Empty Plate

Dinnerware Gallery asks its alumni and friends to fork over much-needed financial help.

With Congress Street transformed into a glass façade of empty storefronts, Tucsonans can worry about losing one more gallery to financial problems. Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, the oldest gallery in downtown Tucson, is approximately $7,000 in debt and looking for a way out. The answers seem to lie in restructuring the cooperative gallery and, of course, in raising the money.

The Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery was established as the Dinnerware Artists' Cooperative Gallery by 13 artists in 1979. What began as a group of artists exhibiting their own work in a local attorney's office has become an anchor of Tucson's art community. The not-for-profit organization grew to include a professional executive director, community events and out-of-house exhibitions like last month's O'odham Reflections.

The roster of Dinnerware's alumni reads like a "Who's Who" of the Tucson art community. Former members of the artists' cooperative fill the faculties of the University of Arizona and Pima Community College as well as the administrative staffs of the city's art organizations. They are among some of the area's best-known artists. Fred Borcherdt, Bailey Doogan, Barbara Grygutis, Harold Jones, Bruce McGrew, Dean Narcho, Alfred Quiroz, Ann Simmons-Myers and Jim Waid are a few of the almost 100 alumni.

Dinnerware's increased community role has meant a budget that requires grants and other funds in addition to member dues and its annual auction of alumni artworks. Yet, according to Gary Benna, a longtime Dinnerware member who served several terms on its artist board of directors, the gallery did not go into debt during his membership from 1987 through the spring of 2000 despite some tight years that required special fundraising.

As for how Dinnerware managed to get $7,000 in debt this year, Mauricio Toussaint, the current president of Dinnerware's board, says he doesn't really know how it happened. He went to a board meeting where there was a report that their checking and savings account balances were low, and the members realized they needed to get to work and do something. Then, two weeks later, they received a notice from the bank that they were $7,000 in debt.

Barbara Jo McLaughlin, the gallery's former executive director, has a clear, if complex, picture of how Dinnerware got into such a bind. According to McLaughlin, Dinnerware's financial problems began before she was hired two years ago, and they were due, in part, to continuity problems. McLaughlin took over from Gary Swimmer, a Dinnerware member who served as interim executive director for about six months after longtime executive director Nora Kuehl left. McLaughlin says, "Part of it [the financial downslide] was that last year's grants didn't get written by the interim director, so we were kind of short then. By the summer I didn't get paid for three months. I finally told them they had to pay me something, so they took out a loan. Then, when we had an auction, that loan had to be paid back. So of the money that we fund-raised, a big chunk of that was gone already as soon as we got it."

McLaughlin also points to other factors both within the gallery and without. In 2001, cooperative membership had fallen to about 12 from the standard 16, which meant less money from dues. She says the gallery's spring community-support drive wasn't as successful this year as last year because people are being conservative with their money. The gallery's sales are down. Like most downtown merchants, McLaughlin says that people are afraid to come downtown because it has been taken over by bars, tattoo parlors and transients. McLaughlin adds that people were not buying art last year after the September 11 attack. McLaughlin quit March 14 when she hadn't been paid for six weeks.

As a sign of how badly things are going for galleries on Congress Street, the Central Arts Collective, downtown's other art cooperative, closed its gallery in December because of financial problems after 20 years of operation. GOCAIA (Gallery of Contemporary and Indigenous Art) cut back from two storefront spaces to one, laid off both its part-time employees and cut its hours.

Nonetheless, Toussaint is optimistic about Dinnerware's future and says the members have begun working on solutions to the gallery's problems. They are focusing on restructuring the organization to include a community board of directors. As he says, "Let the artists do what they know, and let the community board of directors, the governing board, take care of the part that the artists don't know how to do." He envisions the community board handling fund-raising and finances.

The gallery held a silent auction of members' artwork, and Toussaint has begun speaking to arts organizations about funding. He says that although Dinnerware is not paying its bills in full, it is paying them on the installment plan. To show that Dinnerware is still a strong venue for the arts in downtown Tucson, the gallery will open a quickly organized alumni exhibition as well its first interns show and Small Works by Eric Twachtman with a reception on Saturday, April 27 from 7 to 9 p.m. The alumni exhibition also is another attempt on Dinnerware's part to reach out to its past members. With the onset of debt, the current members called the gallery's Tucson alumni and asked them to come to a meeting on March 12, saying that Dinnerware needed their help. Only four alumni showed up, although others have shown more interest now that they realize the nature of the problem.

Dinnerware's current membership has dropped to eight. Several left because the situation was "too stressful," according to Toussaint. He says that the remaining members are working closely together and assigning tasks to solve the gallery's problems. Perhaps the crisis and the member commitment it demands will remedy what McLaughlin and Benna say has been a growing problem in Dinnerware: a lack of understanding about the nature of a cooperative gallery and about the responsibilities of being a cooperative member.

Benna says that in the cooperative's early years and in his first years with Dinnerware, the gallery gave its members a place to grow as artists, to make noncommercial, experimental work in a supportive environment. In return, artists gave their time and energy to foster the cooperative. According to Benna, as the years passed, many artists came to see Dinnerware membership mainly as a prestigious way to have exhibitions: "I think it's grown to where a lot of people passed through and didn't see it as an institution that needed [to be] cared for and nurtured." A practical problem with high turnover is that artists don't get a chance to learn from each other how to run the gallery and how to handle things like financial planning. Of the current membership of eight, only three have been with the gallery more than a year.

Benna, who was out of town during the alumni meeting, has heard people in the art community talking about how to help Dinnerware. He doesn't want to see the gallery go under, saying that Dinnerware legitimized him as an artist. Benna offers a powerful, personal testimonial to the importance of Dinnerware as a cooperative and alternative gallery: "I don't know if I'd be making art if it weren't for Dinnerware."

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