On the Chopping Block

Denial of a city grant, arts council troubles jeopardize a popular alternative high school

The invitational art exhibit at the Temple Gallery, Bonfire of the Vanitas, showcases some of Tucson's best-known artists.

Bailey Doogan, who just sold a major work to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is exhibiting a pencil drawing. James G. Davis, who had a career retrospective at University of Arizona Museum of Art two winters ago, submitted one of his edgy oil paintings on paper. Along with several dozen others, including master pastel artist Lynn Taber, painters Cynthia Miller and Gail Marcus-Orlen, and tin collagist Rand Carlson, they made pieces conjuring up the "vanity" of fleeting life.

Alongside these artistic heavyweights is Norbert Garcia, an 18-year-old about to graduate from a TUSD alternative high school.

"Norbert has the best painting in the show," boasts Simon Donovan, an artist and Garcia's teacher the last two years. "And I say that as someone who has a painting in the show. This kid's plan is to make art history."

Garcia's "La Petite Mort" is an allegorical look at sex and death, with a skull and body parts floating against a background of deftly layered greens. The young artist, who only began painting seriously two years ago, this fall is headed for the prestigious California College of the Arts in San Francisco on a full financial-aid package.

Garcia gives much credit for his success to ArtWORKS! Academy, which reaches out to artistically minded dropouts and near-dropouts. After being booted out of the Tucson High magnet program after his sophomore year for low grades, Garcia enrolled in the 26-student school in an El Con Mall storefront. ArtWORKS offers academics in the morning, and intensive studio art--taught by working professional artists--in the afternoon.

"It was amazing," Garcia says. "It was so perfect. I flourished in art--we jumped in quickly. And academically, I did well."

But ArtWORKS' success in turning around at-risk students--and creating young artists--was recently threatened by a sudden loss in city funding that forced its supporters into an 11th-hour scramble to raise money.

The school, a partnership between the school district and the Tucson Pima Arts Council, has received in the neighborhood of $100,000 from the city every year for the past six years. Earlier this month, the city's community services division denied the arts council's $115,000 request for the school.

"It doesn't mean the program isn't worthy," says Ron Koenig, an administrator in the city's community development division. "Twenty-six agencies applied for a total of about $1.9 million. Eleven groups were funded for $683,000. It's a question of costs going up and less money available."

But the loss of the expected funding seemed particularly ill-timed to the school's ardent supporters. El Con had already asked the school to leave by the end of May. Anticipating the move, earlier this year, TUSD inked a deal with the city's real-estate office to lease a downtown warehouse at 35 E. Toole Ave. at the nominal cost of $300 a year. The district was revving up to renovate the space this summer, and to reopen the school this fall in the larger, artier space that could accommodate twice as many students. Architect Bob Vint had already been enlisted to design the renovation.

Located next door to a cluster of artists' studios, "It's funky enough for artists' tastes," says Robert Mackay, TUSD's director of alternative education. "We agreed to do significant improvement to the building. We were planning to use $200,000 in designated bond money."

Those plans crashed to a halt when the grant money didn't come through. Mackay says if TPAC were forced to pull out of the partnership, he would not be able to justify the expenditures to his boss, Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer. But TPAC's leaders, saying they're determined to keep ArtWORKS open, have already begun the search for alternative funds. They need to make up the shortfall by the end of May.

"I am not going to let that program go down," declares Eric Abrams, a real-estate developer and immediate past president of the TPAC board. "I believe in this program. It makes sense to fund programs like this now, instead of building prisons later."

Abrams says he's already extracted promises for $40,000, from private donors and possibly from some City Council ward funds.

David Hoyt Johnson, TPAC interim director, echoes Abrams, saying, "We certainly recognize the value of the program, and we'll do everything possible to make sure it continues."

Given their reassurances at an emergency meeting of the TPAC executive board last Friday, Mackay says, "Clearly, at this point, we'll move forward. I'm feeling much better than I was a week ago."

Abrams says he's making the case that the arts-oriented school will be a lively new entry in the Rio Nuevo district. "It could be a building block, and we're talking about opening it in three months."

If the school's supporters are now optimistic that ArtWORKS will survive, the fracas illuminated fissures both in the city and the arts council. With the city's real estate and community services departments seeming to work at cross purposes, supporters grumbled that the city's right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing.

"We need to find out why the funding was lost," says artist David Aguirre, a TPAC board member.

Koenig acknowledges that his office's grant-making decisions were "independent" of the real-estate deal. A citizens' committee reviews the grants and, after a vetting by staff, the mayor and council approve them. That committee only looks at the application in hand.

For its part, the arts council has been troubled for months by board in-fighting, resignations and even a death. Some see the failure to get the grant as one more unfortunate result of the loss of Albert Soto, the TPAC arts administrator who died suddenly at Thanksgiving.

"Albert would have shepherded this through," Mackey says.

Soto was officially made director of ArtWORKS last summer, and he wrote at least one previous grant for the school as development director. He championed the program in assorted ways; for instance, after he made contact with Oxbow, an elite arts boarding school in California, a succession of top ArtWORKS students--like Garcia--have won scholarships to spend a semester there.

To make matters worse, the grant application came due in March, when TPAC was embroiled in a fractious battle over the fate of director Mary Ann Ingenthron. The board was divided over whether to terminate her, and in the end, she handed in her resignation. The new development director, Amanda Place, left shortly after, and the grant application was left to a temporary hire.

The city grant review committee criticized the application in a report, writing that while ArtWORKS appeared to be a good program, the application was missing important data on demographics, staff and timelines and assorted local statistics. Particularly damning was the committee's assessment of TPAC's "weak case management."

Was it TPAC's infighting that almost caused the school to shut down? Abrams responds by acknowledging that the arts council is "experiencing growing pains" but is shifting gears to "become a leader in Rio Nuevo."

Meantime, far from the squabbling adults, ArtWORKS's teachers are doing end-of-school-year wrap-up, packing up for the move and honoring its student artists. (In addition to Donovan, artist Lora Alaniz, who's now in a three-person show at Dinnerware, teaches arts.) Four of the five graduating seniors aced their AIMS requirements, principal Mackay says, and the fifth had to augment only the math score with points tallied from classes.

Garcia is looking forward to his graduation party, and to art school.

"It's only since I met Simon Donovan that I decided to pursue painting and sculpture," Garcia says. And after the scholarship semester at Oxbow, "I began to think art was something I could do."

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