The Art Of Survival

Davis Dominguez And Etherton Galleries Celebrate Their Anniversaries.
By Margaret Regan

ALONG ABOUT 1976 a couple of California refugees found their way to Tucson via Phoenix.

Candice Davis and Mike Dominguez decided to settle in Tucson "because it's beautiful and it was not crowded 20 years ago," Davis says. The trouble was, the city didn't have enough good jobs to go around. Davis was a former schoolteacher who had been in a graduate literature program at Arizona State University, and she didn't want to go back to working with kids. Dominguez, a former American Express salesman, wasn't too happy with the offer he got to be the regional Michelin Tire rep.

So they opened a gallery.

Terry Etherton was another Californian who took a shine to the Old Pueblo. Originally from Illinois, he'd lived in San Francisco for about 10 years, working as a cinematographer for industrial films and studying photography during slow periods. In the late '70s he used to come down to Tucson to visit friends and always made a point of stopping at the new Center for Creative Photography.

"It was unbelievable," he remembers. More than once at the Center he ran into some of the most famous photographers going--Gene Smith, Brett Weston and so on. Even more unbelievable to Etherton was that there was no private photography gallery in this photography-rich city.

So he opened a gallery.

Perhaps most unbelievable of all, in a city where selling cowboy art is the only sure route to making a decent art living, both contemporary art enterprises are still going all these years later. "Thirty-five years combined," Etherton jokes.

Davis Dominguez is a veteran of some 100 exhibitions, Etherton of about 200. Davis Dominguez Gallery is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a show called The Tucson Collection, an invitational featuring 34 small works by local artists. Etherton is marking the occasion with a 15th Anniversary Exhibition, showing some 65 works by about 60 artists he's shown over the years.

The two galleries have quite distinct personalities. Etherton is downtown in a large former ballroom in the old Odd Fellows Hall, while Davis Dominguez is in a small space in an office park on the booming northwest side of town. As a rule, both exhibit artists more or less from Tucson and the surrounding regions, but Davis Dominguez tends toward the more accessible, with the landscape painter Bruce McGrew one of the most popular of their gallery artists.

"Our spectrum is pretty broad," Davis says. "Our gallery goes from fairly representational landscape painting to the fairly minimalist," including sculptures by the nationally known Ben Goo.

Etherton's continuing emphasis on photography, particularly historic 19th-century works and cutting-edge contemporary mixed-media photography, has brought it a national reputation. And like Joel-Peter Witkin, a gallery photographer whose savage works require a parental warning label, Etherton's painters and sculptors tend to be a little more cutting-edge. Bailey Doogan, for instance, the feminist painter who frequently paints unerring portraits of aging bodies, is an Etherton regular. So is the edgy James Davis. But a lot of local artists have shown in both places: The current exhibitions have a number of artists in common, including Doogan, Davis, Jim Waid, Nancy Tokar Miller and Joy Fox.

"I'm a sucker for a great landscape," Etherton says. "But I also love artists like Alfred Quiróz that are satirical and provocative. And I like stuff with an edge, like Joel-Peter Witkin. But I also show (landscape photographer) Christopher Burkett. They can't be further apart. I avoid pure abstraction."

Ironically, Davis Dominguez doesn't show photography now, but it was photography that first pushed the gallery into the fine-arts biz. Their first gallery, The Hangup--Davis winces when she recalls the name--opened in the old Pioneer Building at Stone and Pennington in 1976. At first, the business sold just prints and posters to companies opening up new offices. Early on, the pair started doing framing and providing "published art," or posters, for large business clients, two sidelines that keep the business solvent.

"We didn't plan to go into fine art," Davis says. Then The Spectrum, a photography gallery near the UA, closed down, and its director, Floyd Robbins, asked Davis and Dominguez to take over a show that he'd already lined up. It was a remarkable piece of luck for the fledgling gallery: Their first official exhibition displayed works by the noted photographer Jack Welpott. Other photography shows followed, including one of Tucsonan Harold Jones.

The Hangup lost its lease around 1980, and skeptical downtown landlords wouldn't accept their proposals for other spaces. So the couple pulled up stakes, moved to a location north of Ina Road and changed the gallery's focus. They bought their present building on North Oracle Road in 1984.

"We stopped doing photography by the time Terry started," Davis says. "We went from photography to original graphics," lithographs, etchings, silkscreens, and so on. Then they moved into paintings after hooking up with such local painters as McGrew, Phil Lichtenhan and David Andres. And six or seven years ago they started showing sculpture.

Etherton, meantime, was also motivated in part by the demise of The Spectrum. He had made a friend of the late photographer Lou Bernal, who urged Etherton to carry on with a gallery that would take The Spectrum's place. In January 1982, Etherton opened his eponymous gallery in a cheap storefront on Sixth Street near Fourth Avenue. For four or five years, running the gallery virtually by himself, he showed only photography. In the summers, he'd close up shop and go on marathon drives to small museums and universities around the country, selling pieces from his growing collection of historic 19th-century photography. Those contacts, he says, still serve him in good stead today.

Eventually Etherton started showing some local painters, Gail Marcus-Orlen, Cynthia Miller, Doogan and Davis. But it was after the move to his current, 3,500-square-foot space downtown, in October 1989, that "I was really able to put up and show larger things," he says, including large floor sculpture. "I opened with a Luis Jimenez show."

The gallery's trademark nowadays is large, three-person shows, the ample floor space often taken up by big three-dimensional works. A couple of years ago, Etherton also took over the smaller Temple Gallery, where he puts on more intimate shows, usually by just one person.

Like Davis and Dominguez, Etherton's been able to bankroll his exhibitions by means of a more profitable companion business--in his case, selling valuable historic photos to large institutions, including the likes of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hallmark card company. But he's optimistic about the gallery, noting that recent non-stop flights to Tucson from Los Angeles and San Francisco have brought him a rash of some sophisticated art buyers.

"I'm really encouraged," he says. "Things are getting better...Tucson's grown up. The whole Arts District thing is stable."

Likewise, Davis and Dominguez are enthusiastic.

"Fine arts sales have improved dramatically over the last three or four years," says Davis. "There were years we'd look at each other and say, 'Why are we doing this?' "

They've never been tempted to switch over to more reliable sellers like painted cowboys and bronze Indians, though. As Dominguez puts it, "I'd just as soon sell insurance as sell art I don't believe in."

Tucson Collection '96, Part II: The Winter Collection continues through January 11 at Davis Dominguez Gallery, 6812 N. Oracle Road. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information call 297-1427.

15th Anniversary Exhibition continues through January 11 at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Thursday, and 7 to 10 p.m. on Downtown Saturday Nights. For more information call 624-7370. TW

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