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Adios Amigos 

Downtown arts leaders are off to seek fame and fortune in the City of Angels.

Julia Latané and James Graham are breakfasting on eggs at The Grill.

Lounging at a retro formica table at the Congress Street diner they restored in 1995 and then sold a year ago, they are repeatedly interrupted by friends. The two are famously involved in the arts scene downtown, and they seem to know everybody.

"Hello, Monica," they call out. "Hello Patrick."

"See you at the opening tomorrow night."

Latané drains her second cup of coffee and puts it down.

"It's a tight-knit community," she says. "I love that about Tucson."

That tight-knit arts community is all abuzz about the couple's joint exhibition, which was to open the next night at Industry--A Gallery in the Warehouse District. Latané is exhibiting Old Master-style drawings of television's Teletubbies, and Graham is showing stark color photographs of everyday objects--traffic cones and flashlights--magnified and glorified against dark backgrounds. But artists are even more abuzz about the message delivered in the exhibition's shocker title: Our Work Here Is Done.

Latané and Graham are leaving town. Within months, they'll decamp to Los Angeles.

"For our careers as artists, we feel it's right to move into a national market," Latané says, "to be seen by national writers and get in on the national scene ... It's difficult to get noticed on the national level in Tucson. We can make that happen faster in L.A."

In the City of Angels, the couple hopes to follow the example of numerous artist friends who've snagged lucrative movie gigs making props. The plan is to work on a movie for several months at a time and then use the high Hollywood wages to finance several months of art-making.

But the move to the big time doesn't mean they're abandoning the Museum of Contemporary Art, the fledgling Tucson institution they co-founded with David Wright four years ago. The artists say they always planned to retreat to their own art once the museum got going.

"We had the idea we'd get this started, get it off the ground," Latané says. "We had a plan to expand the board, and then we'd go back to our studios.

"It's reached that point. Hazmat Gallery has existed almost two years ... We're not the best people to take it to the next level, bringing in the big patrons and donors. We're bad at asking people for money."

Though Graham will resign as executive director, Latané will keep her seat on the MOCA board and they'll both come back to town occasionally to curate shows. And they're confident they're leaving the place in good shape. In fact, the MOCA empire is expanding all along Toole.

"My goal is for MOCA to spread like a virus through the downtown, into every usable space," Graham says.

He's only half joking. The seeds of MOCA were first planted back in 1992, when he and Dave Lewis began converting a Toole Avenue warehouse into the Toole Shed artists' studios and gallery space. Latané, an experienced construction worker, signed on as a volunteer, got one of the 15 studios and met Graham. The two married several years later.

Like many of the old warehouses lining the railroad tracks at the north end of downtown, the Toole Shed building is owned by the Arizona Department of Transportation. ADOT bought up the properties years ago to make way for a freeway that would have shot right through downtown. When a local uproar helped put the kibosh on the project, ADOT went into the landlord business. A redesign of the road, as yet unbuilt, would bypass most of the old warehouses.

The Toole Shed idea blossomed into the museum five years later. David Wright, Graham and Latané incorporated the museum as a nonprofit in 1997, and opened its first gallery, Hazmat, in the ADOT warehouse next door to Toole Shed in December 1998. And just last month, MOCA opened a second gallery, Arcadia, in a former porn palace by the name of Pleasure World. In a strange bureaucratic snafu, the state had been collecting rent from purveyors of skin flicks and sex.

"The state kept raising the rent, and Pleasure World moved out," Latané says. "The ADOT manager asked James if he was interested."

He was. Working with a team of "community service workers"--people on probation--Graham obliterated the genitalia murals, washed the place clean and painted the walls white. The purified building opened last month as Arcadia, drawing its name from the old video arcade, and welcomed its first show, Mimesis, an exhibition of prints by University of Arizona art students.

Still, Graham has an eye on Congress Street. He's made a vocal public pitch for the empty Thrifty block on Congress between Stone and Scott. Owned by the federal government, the storefronts are now leased by the city. John Jones, the city's Rio Nuevo director, has said he has stores and apartments in mind for the buildings.

Graham still wants those buildings for MOCA, but Latané says the MOCA board cares most about actually owning buildings, whether they're on Congress or on Toole.

"We've started researching the process of acquiring the ADOT buildings," Latané explains. "The board's focus, whichever space it ends up being, is obtaining ownership."

For now, with both Hazmat and Arcadia up and running, MOCA has ample exhibition space. Past Hazmat shows have included wild metal sculpture and installations, video art, performance art and the like, the kind of new work that has not yet found much of a commercial market in Tucson.

It's the kind of contemporary work Latané and Graham make too, art they realize will never catch on big in smallish Tucson. Latané got some attention last fall for the giant plastic candy sculptures she showed at Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art, but the only piece she ever sold in town was a soft sculpture that won a Purchase Award at the 1999 Tucson Museum of Art Biennial.

"My work has a limited niche," she acknowledges.

Adds Graham, "My work is not suitable for a private house. Let's face it. Who wants a glowing cone on their living room wall? But I would like museum representation."

In L.A.'s looser scene, they hope they'll be able to break into alternative galleries and nonprofit museums. But they won't forget their adopted home city.

"We'll never fully leave Tucson," says Graham. "We have a house here."

Latané's family is here as well. And, she says, "I still have a lot of hope for downtown Tucson."





Our Work Here Is Done continues through Saturday, May 26, at Industry--A Gallery, 439 N. Sixth Ave., #165. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. For information call 792-2620 or visit www.industrygallery.com.

Mimesis continues at Arcadia, 174 E. Toole Ave., through Saturday, May 12. Gallery hours are 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Broad opens at Hazmat, 191 E. Toole Ave., on Friday, May 11, and continues through Saturday, July 14. Gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays. For more information on Arcadia and Hazmat, call 624-5019.

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