Arts District Downturn

What's supposed to be the city's cultural hub is a nest of bars, tattoo parlors and empty storefronts--just like any other downtown.

Just before an early monsoon storm broke late one afternoon last week, a hard wind blew down Congress Street. Dust spiraled up onto the storefronts, covering what was once Tucson's main shopping thoroughfare with a pale brown powder.

The dust didn't help the atmosphere on the almost deserted street. Only a few people were out and about, and numerous storefronts were empty, their plate glass windows bearing hopeful signs offering the places for lease. But on the north side of Congress, between Sixth and Scott Avenues, at least one shop was open for business, its neon sign glowing lavender and red in the pre-storm gloom.

"Tattoo Open," it said.

A clutch of paper signs covering the business' windows complemented the neon's message.

"Tattoos, Piercing & Pain," read one. "It's a good thing."

"No Drugs. No Booze. No Assholes," said another. "Do Not Enter."

Welcome to Hardcore Tatu, the latest occupant of 125 E. Congress St. A studio offering tattoos to all comers at $40 a pop and up, Hardcore moved in April 1, after a year and a half in smaller quarters across the street on Congress' south side. Its new space at 125, its walls now covered with Betty Boop and Vargas girl tattoo designs, was long home to some of Tucson's most vibrant alternative theater. The dynamic Meg Nolan pioneered the space as aka theatre from the late '80s through the mid '90s, stunning appreciative audiences with shattering productions of plays by the likes of Sam Shepard and other non-mainstream writers.

The demise of aka was followed by the installation of Damesrocket, a feminist troupe led by Caroline Reed that specialized in provocative plays by women. When Damesrocket failed in turn, the place lay fallow. Mindful of a deed restriction limiting the space to an arts use, building owner Reed says she tried and failed to rent to another theater troupe before turning to Hardcore.

"I talked to everybody," Reed says. "I couldn't get anybody to move in."

Now the stage is gone, the theater seats dispersed to a local church, the platforms banished to storage. In their place is a dim anteroom decorated by a giant skull-and-crossbones poster and, beyond, the brightly lighted tattooing studio. A grim grinning skull in a top hat is painted on the front door. In its theatrical days, aka's cutting-edge productions were no stranger to the kind of dark themes many of the tattoos embody. There was even a well-publicized real-life shooting at the ticket booth that went beyond its edgiest plays: An actor was accused of gunning for an assistant director.

STILL, THE STORIED BUILDING'S transition from premiere alternative arts space to tattoo parlor is seen by many on the downtown arts scene as a dispiriting emblem of the district's downslide. City officials keep repeating the mantra that the massive Rio Nuevo project will inject new life into the rundown city center, while the Tucson Downtown Alliance, now on its third director in fewer than three years, is promising yet again to lure new retail to the empty shops. And while there are bright pockets of arts activity in the 11-year-old Tucson Arts District, at the moment rock clubs and tattoo parlors are on the rise, and art galleries on the wane. Some observers even see the recent changes as a reversion toward the scary old downtown of the 1980s.

"We're almost back to the Manhattan," says Herb Stratford, only half joking. The energetic director of the Fox Theatre Foundation, which is restoring the old movie theater at the west end of Congress, he's referring to one of the notorious bars that frightened many away from the downtown pre-Arts District.

And the new bars and clubs make for uneasy bedfellows with the older galleries and theaters. Hardcore's two arts neighbors, the Screening Room and Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, are none too pleased about the transition. Barbara Jo McLaughlin, Dinnerware's director, complains of Hardcore: "It sets the tone for the block. -- It is sleazy. Their customers sit out front to smoke. My intern came in and said (one) was staring at women. Do we want a nice, classy arts district? Or a collection of sleazy businesses?"

Giulio Scalinger, director of the Arizona Center for the Media Arts, runs the Screening Room, which shows indie and foreign art films. (His Arizona Film Festival office is two doors down from the tattoo parlor on the west.)

"We're not happy that they moved in next door," Scalinger says. "Not that we have anything against tattoo parlors -- (but) they're called Hardcore Tatu--right next to our theater. People drive by and think we must be showing hard-core films. It builds on a perception of downtown we've been fighting for 10 years."

Arts entrepreneurs find the pounding music at nearby clubs incompatible with their efforts. Double Zero bar, neighbor to Hardcore on the west, opened during Damesrocket's difficult end days at the space at 125. Reed, the company's director, remembers a "death-metal band's music coming out the floor," drowning out the actors' voices during the reading of a Patrick Baliani play. Light Rae, a newish studio and gallery around the corner from Congress on South Sixth, was chased off by the noise blasting from an even newer record store next door, Harvest Season.

Crime and drugs have also taken a toll. Moira Geoffrion says the plate glass windows of her 2-year-old GOCAIA gallery have been broken more than once, and she complains of drug deals going down right on her corner at Fifth and Congress. Not only do people congregating there scare off gallery patrons, she says, men hang out trying to pick up the young girls coming out of Skrappy's teen club nearby. The effect is a downward spiral in gallery attendance and sales.

"On a Downtown Saturday Night we used to have 200 to 400 people," Geoffrion says. "This spring we never had more than 100."

Davis Dominguez Gallery is a downtown success story. Co-owners Mike Dominguez and Candice Davis moved their eponymous gallery out of the Foothills into the Warehouse District at the northern end of downtown two and a half years ago, and have managed ever since to attract the elusive well-heeled art buyers to their sleek renovated space. The upbeat Dominguez also started up the Central Galleries Association to promote midtown art emporia, but he's grown impatient with the deterioration of the city's core.

"The climate for family-friendly retail just doesn't exist," he declares. "Other cities have overcome the problem. Why can't Tucson? We're at the bottom for downtown--though we don't have strip joints--yet. -- I don't know why we have to look like a place where sailors go."

CITY OFFICIALS proffer the hope that assorted new public/private projects, including the renovation of the Union Pacific depot and the Thrifty block, will help reverse the downslide. The big daddy of the development schemes, Rio Nuevo, is expected to pour the mind-boggling sum of $757 million in public and private monies into projects on both sides of the Santa Cruz River downtown.

A cheerful John Updike, a city project manager, notes that Rio Nuevo has designated the east end of downtown as an "entertainment district" to be book-ended by the renovated Fox and Rialto theaters. A bit to the north, the Tucson Museum of Art is vying for some of the cash, and so is the not-yet-existent Presidio Museum. Updike believes that the rehab of old places along Congress and the construction of new places can't help but benefit the struggling Arts District.

"It's the rising tide lifts all boats theory," he says.

Updike concedes that "there will be no venues to visit for a couple of years yet," but he says that Tucsonans who've noticed the bright orange, blue and white paint on the Thrifty block are already seeing a Rio Nuevo expenditure. The city leased the long-vacant stretch on the south side of Congress between Stone and Scott and with Rio Nuevo dollars "painted it and repaired the roof." The Rio Nuevo district hopes to buy it from the federal government by early next year, Updike says, and then with the help of the Tucson Downtown Alliance plot its best use.

Updike envisions stores downstairs and apartments upstairs. Residents downtown, he believes, "are key -- for the arts groups, for clean and safe. (Crime) can be solved with eyes on the street."

Still, there are those who worry that by the time Rio Nuevo ever sees brick and mortar, the quirky, artsy downtown will be dead and buried.

"My optimism is still there," says Dinnerware's McLaughlin. A sculptor, McLaughlin was awash in great expectations when she took over the reins of the 21-year-old co-op last year. By this spring, though, she'd set up a meeting with an aide to Mayor Bob Walkup to complain about downtown's deterioration generally and drug deals in the alley behind her gallery specifically. She hopes that the new projects will help, but she warns, "It has to be something that gets going pretty soon or we won't be here in 20 years."

"Rio Nuevo is a long way away," echoes the Screening Room's Scalinger. "Everyone talks about keeping a funky downtown, but by the time Rio Nuevo is ready to go, all these funky places will have disappeared."

EVERYONE FAMILIAR WITH Tucson's downtown talks of its cyclical rises and falls. If old-timers reminisce about the major department stores that once drew throngs to Congress--Steinfeld's, Jácome's, Penney's--newer-timers talk about the early '90s as the good old days. Scalinger tallies up the losses since then: Bertrand's Books; Yikes/Picante, an eclectic toy store-cum-ethnic clothing shop. Other enterprises long gone include the Arts District Bookstore, Berta Wright's folk art gallery, Café Magritte and Bero Gallery.

Just in the last year, McLaughlin notes, among downtown's dead or departed are Raw Gallery, DC Harris, Susan Kay Johnson's Studio 113 and Light Rae Gallery, which moved to the quieter realm of Gallery 410 on Fort Lowell Road. Industry, a promising new gallery near Davis Dominguez, unexpectedly shuttered its funky warehouse space in May, just 10 months after opening. The handsome, historic Lerner Building was renovated beyond recognition into a modernistic mess and then the prospective tenant, a switch hotel, went belly up. Now it's vacant, a "big blue abomination," as Sarah Clements of the Tucson Arts District Partnership calls it.

On the credit side of the ledger, optimists point to several new arts additions: Judith Rivera Gallery on Congress, Elizabeth Cherry's contemporary art space in Hotel Congress and Etherton Gallery's second downtown location, on Broadway. Developer Warren Michaels is renovating a building across the street from Hardcore, with plans for loft apartments upstairs and stores down.

The Museum of Contemporary Art continues expanding its empire on Toole Avenue. Reversing the Hardcore trend, this spring MOCA's James Graham converted a defunct porno shop into a new gallery called Arcadia. A tiny tango studio thrives in the shadow of the Grill on Congress, and Tucson Puppet Works, purveyor of art and puppet shows, is "one of the most exciting things to happen downtown in a long time," Scalinger says.

Artist Simon Donovan's long-awaited Diamondback Bridge--a public-art pedestrian and bike bridge that will span Broadway at the east end of downtown--is at last under construction after years of delays. Its gleaming snakeskin, curving high above the roadway, is intended to serve as the gateway to an artsy downtown.

Yet Debi Schoenholtz, owner of Hardcore Tatu, believes the dream of an "artsy-fartsy" downtown is naïve--and elitist.

"They think they're going to have a frou-frou arts district," she says. "They've got all these way-high ideas about downtown, frou-frou artsy-fartsy stuff. It's not going to happen in Tucson. People here make $7 an hour. They have menial jobs. -- The people traveling through the Ronstadt Transit Center probably would like to put $5,000 worth of art on their walls, but it's not realistic."

Her landlord's adventures in the arts trade seem to bear Schoenholtz out: Caroline Reed tried and failed to make a go of a downtown arts enterprise that relied on edgy work. Reed says she invested almost all of a small inheritance to buy the theater and renovate it--and to keep its doors open. Damesrocket got good reviews for such works as Top Girls, a Caryl Churchill play that memorably featured a dinner party of history's most famous women, "but I needed $1,000 a month to keep the doors open. -- The last two shows we did I paid for out of my own pocket."

She says back then no one was interested in her woes.

"I never received assistance from any granting organization, or the Arts District or the Tucson Downtown Alliance. Then Double Zero had bands in there with no acoustic consideration."

Now that she's finally solved her financial problems by renting the empty building to the tattoo parlor, she says, everyone's taking an interest--albeit a negative one. She calls the deed restriction on the building "insane" and argues that in any case her new tenants are artists.

"The tenants are great. They're artists. I'm not sure what the problem is."

Like Reed, Schoenholtz says that when she and her son and her grandson ink their designs into a customer's skin, they're practicing the "world's oldest art form."

A feisty grandmother who's worked as a prison guard and as a real estate agent, Schoenholtz sees herself as an artist as much as anybody showing their works at GOCAIA or Dinnerware.

"I try to open my doors every morning and create art. This is silly, nonsensical. -- Art is the soul's voice speaking loudly. Who are we to say it's not art?"

The debate over tattooing as art is more than rhetorical. It might be the opening legal argument if the dispute over Hardcore's residency in the building ever reaches the courts. And it could. The building was one of three acquired with loans from the Tucson Arts District Partnership--the others are the Screening Room and Dinnerware--and a deed restriction limits the building to arts uses, according to Sarah Clements, the Partnership's executive director.

The restriction, Clements says, is "meant to encourage a mix of arts uses. -- We're sorting out our position. We don't believe the way it was done is in line with the deed restriction. Caroline gutted the theater." Still, Clements is sympathetic to Schoenholtz's position. "Now there's a tenant to think of. They're involved without any culpability. There's a fairness issue to be addressed."

Both Reed and Clements say they hope the disagreement won't end up in the courts, but Schoenholtz sounds ready to make her case.

"That would be one hell of a debate," she declares. "No judge in this land could look at this and say it's not art. That would be a page in history."

THE ALWAYS OUTSPOKEN gallerist Mike Dominguez has no problem asserting, "Tattoos are not art. Put me down as an elistist snob," but most of his arts confrères are unwilling to go so far.

Stratford of the Fox admits to being "conflicted. I'm not thrilled to see so many tattoo parlors. But are you gonna kick out everything you don't agree with? You need a mix in cities. It's just that now we don't have the rest of the mix--the supermarkets, the dry cleaners--so you notice the tattoo parlors more."

Clements agrees. "It's not so much a matter of bars and tattoo parlors, but a matter of what else you have," she says. And she doesn't want a downtown that's purely "artsy-fartsy," either. "If things are whitewashy, at some point it doesn't seem real. My opinion is the district should be eclectic, with a good mix, and diversity."

But after more than a decade at the helm of the Tucson Arts District Partnership, she's not afraid to sound off about the city's shortcomings when it comes to its own downtown. Chugging a large coffee on a stifling afternoon in her office in the Bank One Annex on Congress, Clements wearily takes on the topic of Rio Nuevo.

"I can't stand up and cheer about the project," she says. "It hasn't done anything yet. But it has helped pull the focus away from earlier efforts (to revitalize downtown). It's like new toys."

Like Scalinger and McLaughlin, she frets over Rio Nuevo's long, 20-year time frame ("I'm not holding my breath"). And she also thinks that Rio Nuevo's much touted museum projects on the banks of the Santa Cruz have diverted planners' focus away from the Arts District turf farther east.

"What's lacking is a concerted vision of the east side of downtown. The bookends are the two theaters (Fox and Rialto). There's not enough conversation for what's going in between. -- I'd like to see the city partner with the (Arts) District."

Cooperation may be a problem, but there's been no shortage of vision in the past 15 years. Getting money behind all the big ideas, though, has been a long-term frustration.

Clements says that the original 1988 Arts District master plan was a "magnificent document" articulating a vision that the city never fully funded. After restoring the Temple of Music and Art and creating the Tucson Center for Performing Arts in the old All Souls' Church, the city didn't follow through with the cash for other concrete projects. The Arts District, which this year will be hit with a 10-percent city budget cut, was left mainly with the job of programming such events as Downtown Saturday Night and ArtWalk. "We need to finish what we start," she says.

ArtWalk, weekly tours of downtown's galleries, have gotten increasingly popular, Clements says, as have the tours of artists' studios. And she's proud of the Partnership's successful efforts to promote artists' studio spaces downtown. But she admits that Downtown Saturday Night has lost much of its arty luster.

"Downtown Saturday Night has had a hard year. We've got some ideas for next year. -- But there's only so much we can do programmatically. The retail is not there."

Most worrisome of all, Clements says, "is the crime issue downtown. There's been a decided shift in the feel of the environment." The empty buildings don't help ward off drug dealers looking for a place to lurk. "Three or four years ago, if a space became vacant on Congress, it'd be vacant for half a day. -- (Now) vacancies are moving toward chronic."

"SCOTTSDALE IT ain't," Simon Donovan concedes of downtown. The lanky red-haired artist has been waiting five years to see his "Diamondback Bridge" take shape. But he doesn't worry that his much-heralded and much-delayed gateway to the Tucson Arts District is too little, too late.

"I never saw it as something to save downtown," he says. "That said, when you make that investment, public art can make downtown a desirable destination, a more attractive place."

The artist recently painted a photograph of himself as Van Gogh for a show at the Temple Gallery, but he doesn't share that artist's famous pessimism. In fact, Donovan is positively buoyant about downtown's future. As a practitioner of public art he's accustomed to maddeningly slow timetables, and he believes that a host of projects already in the planning stages can hardly fail to trigger a turnaround.

The confusing labyrinth of one-way streets may move toward more sensible two-way, he hopes, once plans to make Stone and Sixth both two-way are in place. The new Fourth Avenue underpass is scheduled to break ground in 2002, and the Greyhound bus station south of the Hotel Congress is to be demolished and rebuilt at Sixth Avenue and Toole. The resulting public plaza, Donovan says, "becomes an anchor at the other end of downtown, with Rio Nuevo as the other anchor."

And like lots of other people who care about downtown, he wants housing, parking and a good mixture of businesses and cultural enterprises.

"Rio Nuevo is a good idea, an opportunity," he says, as long as it's done properly. To make sure it is, Donovan proposes a "Downtown Design Trust of landscape architects, urban planners and artists" to take a hard look at downtown block by block, and come up with design solutions. "This is where some of the Rio Nuevo dollars need to go," he says. "They could link downtown with the Warehouse District. It could be really great."

Scalinger of the Screening Room wants to see Congress Street celebrated as a historic place, though he concedes that the advent of the big blue abomination--the Lerner's renovation--put a damper on that idea. The Partnership's Clements proposes tax incentives for businesses to relocate to the risky downtown. Stratford of the Fox Theatre says that the city must pay attention to the "islands of culture" that already exist.

"Celebrate and salvage those islands," he says. "Then the infill in between will happen. Right now the Temple of Music and Art is an island. Take down the wall at the Tucson Children's Museum (across the street) and then you can see where you're going. Get people to come down and walk around. Give them something to look at."

Stratford's already made his pitch to the Rio Nuevo District for money to renovate the Fox--the original ballot approved by the voters designated $4.2 million--and he's seen firsthand how slowly the new Rio Nuevo mechanisms are moving. Naturally enough, he believes that Rio Nuevo ought to move first on highly visible existing projects like the Fox.

"We plan on renovating the Fox no matter what," he says. "If we can use Rio Nuevo funds to do it sooner, great." But to keep the citizenry interested--and to help the ailing city center--Rio Nuevo "needs something in the heart of downtown, a couple of landmarks returned, a little jolt until the big things happen."

In the meantime, Debi Schoenholtz of Hardcore Tatu makes a pitch for inclusiveness.

"Rio Nuevo is meant to be for everyone," she says. "If the Arts District is only for elitists it's not going to help. They're just hanging themselves. -- Why can't we all just get along? We need to improve the downtown for everybody."

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