READERS' PICK: Etherton fans have outdone themselves this year in their enthusiasm for the 20-something gallery, giving it the nod in both fine arts and commerce. And it is true that the longtime downtown stalwart has been going great guns in the money-changer department, this year expanding its art empire into two additional locations. Besides the Odd Fellows Hall second-story gallery that has staged some of the finest contemporary shows in Tucson and the smaller Temple Gallery in the Temple of Music and Art, proprietor Terry Etherton is now trading out of a storefront in the old Lewis Hotel at Fifth and Congress and in the Josias Joesler studio at River and Campbell. Historic buildings all, lovingly restored, we're pleased to note. The Joesler adobe houses the vintage photos of such eminences as Timothy O'Sullivan, the explorer photographer, and Edward C. Curtis, who undertook to document the whole of Native American life. The downtown spaces still provide a niche for the cutting edge. Last season opened with a bang-up display of luminous sky paintings by Bailey Doogan, angst-ridden urban interiors by James G. Davis, and odd metaphoric trees in drawings by famous out-of-towner Judy Chicago. Later there were the liquid acrylics of Nancy Tokar Miller, another of our favorite Tucson painters; the astonishingly detailed landscape photos of Christopher Burkett; and Kate Breakey's strangely appealing, painted photos of dead birds writ large. Over at the Temple, Etherton continued its mission of giving solo shows to locals. Photog-turned-painter Michael Longstaff made an impressive debut, lusciously layering his paints as though he was to the palette born. Other Tucsonans given a chance to shine in one-person shows were Gail Marcus-Orlen, Catherine Eyde and Owen Williams. So while we can designate Etherton a classic brand, we're also delighted to note that it's both new and improved.
READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. Well, we couldn't agree more. The Center is one of the finest, most unusual institutions of photography in the country, if not the world. This year the CCP, not to be confused with the Central Communist Party, celebrates its 25th anniversary. For a quarter-century, locals and visiting scholars alike have been lured to its treasurehouse collections of the finest photographs of the 20th century. (The Center owns 50,000 prints by some 2,000 photographers, along with such ephemera as letters and diaries.) You, too, can don little white gloves in a freezing room and inspect the sacred prints of an Edward Weston or an Ansel Adams, a Eugene Smith or a Frederick Sommers. You can peruse the history of photography in the CCP's fabulously well-stocked library, and then hop over to the gallery to check out the work high-level photographers are producing right now. A year ago, the incomparable Vik Muniz had a giant show; he makes oddball photos of his own drawings in such media as ink or chocolate, like his chocolate syrup rendering of "The Last Supper." Images for an Age was a drawn-from-the-collection show that was breathtaking; on view were such priceless images as Edward Weston's peppers, accompanied by a letter explaining how he got around to shooting them. Nor can we forget the austere nuns in Clara Gutsche's cloister photos, or the pretty Arizona Highways pictures that made for a popular show.
LOOSE CHANGE: If only Raw Gallery had had any LOOSE CHANGE. Their pockets turned inside out from a seven-year run in the struggling Downtown Arts District, Raw's owners shuttered the place last May. But while they were at it, husband-and-wife team Vicki Keller and George E. Huffman wowed the town with art that was raw, raw, raw. Huffman's own monster paintings, big, wild childlike things, were frequently in the gallery lineup, and so were works by a whole roster of other energetic young artists, Joe Forkan and Michael Longstaff among them. The epitaph show, a monster celebration inspired by Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, was a great summation of Raw's uncooked art. Pasqualina Azzarello's "Monster" was downright Huffman-like in its childlike joy in weird shapes and colors. Matt Cotten's "Grueling Feats of Contortion" was half graffiti, half naïve art, a mixed-media portrayal of a woman in yellow and brown geometries. She wasn't pretty, that's for sure, but she was outrageous and she was raw. Raw's wild rumpuses already are missed.