Cherry on Top

Elizabeth Cherry takes over the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Elizabeth Cherry is sitting in the loft office of her Grant Road gallery, the one that the Arizona Republic named "among the very best exhibition facilities in the state."

She sighs, just a little, as she says, "It must be the Army brat in me. I want to move every three or four years."

Cherry is not leaving Tucson. But she is shutting down her gallery after a five-year run and taking on a new job as executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown. The museum's board last week unanimously voted to appoint her to the position, and in August she'll take over from outgoing director James Graham. (Graham and Julia Latané, artists who co-founded the museum along with David Wright, are moving to Los Angeles.)

"I'm totally thrilled," Cherry declares. "I'm so into the challenge."

With her contacts in the New York and European art worlds, she expects to continue her gallery program at the museum, showing a mix of hot young artists, or "artists du jour" as she calls them, and older artists of reputation and influence. She's already enlisted Bob Nickas, the curator and critic who put together a New York show for her gallery, to organize something similar on a larger scale for the museum.

"It won't be a new direction for MOCA but I hope to take it to a new level," she says. "They wanted to hire me because they liked my program."

Board president Meg Hagyard has already lined up shows through April, and Cherry will make her first big splash at MOCA's HazMat Gallery with a Harmony Hammond exhibition in May. A bigger name than HazMat typically attracts, Hammond is a UA art professor who regularly shows on the East Coast and who had the solo Stonewall show at the Tucson Museum of Art a half-dozen years ago. Two of her big canvases, characteristically coupled with found objects, are now on view at the TMA Arizona Biennial '01.

"It does help if I have somebody like Harmony who is so well known," Cherry says. "People will go down to see her, and then realize they like the gallery and come back. It's a good way for the museum to get to a new jumping-off point."

A Tucson native who graduated from the University of Arizona, the now-32-year-old Cherry got her first gallery experience in her hometown, at the UA's Student Union galleries and at the now-defunct Sixth Congress Gallery run by David Wright. But she got her first real exposure to international contemporary art when she moved to Germany. She found a job in a cutting-edge gallery and soon immersed herself in edgy European art. Eventually she married the Swiss painter Olivier Mosset, and when the two returned to Tucson she opened Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art in their living room.

Almost two years ago, she moved the business into the new sleek gallery, custom-built next door to their house.

Cherry's shows have run the gamut, from the cool painted abstractions of Peter Young, an older painter living in Bisbee, to the She Devils on Wheels installation by Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury, who set up an all-girl mechanic's shop in the gallery last year. The gallery's current show, by former Tucsonan Valerie Galloway, features coffee-stained photos of nudes in surrealistic stances.

"To me it doesn't seem that avant-garde," Cherry muses of the gallery's showings. "I'm not taking much of a chance. But then I'm from the most jaded community there is. In contemporary art, nothing shocks." She tried to keep shows up to the minute because "contemporary art is fleeting. ... It's constantly changing, like popular culture."

Cherry says that the gallery was succeeding, and even ran in the black for the last two years. But she had hit a plateau in Tucson.

"In a bigger city it might have been different. Here I pretty much hit the limit. ... I pretty much did what I could do."

Still, she has some regrets about closing down the gallery, which she'll do at the end of September after mounting a final exhibition, a retrospective of its five-year run. The new building, admired by the Republic's John Carlos Villani for "its rusted steel and concrete façade and its soaring interiors," will become a painting studio for Mosset. The gallery's end will follow by four months the May demise of Industry, another gallery that Villani singled out for special praise, going so far as to declare the opening of the two spaces the "best news" on Tucson's art scene. (A third newish Tucson gallery, Arte Spazio, this past Sunday closed its doors on Oracle Road.)

"I feel so bad, especially after Industry closed," Cherry laments. "They were doing the same thing I was doing. ... And after seeing what those girls (owners Susan Delaney and Dawn Renée) did, working their butts off! ... But I'm doing it because I want to move forward. This takes the pressure of dealing off me."

As a museum director, Cherry will try her hand at fund-raising, even for her own salary. "I've never done fund-raising but I'm not afraid of it," she says.

She likes the rough look of the museum's HazMat Gallery, housed in one of the ADOT-owned warehouses on Toole Avenue, but she's nevertheless pleased that the place has recently gotten a new roof and a cooler. Next up, she hopes: moveable walls to accommodate more shows and better lights. She plans to keep running her lobby gallery space in Hotel Congress under the auspices of MOCA; a Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery show is planned there for August.

"I like downtown. I believe in downtown," she says. "It's kind of cool to have a funky downtown. We certainly don't want Mill Avenue (Tempe's renovated main street). It's nice to have a downtown with an edge."

And MOCA has a part to play in bolstering the district's sagging fortunes.

"We have the TMA downtown. ... MOCA can be another destination. We can get the word out, so people know about it."

In a sense, she says, her work at the museum will be a continuation of her efforts at the gallery--without the pressure to sell art.

"(Painter) Bob Colescott told me a few years ago, 'You're not a gallery, you're a museum. You're educating people about contemporary art."

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