Visually Speaking

Tucson's visual arts scene has seen ups and downs during the last 20 years; it's no different today

Twenty years into the Tucson Weekly's careful chronicling of Tucson's visual arts, the scene is suddenly awash in national press.

Upscale Departures magazine in November named Etherton Gallery, now in its 23rd year, one of the 10 best photography galleries in the United States.

Glossy Travel + Leisure magazine praised Anne-Marie Russell, director of downtown's edgy Museum of Contemporary Art, as "brilliant and bright-eyed." Also in February, Southwest Art, which veers toward painted cowboys, declared, "Once a sleepy oasis of mountains, valleys and sunbaked adobe homes, Tucson is becoming a mecca for artists and collectors alike."

Not to be outdone, Sunset magazine opined in its February issue, "In Tucson, you'll find art in the most amazing places."

All I can say is: Thanks for noticing, guys, and glad to have you on board.

In recent years, the Tucson art beat has been as lonely as it gets. Neither the Star nor the Citizen regularly reviews exhibitions anymore, though both once had designated writers who routinely covered art. (A happy television exception is Sooyeon Lee, who does weekly arts pieces on KUAT's Arizona Illustrated.)

Even the Tucson Weekly, which from the beginning prided itself on in-depth arts coverage, got rid of its full-time arts editor and writer in July 2001, after the paper passed into the hands of Wick Communications. (That was me, folks. Now I'm a free-lance writer and my arts editor title was transferred to another free-lancer.)

But the glowing national coverage comes at a time when the downtown gallery scene is bleak. I've written about the visual arts for the Weekly since February 1990, and while the scene flourished in the early '90s, it eventually took a nosedive. For me, downtown's deserted streets are haunted by the ghosts of galleries past: Bero, Raw, Childs, Puzey, Berta Wright, Pink Adobe, Sixth Congress, Café Magritte, GPI and Central Arts. Elsewhere in town, we've lost Apparatus in the Lost Barrio District, Elizabeth Cherry on Grant Road, Industry on Sixth Street and José Galvez on Fourth Avenue.

Despite all the losses, "I still think we have an incredibly strong core of arts assets," says Vera Uyehara, executive director since last year of the Tucson Arts District Partnership. "I don't think the economy has destroyed that. There's a lot of heartache in terms of cash flow, but it's not completely destroyed. We will endure."

Back In 1984, when the fledgling Weekly first hit the streets, there was no Arts District at all. Downtown was famous mostly for its seedy bars, notably the Esquire and the Manhattan, whose decorative tin ceiling was punctured by a bullet hole. Artists had slowly been moving into the neighborhood's shabby spaces, and a bunch of agitators among them started meeting in 1984 to plan how to keep the central city safe for artists.

Eventually, they hit upon a campaign to save the venerable Temple of Music and Art, which was threatened by a planned conversion into law offices. Coalescing as the Tucson Arts Coalition, they fought the battle in endless meetings with the city, aided by a highly visible Save the Temple newspaper campaign conducted by the Weekly's then-assistant editor, Howard Allen. The city finally did the right thing. Council members forked over $4.3 million to buy the Temple outright, and kicked in another $1.3 million as seed money for an Arts District. The idea was that the arts would save downtown, with a rehabilitated Temple of Music and Art anchoring a revitalized central city.

I was following the rowdy campaign in the papers. Not too long before, I had been an arts writer at a daily paper back east, but in 1988, transplanted to Tucson, I was a stay-at-home mom with two little children. One blazing afternoon that summer--could it have been 115 degrees?--I recklessly decided to take the kids downtown and see this ballyhooed Arts District for myself. My daughter was then an unruly 3-year-old in a blue dress and speedy sneakers, and my son was a cheery baby in a stroller. (To put the Arts District's lifespan in perspective, consider that the little girl is now a college freshman and the baby a high school sophomore.)

We ditched the car and set out on the torrid streets in search of art. Then, as now, it wasn't easy to find. We inadvertently landed first among the awful 1960s-moderne buildings at Broadway Boulevard and Stone Avenue, relics of Tucson's disastrous urban-renewal past. After some aimless wandering among parking lots and forbidding concrete facades, I happened to spot tiny Café Poca Cosa on Scott Avenue. I dragged my wilting entourage inside.

The handkerchief-sized oasis--now being evicted in the name of still another massive revitalization scheme, this one called Rio Nuevo--turned out to be charming, its cooler powerful and its chef-owner Suzana Dávila warmly welcoming of the tykes.

Fortified with a Mexican lunch, we set out again into the scalding streets and happened upon WomanKraft, at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Congress. I don't remember what art we saw there that day, but I do remember that gallery director Linn Lane took one look at us and wordlessly handed us cool drinks.

Back outside, my daughter broke loose and galloped in those sneakers right into Arizona Alley. Luckily, this being the deserted downtown, there were no cars to run her down. Right after this near-death incident, a kindly young Mexican-American man gently questioned me ("Are you from out of town?") and warned me to get those children out of the sun NOW.

I didn't venture back into the elusive Tucson Arts District again for a while. But the lessons from that dangerous day still resonate. Lesson One: While a couple of blocks of old-time Congress charmingly survive, Tucson destroyed too many buildings of the sort that contribute to a healthy urbanism and attract amenities like galleries, cafés and shops. That architectural destruction didn't end with urban renewal, either.

In the late '80s, protesting artists managed to stop a misguided state scheme to slice Aviation Highway right through downtown, but they failed to save the Owl's Drugstore and other historic buildings at Sixth and Congress. The handsome Lerner's building at Stone and Congress was tarted up into a windowless "switch hotel," and now, Dávila's little Poca Cosa is getting the boot. When will the city ever learn that a single thriving enterprise is worth any number of pie-in-the-sky plans existing only on paper? And downtown desperately needs a historic district to protect the remaining old buildings. And how about a little shade?

Lesson Two: Feisty arts characters like Linn Lane survive, but not without a struggle. Despite all their hard labor fixing up their Congress Street space, Lane and her group were kicked out by a new landlord who didn't care for their art. Luckily, a donor helped the WomanKrafters buy a wreck of a Queen Anne house on South Stone, and they repaired it through their own sweat equity. Nowadays, the artists who've put their sweat equity into the state-owned warehouses on Toole Avenue and Sixth Street must have their investment protected. What kind of an Arts District do you get without real-life artists in it?

And Lesson Three: My daughter is alive today because the streets of Downtown were empty on that long-ago afternoon. For that, I can be grateful. Nevertheless, Tucson clearly needs more people living downtown. Thirty-five years ago, city officials bulldozed hundreds of dwelling places in the heart of the city, and they've been scratching their heads ever since, dimly puzzling over where all the people went. Rio Nuevo will put some housing back downtown, but it's important to protect the rights of the few who have been living there precariously all these years, the artists and the elderly and the disabled.

In 1990, I got my chance to put some of these thoughts in writing when I answered an ad for an arts writer at the Weekly. I showed up at the office, then in an old house in El Presidio, along with my clips and my companions of the previous arts district safari. "I'm here to apply for the arts job," I said. The receptionist didn't say anything at first. She looked down at the preschooler clinging to my leg, then at the toddler straddling my hip, then up at my face. "Good for you!" she said.

It was a happy introduction to the old family-friendly Weekly, where the personnel policies matched the paper's progressive politics. In those early years, managing editor Angela Sommers kept a basket of toys under her desk; art director Royce Davenport had a ready supply of colored markers and discarded publicity photos for visiting young artists; and writer Jim Nintzel entertained kids with his boxing nun puppet. Children were welcome to sit under desks or on laps, as they preferred, and for at least a year, at the subsequent office at Cushing Street and Meyer Avenue, the Weekly had a full-time resident baby. Her swing, bassinet and changing table stood in the first and most visible office by the front door.

Doug Biggers, the founder of the paper and its publisher until 2000, can be proud of presiding over a business that celebrated and supported working parents. And as my kids grew, so did my job. When Arts Editor Robert Baird left in 1991, I became arts editor; for a while, I was calendar editor as well. Eventually I added dance, theater, a column and news reporting. Doug and Managing Editor Dan Huff urged me to go full-time, promising they'd be accommodating toward my family. I finally agreed, and they more than kept their word.

I thrived in that atmosphere, and I found switching back and forth from arts reviewing to news reporting a heady intellectual challenge. I used to tell people I had the best job in Tucson. My kids thrived, too. They got to see everything from art to dance to opera to a ludicrous performance piece at Dinnerware in which a woman stripped off every stitch and intoned, "I'm going into my garden now."

It's impossible to list all the visual arts exhibitions I've loved in 14 years, but one that stands out is the first I wrote about--painters Eriks Rudans, Cynthia Miller and Carol Brown at Etherton. Other highlights: Bailey Doogan's charcoal women, Michael Cajero's searing sculptural Diana, Will Saunders' luminous painted collages, Jim Waid's and James Cook's luscious paintings at TMA, Gwyneth Scally's old-masterly paintings, Robert Colescott's Africana paintings, which got him chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.

I got a first-rate education in photography from Trudy Wilner Stack, the now lamentably departed curator at the Center for Creative Photography. Danny Lyons' photographed convicts trapped in godforsaken Texas prisons, and Clara Gutsche's austere nuns in cloisters are just a few of the haunting images Wilner Stack gave us.

Some of the arts stories moved into news. Tucson's growing art rep was deservedly besmirched when the police, without benefit of search warrant, raided a gallery one day in 1993 and absconded with nude photographs made by Robyn Stoutenburg of her little boy. An assistant prosecutor charged Stoutenburg with an absurd array of crimes that could have landed her in jail for 12 years.

The same prosecutor let Dan Huff know that if he so much as published the photos, he, too, could get pitched in the slammer for 12 big ones. Dan quite rightly went into a rage, sputtering about government censorship and prior restraint. He immediately published every one of the Stoutenburg photos he could get his hands on. It was one of the Weekly's finest moments. When the paper came out with the gallery of photos--no other paper dared print them--along with my (exclusive!) interview with Stoutenburg, the case against her quickly unraveled. Anybody could see that the notorious pictures actually were sweet images of a little boy holding a chicken his mom was about to cook.

Other big arts stories centered on the city's always fractious museums. After covering their bitter struggles, I'd advise anyone to worry about the grandiose cluster of new museums envisioned by Rio Nuevo: We're not doing too well with the museums we've got. In the late 1990s, the CCP came close to total malfunction as a result of wildly inappropriate meddling and mismanagement by UA Dean of Libraries Carla Stoffle and ex-UA president John Schaefer. Doug Nickel, the new director they finally hired after three director-less years, has sterling credentials, an impressive intellect and a fine vision for the future. But these happy ends in no way justify the nefarious means by which they got there.

The same can be said of the Tucson Museum of Art. Throughout the '90s, the TMA tossed and turned under the hurricane-style management of director Robert Yassin. But through all the sturm und drang, he pulled the long-troubled museum back together, ably aided by longtime curator Joanne Stuhr and the more recently hired Julie Sasse. When Yassin finally left, after 10 years, the museum hired Laurie Rufe, a director who promised calm and professionalism. But then, in a move that seemed to signal this museum will never be righted, Rufe abruptly fired Stuhr. They've got a new guy at TMA now, flush with shiny credentials. But as at the CCP, the way they got there is an ethical quagmire.

Genial, gentlemanly Peter Bermingham, longtime director of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, died in 1999. Luckily, the UAMA still has its curator, Peter Briggs, but the new director, Charles Guerin, has hardly begun to fill Bermingham's generous shoes. The Museum of Contemporary Art, brainchild of James Graham and Julia Latané, provided delicious copy in the mid-'90s when the voluble Graham battled Carol Carpenter, then of the Tucson Downtown Alliance, over a prime spot on Congress. Nowadays, a couple of directors later, MOCA seems happily settled in its rickety warehouse on Toole.

Former Downtown galleries are lighting out for other parts of town, with Philabaum transposed to St. Philip's Plaza, Dinnerware dispatched to Fourth Avenue and Metroform metamorphosed to the Warehouse District. Slick commercial galleries have alighted in the foothills, while Davis Dominguez fled those foothills for the warehouses.

Vera Uyehara, of the Arts District, views the changes optimistically. Downtown is not the only place for art, she says, and as the national press suggests, Tucson may be poised for a rosy art future.

"We are really moving into a new era. ... We have numerous art zones, each with their own personality. All of them have really interesting possibilities."

It's as good a statement as any with which to greet the next 20 years.

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