State Of The Arts

Is Downtown Taking A Downturn?

TERRY ETHERTON sits on an elegant leather couch in the studio where fabled Tucson architect Josias Joesler once worked. The adobe building's tile floors are cool on this hot June morning, and its thick mud walls hold at bay some of the noise from the nearby intersection of Campbell and River. Outside the studio windows, beyond the line of cars, is a view of Joesler's St. Philip's Church and Plaza and, beyond, the peaks of the Catalina Mountains.

Etherton, stalwart Tucson downtowner, is alighting at the edge of the foothills.

Come September, the art purveyor will open a new gallery in the 1937 studio at Joesler Village, the tony new shopping center that's sprung up around a pair of original Joesler buildings. The complex has already attracted the Eric Firestone and Michael Higgins galleries, and not so insignificantly won a mention in the magazine Architectural Digest. Etherton can hardly contain his excitement over moving into the high-profile renovated studio, whose historic ambiance will make a good match for the historic photographs he sells.

"My concept is that in this gallery I'll carry the vintage and regional material," he says. Those treasures, like 19th century Timothy O'Sullivan western landscapes and early 20th century Edward C. Curtis Native American images, have won Etherton a national reputation as a photography dealer.

Etherton says he's expanding his business, not abandoning the downtown, where his Etherton Gallery has been a fixture for 18 years. Opening in 1982 on Sixth Street, Etherton's been upstairs in the 1914 Oddfellows Hall on Sixth Avenue since 1989, where his innovative mix of contemporary art and historic photography have made him a dean of Tucson's gallery scene.

"I'm never going to leave downtown," he declares unequivocally. "But I have real mixed feelings about it. I don't have much faith in anything serious happening downtown, not for a while. Tucson's grown, it's more sophisticated, but we're missing an audience downtown."

Etherton is banking on capturing that sophisticated art audience in his new aerie on the lower slopes of the Catalinas, near the ritzy 85718 ZIP code and its expensive resorts. Like Firestone, who also shows arts-and-crafts furniture and paintings downtown on Congress, Etherton believes his two spaces will complement each other. He hopes his foothills gallery will entice new customers downtown, people who would never otherwise have ventured into its mean streets.

"We're ambassadors for downtown up here," Etherton says. "I think that my gallery will bring people downtown.... They'll assume it's quality downtown. They'll come down. What we're doing here is going to benefit people downtown."

THIS MEASURED BIT of optimism comes too little too late for Vicki Keller and George E. Huffman, ex-proprietors of RAW Gallery. Housed in an early 20th-century commercial building just across Broadway from the downtown Etherton space, RAW has been showing cutting-edge art since way back in 1993. But the husband-and-wife owners shuttered the place at the end of May, joining a long line of small gallery owners who soared into Tucson's much ballyhooed Arts District on a flight of optimism and then crashed and burned.

"The idea is that we (Tucsonans) are supposed to want places like this," says a discouraged Keller, who will start a graduate English program this fall in Richmond, Virginia. "In the day-to-day reality, I don't know if that's true."

On a recent afternoon, Keller hunkers down in front of a fan in the sweltering studio behind the RAW storefront, while her husband adds some last strokes to one of his typically expressionist canvases, a rollicking vision of colors and animals and alien monsters. It's a commission he needs to finish before the pair leaves town. Keller and Huffman know theirs is not the first alternative space to flicker out, and their reminiscences about galleries past becomes a mournful dirge.

"I remember how exciting it was when we first got here," says Huffman. "It was great."

"Central Arts was still at Magritte," remembers Keller, speaking of the longtime restaurant now replaced by Irene's. "Gary Auerbach (photography) was at the Hotel Congress. There was the Sixth Congress gallery, the Brian Puzey gallery, another artist next to Susan Johnson, Etherton. There was a wide range of types of art. Central Arts was really challenging. We thought, 'Tucson has an edge.' "

Bero Gallery, RAW's neighbor, was a much-respected cutting-edge photography space that failed almost two years ago. Other casualties in recent years include Huntington Trading Co., Berta Wright (closed after Wright died) and Pink Adobe, which hightailed it to the east side of town. Just this past winter, Robert Pearre Fine Art, in the Warehouse District just north of downtown, came and went within six months, its landlord padlocking it for non-payment of rent.

Despite its disappointing end, Huffman says he doesn't regret the decision to open RAW. The building housed his studio and the gallery became a venue to exhibit his own art and, eventually, the work of a whole troupe of experimental artists. RAW showed wild erotic art and untamed monster paintings, found-object constructions and an exhibition of "consumer art" curated by local musician Al Perry (who has since himself relocated to San Francisco). But these art adventures absorbed untold dollars from the couple's personal resources. Keller worked as a high-school English teacher until the last season, when she quit to manage the gallery, and her salary helped keep it afloat.

"We originally wanted to do this without grants, artists for artists," says Huffman, who works part-time for the Tucson Weekly as a production artist. "Vicki and I were the subsidizers. We subsidized a public service, a community service.... But we're not businesspeople. Yes, we lost a lot of money."

THE STATE OF the arts in Tucson's downtown Arts District is hard to gauge. Painter Jim Waid, whose gigantic desert mural will soon be installed in the new federal courthouse on Granada, opines that the downtown is "on the verge of getting a little worse." On the other hand, despite his frustrations, Etherton enthuses that "in general, the state of the arts here is healthier. There's more exposure.... Things have changed a lot in the last three or four years."

While financially marginal galleries like RAW and Pearre bite the dust, other institutions are enjoying the economic boom times. The Tucson Museum of Art is growing, and for the first time ever has hired a curator of contemporary art, Julie Sasse, the well-liked manager of the University of Arizona's galleries. A brand-new nonprofit gallery, GOCAIA, has been going great guns on Congress Street since last fall, and a group of young artists is pushing to start a new Museum of Contemporary Art. A dozen galleries have teamed up to form a promotional group called the Central Tucson Gallery Association.

Etherton has embarked on empire building downtown despite his doubts about its future. Also the manager of the Temple Gallery in the Temple of Music and Art, he's opening a third downtown space, this one on Broadway, in the space vacated by Central Arts. The new place, he says, will give him a streetside presence.

And Davis Dominguez Gallery is a singular downtown success story. Two seasons ago, proprietors Candice Davis and Mike Dominguez reversed direction and moved out of a tiny gallery in a foothills office park and into a cavernous space on Sixth Street in the trendy Warehouse District. They've never looked back.

"We've done well beyond our expectations," raves Dominguez. "We've been growing constantly since we moved here."

A favorable location in between the University of Arizona Museum of Art and the Tucson Museum of Art is one reason, Dominguez believes, while the glamorous space is another. Carved out of the old Tucson Storage and Transfer Warehouse, the sprawling gallery has a wooden vault ceiling and urbane concrete floors. The big space allows the showing of big paintings with big price tags. Gallery artist James Cook, a Tucson painter, has sold any number of his big buttery Western landscapes, paintings that straddle the boundary between cowboy art and expressionism. A retrospective last winter of the large luminous landscapes of Bruce McGrew, the late UA prof, was one of the gallery's most successful shows ever.

If Davis Dominguez is working against the sprawl pattern by rehabbing an old building downtown, the gallery has nonetheless profited by the boom in residential construction at the city's edges.

"A lot of big houses are being built," Dominguez observes, and their well-heeled owners are buying big paintings to fill them.

Yet these good times haven't rolled into the tiny alternatives like RAW. Nearly everyone on the arts scene laments the cyclical loss--and replacement--of the idealistic experimental galleries. Yet no one seems to know how to reverse this unfortunate arithmetic, which has plagued the Arts District since it was founded more than 10 years ago. If big galleries like Etherton are frustrated at missing out on art buyers who won't come downtown, their absence can be fatal to their small counterparts.

Even Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, at 20 years old one of the nation's longest-running art collectives, came perilously close to the financial brink this year; its longtime director, Nora Kuehl, quit this spring. Another veteran collective, Central Arts, was forced to abandon its highly visible corner at Broadway and Fifth, and take refuge at GOCAIA, where it has yet to assert its identity.

"I was sorry to see RAW go," Etherton says. "It was a nice little cutting-edge place that was terrific." But he points out that the little galleries can expect to fail as regularly as other small businesses in town. Only rarely do the young artists who start them have a business plan. "You put a $500 deposit down and open a gallery; that's the beauty and purity of it."

The Arts District was designed in part to protect artists from getting gentrified out of their urban 'hoods, and the high-minded artists running galleries often dislike treating their enterprises as a business. Such galleries learn the hard way that there's not much of a market for young art daredevils who prize shock value over living-room aesthetics. As Keller acknowledges, "We were too naïve. We showed emerging artists. We didn't look at sale-ability."

Nor are galleries immune to the forces that have pushed numerous eccentric retail stores out of downtown. The city, says Dominguez, "has done a poor job in creating a retail environment." As Tucson lurches ever outward across the desert, its shopping strips and stucco developments leach the city's historic downtown, and its old stores and homes are emptied or leveled. "Tucson," says Huffman, "is a tiny city-like place with suburban sprawl."

Even Philabaum Contemporary Art Glass, a stable, long-term gallery complete with track record and admirable business plan, grapples with the problem of a downtown run out of steam. Glass artist and proprietor Tom Philabaum wouldn't live anywhere but downtown--his house is in Armory Park--and he's an indefatigable downtown booster. Yet he confesses to having flirted for nine months with the idea of moving his gallery and studio, lock, stock and glass shards, up to the foothills.

"I had given up on downtown," he admits. He was being courted by Casas Adobes Plaza at Oracle and Ina, an older center now undergoing renovation, but the financial risk finally scared him off.

"Now I'm thinking of the Arts District again," he says.

Philabaum's establishment, where visitors inured to heat can watch his team of artists fire molten glass in a furnace called the glory hole, is in a too-small Tastee Freeze the artist renovated years ago. Located on Sixth Avenue, just south of downtown, it's on a one-way street near a bewildering Y intersection that deters many would-be glass seekers. Philabaum wants to move to a much bigger, more accessible space in the heart of downtown, and just last week he went warehouse shopping with an Arts District Partnership staffer.

"I'm in league with Terry (Etherton) and Mike (Dominguez)," he says. "They're constantly hounding me to stay downtown. I'd like to be in their area. We could be the anchors that could keep it all going."

Still, his pledge to stay downtown and do his part for Tucson's art heart is tinged by an increasing impatience with a city center perpetually falling short of revitalization. It kills him to think that his renewed commitment will keep him from the big bucks.

"The foothills customers won't come down. Our best customers are from Canyon Ranch; they spend a fortune, but local people are afraid."

And he wonders whether the arts are beginning to seep out of downtown.

"I see glass moving in everywhere," he says. A new gallery selling glass art (hand blown, he sniffs, but "a factory is pumping it out") has opened up at El Cortijo, a new complex of galleries at Skyline and Campbell. Specializing in cowboy art, accessible landscapes and crafts, El Cortijo's galleries are not exactly cutting edge. ("Most galleries are going to be cheesy," puts in painter Waid. "We're talking American taste here.") But serious contemporary art has long prospered in isolated pockets outside of downtown, notably at Eleanor Jeck's and Obsidian in St. Philip's Plaza and at Sharon Holnback's Apparatus Gallery in the Lost Barrio District on South Park. Lately the pace of trendy contemporary galleries opening in oddball places has accelerated.

A couple of Europeans this spring started up Arte Spazio in the nightmare zone near Tucson Mall, a neighborhood about as far conceptually from downtown's pedestrian streets as it is possible to be. Spazio hangs the work of young European artists in a big room glommed onto the back of Hometown Buffet, a chain restaurant on Oracle Road. An ex-ballet dancer and painter by the name of Richard Zelens opened Gallery Four Ten this winter in a depressed zone on Fort Lowell Road, showcasing his own pieces and works by other local artists.

Better known and better established is Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art, which exhibits advanced European and New York art on Grant Road, right next to ABC Furniture. Last fall Cherry completed a modernist building whose sleek lines contrast nicely with the neighborhood's tumble-down sheet metal buildings. The gallery's cinder block walls and concrete floors made a fine setting for a memorable recent show, She Devils on Wheels, Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury's installation celebration of American car culture.

Cherry's unique space has its own fierce admirers, who don't mind traipsing over to Grant to find her. She recently had a bunch of French art lovers, resident in Japan, who came to Tucson specifically to see her gallery, she says. Still, she would rather have gone downtown.

"There should be a central hub," she says. "It's better for the galleries, it's better for the clients." She would have moved downtown but for a surreal insurance snafu. She had a tattoo tenant, The Scary Guy, renting an outbuilding next to her house. His place was firebombed (no lives were lost), and Cherry got insurance cash, which she had to pour back into a new building.

Cherry has taken note of the art seepage out of downtown. "We see it happening, at River and Campbell, with Etherton." She's hoping that the new Central Tucson Gallery Association, a Mike Dominguez brainchild, will ward off the problem. About 12 galleries, all located in the quadrant bordered by Grant Road and 22nd Street, and Campbell Avenue and I-10, will do joint marketing and promotion. For a gala season opener Sept. 16, the galleries will kick off their new shows all at once, in hopes of getting both publicity and bodies. The association's rules are strict--fine arts galleries exclusively, no amalgam fine arts-and-crafts galleries like Apparatus, much to owner Holnback's dismay. Etherton declined to join.

SARAH CLEMENTS HAS been executive director of the Tucson Arts District Partnership ever since it started. Her mission: to revitalize downtown through the arts. Financed by the city and private funds, the Partnership runs a slew of programs, including Thursday ArtWalks, a loan program for arts spaces, the twice yearly Artists Studio Tours, the Art Square Crafts Market on Broadway, and Downtown Saturday Night.

Clements grows impatient when she hears the whispers about art disappearing from the central city. Leaning over a table in her office in an old bank building at Stone and Congress, she speaks emphatically.

"I have to totally disagree that the arts are leaking out of downtown," she says. "More artists are living and working downtown than ever before. Over 100 artists' studios are in the Warehouse District alone. In 1990, there were only about 20 or 25 artists' studios downtown. Downtown continues to be a place where art is made and created.

"More galleries have been going in than we've seen in several years."

Just in the last year or two, she points out, a half dozen new galleries have opened up in downtown proper and in the Warehouse District just north of the tracks. Raices Taller, an all-Hispanic gallery on Sixth Street, is a co-op that shows members' work: colorful, prickly art tinged by Mexican traditions. The Watercolor Gallery opened in a tiny space next to Davis Dominguez. Metroforms went in on Stone, in the old Ackerman stationery store, where craftsman Scott Baker shows paintings by locals and his own handcrafted furniture.

Others include Conceptual Design on Congress; Tucson Puppet Works in the old Huntingon Trading Co. space, an intriguing combination of a puppet theatre and contemporary paintings and sculpture; and GOCAIA, the highly visible three-storefront gallery at Congress and Fifth.

But it's precisely the Partnership's glee in the new galleries that galls people like the ex-RAW folks. Keller and Huffman think the group should do more to keep what the Arts District already has.

"The Partnership was giving grants last summer for recruitment and retention," Huffman says. "GOCAIA got 90 percent of it. We applied for money and didn't get a cent. We explained to the Partnership what our vision was. A little bit of money would have helped."

GOCAIA, the Gallery of Contemporary and Indian Art, was spearheaded by Moira Marti Geoffrion, a UA art prof and former head of the art department who had also been associated with Central Arts. Well connected nationally, Geoffrion has plenty of grants expertise. Keller and Huffman believe that in its eagerness to fill up the high-profile space vacated by Yikes Toys nine months before, the Partnership went with the big name.

Not so, says Clements. The money was targeted only for the recruitment of new galleries, not for saving existing ones. (Daryl Childs, proprietor of DC Harris next to RAW, did get some of the money for exterior work, Clements acknowledged.) And the money was really a forgivable loan--not a grant. It would be forgiven only if the receiving gallery stayed in the new place three years.

Fortified by the money, Geoffrion has gone on to stage a number of exhibitions showcasing local and nationally known Native American and contemporary artists. RAW, of course, went on to fail.

Bemoaning that failure, Clements agrees that "it's really important to have a full range of established and emerging creative presences downtown."

But what can be done to keep small galleries like RAW?

"That's a tough one," Clements acknowledges. "But a subsidy is not the right answer." And in any case, the city eliminated the short-lived recruitment program.

RAW was in a Catch-22. Though it never made a profit, technically it was a for-profit space, and the non-profit Partnership is not supposed to give cash to for-profit businesses. Unlike Dinnerware, Central Arts, GOCAIA, and even the Museum for Contemporary Art, it couldn't compete for grants. "We fell in the cracks between commercial and nonprofit," laments Keller. But nonprofits need a board, a charitable purpose, a shared vision, all the clutter that might compromise the personal vision of artist-run spaces like RAW.

"A conflict occurs," says Clements. "On one hand you have a strong artistic creative principle versus the reality of making a living. Some have successfully dealt with that conundrum."

THE ARTISTS BEHIND the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) are trying. Its founders, photographer James Graham, soft sculptor Julia Latané and former gallery owner David Wright, are artists with a distinctive contemporary vision--Latané won a purchase award from the TMA last year for a shiny cloth sculpture that looked like Miss Liberty's crown. But they realized they needed to create a non-profit, complete with a board and fundraising. They've been pushing for three years to put their contemporary art museum in the abandoned Thrifty block of Congress. Still in the hands of the federal government, the buildings were originally targeted for demolition to make way for a new federal courthouse. The feds opted instead for the space on Granada, but they've not yet declared the Thrifty block excess property. (See "Block Busters," June 11, 1998). Some business types are pushing for retail development on the site, but the artists have already pitched their idea to Mayor Robert Walkup.

"I'm really optimistic," Graham reports. "He told me, 'I walk by those buildings every day. Why don't they do something?' I said, 'Sir! I am they.' "

Married to Beth Walkup, a museum professional who formerly headed the Tucson Children's Museum, Walkup was to meet this week with the museum team. Meantime, while the feds bide their time, the MOCA group rented a battered warehouse on Toole Avenue and started up HazMat Gallery to give Tucson a taste of their aesthetics. Graham believes they've already proved their worth to revitalization schemes. Since its opening in December 1998, HazMat's cutting-edge shows, from performance art to an exhibition of performance art objects, have "brought in 7,000 people," Graham says proudly. "That's 7,000 more than you've ever had before. "

Barbara Jo McLaughlin is another downtown optimist. The new director of Dinnerware, she's an Illinois native who moved to Tucson six-and-a-half years ago, and a sculptor who shows her abstract wood pieces at Davis Dominguez. Like RAW's Keller and Huffman, she remembers when downtown was swinging upward "and then we watched the downtown go away." But she's all fired up about helping bring it back.

The way she sees it, with the new commercial galleries springing up elsewhere, downtown is newly positioned to market itself as a contemporary art mecca.

With more space and a new contemporary curator, TMA will be offering more contemporary art than it ever did before. The International Arts Center, an artists' living, performing and studio space in a renovated Y near the Warehouse District, is making its presence felt. She believes the new Central Tucson Gallery Association can play up the dramatic contrast between, say, the high-tech video show she'd like to put on at Dinnerware and other galleries' paintings of cowboys shooting rattlesnakes.

"It's so easy to sit back and see easy art," she says. "But we need to show things people can't see in the tourist galleries. Our place is thought-provoking, cutting-edge art. We're a nonprofit and we can afford to do interesting things.... El Cortijo is Scottsdale looking to expand down here. The art in Scottsdale has gotten sad. We're probably doing better contemporary art in Tucson than in Scottsdale.... I think our contemporary art scene is getting stronger."

After quaffing a lemonade at Café Quebec, McLaughlin strides along downtown's streets, energetically churning the air with her arms. "I like being downtown. I like the whole thing. I like being part of making downtown a big arts community." She gestures toward a row of vacant shops. "I'd like to see all the empty storefronts filled with art, and good art."

McLaughlin is a newcomer, but her enthusiastic vision is little bit like Terry Etherton's.

Etherton articulates his this way. "My dream is that there would be 50 galleries downtown, really good, really serious. I hope there's always room for alternatives.... They're part of the mix that makes it interesting."

Whether that dream will ever come about is as yet unknown. Meantime, Keller and Huffman of RAW have found another city whose downtown, they say, is not the stuff of dreams. It's already reality, and one that could serve as a model for Tucson.

"Downtown Richmond (Va.) is architecturally beautiful," says Keller. "There's been a lot of rebuilding to emphasize historic roots. There's a good mix of businesses and residences. On one block, you can get food, see art and go to bookstores. It's thriving."