If you want to see the state of contemporary art in Arizona, you'll have to go down to Tucson--and down the stairs at the Tucson Museum of Art. The Arizona Biennial, the only statewide juried exhibition open to all artists and craftspeople from or living in Arizona, and a show that traditionally dominates the museum's exhibition space, is wedged into the lower level this year. Not only is it in "the basement," as some call it, the show is undermined by its own catalogue.

The Biennial is historically considered "a big deal," as one Tucson artist put it, among the state's contemporary artists. This year's show, which enjoyed a jam-packed opening on June 16 and runs through August 20, was juried by known figures in the Arizona art community--Lisa Sette of the Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale; David Rubin, curator of 20th-century art at the Phoenix Art Museum and Tucson artist Jim Waid.

The show descends from the "Arizona Outlook" and "Arizona Crafts" exhibitions, which alternated years in the 1970s and combined to form the Biennial in 1980. This type of juried exhibition gathers, in Arizona's case, emerging and established artists from a wide geographic area. Such shows have a wonderful potential to educate both the artists and the public about the shape creativity is taking in their own backyards.

So I was disturbed to find the show located in the museum's lower level, or "basement." The location wouldn't be so bad if the amount of art could be reduced by a third or so. There's just too much art for so small a space. I understood that past Biennials were both upstairs and downstairs. Worse though, is executive director Robert Yassin's foreword to the exhibition catalogue wherein, instead of supporting the show, he points out what he calls the "clear lacks" in it, one of which is "traditional (sic) based Western American painting."

Since when could the absence of cowboy art be considered a lack of anything except bad taste? The phenomenon called "cowboy art" or "traditional Western American painting," with its hard and fast rules and ego appeal, often seems closer conceptually to commercial art or even advertising than fine art. Besides, the jurors reported that no "Western American" painting was even submitted. So what is the point of discussing its absence?

But first things first.
The "basement," as it turns out, is a sore point with most of the dozen or so artists I spoke with. The location sparks a lively--and pissed-off--debate, although most of the artists preferred to remain nameless. But many of them felt that for an exhibition as important as the Biennial's moniker would indicate, both the summer timing and physical placement of the exhibition presented the work as "a side show."

Joanne Stuhr, the Biennial curator, admitted being "prepared for complaints about the exhibition being on the lower level. I was braced for that," she said. "And it was my decision to have it on the lower level. But it was the only way to work it with the exhibition schedule."

Stuhr also disagreed with claims that the show's importance is downplayed by the summer scheduling. "I don't think this is necessarily a terrible time of the year. Attendance does slack off. As its [the Biennial's] importance is demonstrated, I'm sure that could change, too. It was off the schedule for a while," added Stuhr, referring to the Biennial's five-year hiatus from 1988 through 1993, "and it was a real fight to get it back."

When I asked why, Stuhr replied, "I don't know."
Lisa Sette, who helped jury the show, said she "didn't know it was going to be in the basement," and added, "It is a fair criticism that it is cramped. Maybe the museum will think about it in the future."

But some feel the downsizing of the show demonstrates how the museum feels about its importance now. "Putting the show downstairs is a statement in itself," said one prize-winning artist, laughing. "At the opening, people were just looking at each other and shaking their heads. The show is scheduled two years in advance! Maybe fewer pieces should have been accepted or something. But some of the stuff is installed in such a way that it is difficult to look at, much less appreciate."

Now let's move on to something completely different. Namely executive director Robert Yassin's statements in the catalogue--statements so bizarre that I thought them at first part of a weird prank. In his foreword, the director charges that while the Biennial "provides an extensive sampling of Arizona's art, it does not provide its full definition."

Yassin's remarks go on, "There is, for example, no Native American art in the show, nor much in the way of traditional (sic) based Western American painting or sculpture nor, in this edition of the show, an extensive representation of crafts. These are clearly lacks especially in Arizona, a state rich in such art."

He adds later, "If the show looks rather 'avant-garde,' it is because this show has always tended to deal with progressive art, and because of that this is the kind of work that was submitted for consideration."

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