Tom Philabaum's gallery shimmers with elegant vases, translucent baubles and other delicate examples of fine glass art.
Such work has made the downtown business a must-see for Tucson visitors, and has cemented its worldwide reputation for exquisite craftsmanship.
Indeed, a good share of that global audience was slated to arrive here this spring, for an annual conference hosted by the Seattle-based Glass Art Society. The event had been largely organized by Philabaum and folks from the Sonoran Glass Art Academy he helped found. All said, it was expected to draw some 2,000 participants from 54 countries, with a focus on the contributions of Latin-American glass artists. The total boost for Tucson's beleaguered economy was projected at $1.5 million to $2 million.
But then came the Arizona immigration law known as SB 1070. Soon after the measure was signed, cancellations started rolling in.
Before long, the Glass Art Society announced that it was moving the conference to Seattle.
Society executive director Pamela Figenshow Koss didn't return a phone call seeking comment. But to Philabaum and other local artists—who'd already devoted months to planning—the decision was devastating.
"When the society called me and told me they were canceling, they said the reason was because of economics," he says. "They said that many people had called the Seattle board office and said they were going to boycott, to make a statement against SB 1070. This was supposed to be about our international role with our southern neighbors, sharing information and helping each other the way neighbors are supposed to do."
Instead, it only seemed to widen the rift tilled by SB 1070, as the conference—to be titled Viva el Vidrio, or Long Live the Glass!—joined a growing list of similar gatherings that have abandoned Arizona since the law's passage.
It's a cruel blow for a state already reeling from a housing-industry collapse. Nor have Arizona's political leaders—from State Sen. Russell Pearce, who sponsored the law, to Gov. Jan Brewer, who tapped it as a catapult to retaining her office—accepted responsibility for seriously damaging the convention industry.
In October, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress published a report detailing just how heavy that loss has been. Compiled by a highly regarded Scottsdale economic consulting firm, Elliot D. Pollack and Company, the report's numbers are not pretty: Cancellation of events such as the Glass Art Society conference have cost the state at least $45 million in convention business this year.
Gathering that data from a gun-shy hospitality trade was no small task, says Marshall Fitz, the Center for American Progress' director of immigration policy. "They don't want to highlight that maybe there is a reason for people to be going to another state and finding another venue for their conferences.
"It's the type of thing that industry experts are acknowledging because they know it's serious, and it's a concern. But it's also something they're loath to be too specific about, because it's such a competitive industry."
That posture, in turn, may blunt some of the anger that would otherwise be directed at lawmakers who enacted SB 1070.
According to Fitz, those cancellations have run the gamut, "and many didn't even have a Latin-American nexus to them. One of the first groups to pull out (of Arizona) was a national black fraternity association that was having its conference there. That was clearly not because they themselves were going to be profiled under the law, but rather just a revulsion at the law.
"I think there is a misperception that this has been an organized boycott," he says. "And certainly, there were calls for people to boycott the state. But I think the vast majority of cancellations have not come in response to those calls. They've happened because either their members or the leaders in an organization are uncomfortable going (to Arizona) when there is this type of cloud swirling over the state—or because there's a direct concern with the substance of the law."
That discomfort is seen in the tortured ways that nonpolitical organizations such as the Glass Art Society reach their decisions. Philabaum, a former society board member, says there were constant communications with the Seattle headquarters as the conference plans gelled. Then those lines suddenly went silent.
"There were unreturned e-mails to their office. The month prior, I had a feeling that something was not right. Normally, I get a response immediately from them on anything I ask. It took several days to get an answer, and sometimes it wasn't even an answer."
Finally, he was told the society was pulling out not due to politics, but because it feared a financial disaster if the conference faced wide-scale boycotts. "I tend to agree with that," Philabaum says. "Because they are a ... nonprofit organization, they're not allowed to make political statements."
Still, the decision left hard feelings. "It was a huge disappointment," he says. "There are people who will never go back to the organization."
As president of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Lea Marquez Peterson understands the fine line that organizations must tread: They may feel the fallout from SB 1070, but they must also temper their criticism out of larger business concerns.
"I talked to Hispanic-chamber presidents across the U.S. and implored them to not boycott us during this time period," she says. "I explained to them that this is a detrimental impact on our business community."
She says she told them: "Certainly, speak out. Talk to your elected officials, and let's push for federal immigration reform. But don't hurt the small businesses that are located here in the state of Arizona."
Meanwhile, down at his Sixth Avenue gallery, Tom Philabaum is turning a political lemon into lemonade. Newly refashioned as a regional event, his Viva el Vidrio conference has already enlisted several downtown galleries and the Tucson Museum of Art. City and county governments are also chipping in, as are local businesses. The gathering is shaping up to be a showcase event for early April—though it's a more humble event than originally planned.
"By resurrecting this, we're hoping to make a real quiet statement about the language we speak," he says, "which is the language of art and glass and peace."