Holmes installed a corrugated steel barrier to keep them out. (Vandals promptly climbed over it, broke in through a ground-floor window, and made off with two of his fine-art sculptures.) 

Since then, he has fortified the barrier and zhuzhed it up with a sturdy, decorative trim. Additional security lighting has been installed, and artists are encouraged to actively discourage loitering. They are learning the hard way about needing to “harden the target”—a lock-it-or-lose-it crime-prevention concept that many area residents are already familiar with.

Although portions of the surrounding neighborhoods can be charming and well-cared-for, opportunistic criminals create frustrating quality-of-life issues for many in the area. Property crimes—porch piracy, wanton vandalism, bike thefts, car break-ins and burglaries—are endemic. Businesses and homeowners roust homeless encampments, only to have them pop up elsewhere nearby. And prescription opioid dependency has morphed into a cheaper heroin addiction, so discarded IV syringes are not an unusual find during outings.

Using art to heal people in pain would seem particularly relevant here. 

At one point, the neighborhood élan vital and other psychological stresses led Hopi sculptor and painter Gerry Quotskuyva to smudge the building, burning sacred herbs in an attempt to clear out the profoundly negative energy. 

Quotskuyva, an award-winning artist who has exhibited at museums and galleries across the nation, secured one of the last air-conditioned studios at the ADC. There, among dark wine-colored walls, he paints and sculpts, and carves feather-light katsina from dried cottonwood root.

When he closed his art gallery in Sedona last year, he knew he wanted to return to Tucson, his university alma mater.

“It was a choice between lifestyle and healing—or Santa Fe and money,” he quipped. 

Quotskuyva indicated that the collection of artists at the ADC could be a creative dream team.

“There are some phenomenal artists here, and then you’ve got a lot of the younger generation who are just getting their start,” he said. “They’re asking questions. They want to learn. I hope we gel well enough that if we don’t stay here, we all move together to continue on.” 

Artists at the ADC operate on year-to-year studio leases with WAMO, which in turn has a year-to-year lease with the City of Tucson for the building itself. A few still nurse a grudge over the Citizens eviction, but it’s also not lost on them that while one road project pushed them out of a grungy but beloved warehouse downtown, yet another street widening opened up a bigger, newer, arguably more upscale industrial space in midtown.

Art studio rents there are based on square footage and comfort. Workspace in a no-frills courtyard shed costs 10 cents per square foot per month. A swamp-cooled indoor studio runs 35 cents per square foot, and an air-conditioned one tops out at 65 cents per square foot per month. 

Using federally funded Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and historic-preservation funds, WAMO has upgraded and converted several buildings in the post-industrial Tucson Historic Warehouse Arts District. Wilcox said it has already spent nearly $60,000 to get the Grant Road complex up to code, and will adjust future rents to keep pace with operating costs. 

And if artists choose to return to Citizens Warehouse when it reopens, there’s a plan to deal with that, too: There are three dozen more ready to take their place. 

“The standard arts space downtown along Toole Avenue and in Monterey Court Studio Galleries (on Miracle Mile) is $2 to $3 per square foot,” Wilcox said. “That’s why we have a waiting list that goes on forever.”

Some area residents—more specifically, those in The Garden District, Palo Verde, Dodge Flower and Oak Flower neighborhoods—are tentatively encouraged by early changes to the property, but want to see more. Landscaping clean-up requests directed to local real-estate and property-management company Peach Properties have gone largely unaddressed, and in mid-October, homeless individuals could still be seen sleeping on the front porch.

“Any time we can provide a space for the creative class, I’m for it,” noted City Councilman Steve Kozachik, who represents midtown’s Ward 6. “The function and intent of the operation is great—fully support. … If management would exercise some care on the exterior maintenance of the space, the neighbors would truly appreciate it.”

Lopez acknowledged the concerns, and the need to involve surrounding communities.

“The neighborhood was, is and will continue to be … violent (and with) many drugs and robberies,” he observed. “But that is the challenge of art. It changes landscapes, lives, places, and it makes us better human beings.” 

His partner is Yovannah Diovanti, a vivacious woman whose richly colored paintings celebrate desert flora, fauna and indigenous cultures, especially mothers and their children. A native of the Mexican state of Jalisco (itself known for high-quality ceramics, punched tin and other folk arts), she is looking at ways to marry culture and community here with art exhibits, workshops, and open-studio tours on First Saturday Art Walks. 

“We’re hoping this becomes a place where people can find something to do to help them balance out their energies more, and where they can meet others,” she said. “Connecting people to art is something that we’ve been doing as adults individually already, but when we came here, we immediately saw more potential for that: Art can serve the purpose of healing.”