Gallery in the Spotlight

DeGrazia's Gallery tries to forge ahead after years of conflict.

It's one of Tucson's greatest treasures. Along with the Mission of San Xavier del Bac, DeGrazia's Gallery in the Sun on North Swan Road is a place that Tucsonans can't wait to show visiting out-of-towners as an example of what we are and what we're all about.

From the metal mine-shaft doors at the entrance to the polished cholla tiles in the floor (dried cactus stamped with earth), the gallery-museum in the desert celebrates Ted DeGrazia's life and work. As soon as you walk through the door you, sense his presence everywhere--in the whimsical, haunting paintings on the wall, in the adobe design of the building, in the larger-than-life photos on the wall of a larger-than-life man.

The sprawling, spacious, single-story museum utilizes only natural material from the surrounding desert. Its soothing rooms are swept by muted light. Adobe and turquoise, armadas and railroad ties, cattle skulls, Indian masks, saguaro ribs, shards of pottery and a chunk of copper ore are displayed in equal prominence with a handmade silver carousel.

Adjacent to the museum is the Mission in the Sun, a hand-built adobe chapel completed in 1952 and dedicated to our Lady of Guadalupe--patron saint of the Yaqui Indians and of Mexico--and to the memory of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, the Jesuit missionary who built churches throughout the Southwest in the 17th century.

Nearby is the artist's grave. The man who could afford a mausoleum worthy of J.P. Morgan is buried as he wished, frontier-style, in a plain pine coffin covered by a mound of rocks so that his remains would be safe from marauding coyotes and scavenger birds. DeGrazia liked things like that. He talked that way. If museums wouldn't show his work, then he'd build his own museum. Like that ball park. He built it and the people came.

But with the death of his widow, Marion DeGrazia, at 97 this past December, the Gallery in the Sun is without a DeGrazia at the helm for the first time since its inception more than 50 years ago.

Before his death in 1982, DeGrazia called his lawyers together and set up the DeGrazia Arts and Cultural Fountain to maintain the property and its holdings. A board of directors was established. DeGrazia's motive, according to friends, was to make sure Marion didn't run off with a truck driver who could conceivably someday inherit the whole thing.

But Marion, who was named the foundation's Chairman of the Board for Life, didn't run off with a truck driver. She devoted the remainder of her years to running the business, perpetuating her husband's name and maintaining his artistic integrity. It was a large order. Arizona's Foundation Center for Statistical Services ranks the DeGrazia Foundation 13th among the state's top 50 foundations, listing assets as of June 2000 at nearly $26 million.

The director of the Gallery in the Sun is John Fowler, and he's about as focused as can be expected of any young man with seven bosses. Catherine Baron is the recently appointed curator. The agenda at the last board meeting included filling two vacancies on the board and naming a new chairman to replace Marion DeGrazia. There is talk of traveling DeGrazia exhibits, applying to the U.S. Postal Service for a special DeGrazia commemorative stamp and installing a copy of the bronze Yaqui Deer Dancer--now the centerpiece in the DeGrazia back courtyard--on the walkway in front of the Arizona State Museum with its spectacular collection of Indian art and artifacts.

From the beginning, Marion and the board of directors were at odds. The situation grew with mounting intensity and exploded nine years ago with the installation of Pasion por Frida, a large exhibit of paintings and folk art by various artists and craftsmen all inspired by Frida Kahlo. The exhibit originated at the Diego Rivera Studio Museum in Mexico City and came to Tucson to commemorate the relationship between DeGrazia and Diego Rivera, beginning 50 years earlier when the desert artist went to Mexico to seek out the master and work as his apprentice.

From the moment the show was mounted, Marion hated it. It was the first time paintings other than DeGrazia's were hung on the walls of the Gallery in the Sun.

"It's all nothing but blood and penises," she said, vowing not to enter the gallery again until the show was gone. And she didn't. The fact that her home was attached to the gallery and located adjacent to the back courtyard made such a boycott restrictive to say the least. The show ran from Jan. 22 through the end of March.

Buoyed by the "Fridamania" that was sweeping the art world at the time, it drew the biggest crowds the gallery had ever seen. The board wanted to set up traveling exhibits of DeGrazia's work in museums around the country. Marion was adamant that her husband's work not leave the gallery. The Board wanted to hold cocktail receptions at the gallery to announce special exhibits and events. Marion thought they were a waste of time. There were personality clashes.

In recent years, the board tried to squeeze Marion DeGrazia out. There was talk of closing the gallery's back entrance so she couldn't get in. Employees were told if they followed any of her instructions, they could get fired. Her phone privileges at the gallery were terminated, forcing her to install a private line at her residence. Marion had a two-story tower added over her residence. She said it was so she could enjoy the sunsets against the mountains, but employees speculated it was so she could see what was going on.

As were her wishes, Marion wanted no public service when she died. She wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered under a mesquite tree on the property. A small memorial service was held in the Guadalupe chapel, attended by 40 or so close friends and employees. But Marion's ashes--she was a fighter until the end--weren't ready in time for the service. Another memorial service was scheduled for the following week, but this time no mesquite tree could be located on the property. One had to be hastily planted.

You can be sure it will grow sturdy and strong.

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