Spaced Out in Tempe

Tempe Arts Center's 11-year home and exhibit space was razed this month. In the '80s, TAC was Tempe's brightest cultural light; now its future is looking dim.

The Tempe Arts Center (TAC) has always existed precariously. It was conceived by a well-meaning city committee in 1981 to be an independent, nonprofit spot of culture on then-run-down Mill Avenue. It grew into an ad hoc arts center that mounts a wide range of exhibits and sends artists into Tempe's elementary schools, and once built a hodgepodge sculpture garden on the deck of the old filled-in pool at Tempe Beach Park.

Since opening in 1982, the center has scraped along with too little money, inadequate space, and too many fires to quell to do any genuine planning. Its devoted friends and patrons have never been able to convert their enthusiasm into the cash or political muscle needed to secure a permanent home in downtown Tempe. And its programs--good as they occasionally are--have never drawn the kind of crowds that would convince the city to give the center more than a modest yearly dole (usually $40,000 to $60,000) of cultural conscience money.

Even so, this year has been rougher than most. In April, the center lost its 11-year home in the city's old pool buildings at Tempe Beach Park to the advancing Rio Salado Project, Tempe's mammoth recreational and commercial development along the Salt River. Its director, Vicki Stouffer, resigned. And just last week, the interim director, and curator, Claudia Anderson, also departed--the fifth director or curator to leave the center in the past four years. Anderson is leaving the area. The previous four moved on to more stable and remunerative arts jobs here and elsewhere.

Anderson and Stouffer say the center's troubles can be traced to the vicious cycle afflicting many small arts organizations. Stouffer, who left in April to head Business Volunteers for the Arts, in Phoenix, says, "We always needed more money so we could do more programming. But more programming meant more staff, and that required more money and spending more time fund raising."

Other former directors chose not to speak for attribution.
Despite TAC's lack of long-term funding, leadership or exhibit space, its board seems to be taking the difficulties in stride. Some of its members even speak brightly about the organization's future. They say they'll appoint an interim director and mount a full-fledged search for a more permanent leader who knows how to raise funds. They'll raise the director's salary--now only $25,000--to a level that would encourage someone to see the position as more than a steppingstone to higher ground. They'll find a new curator and develop a board that knows how to move and shake the way successful nonprofit boards should. And they'll do whatever it takes to secure a permanent home.

In the meantime, TAC's office, exhibits and effects are scattered in three places. It has no gallery shop. And its final show of the season is squeezed into a space at the Mat Corner, a frame shop across from Arizona State University's museum of art, where TAC's board hopes to mount all of next year's shows.

The board's optimism might be a remnant of the organization's history. The center has been in plenty of pickles over the years. But this one has many longtime Center friends asking if this is its last picture show. And if it isn't--then how can such a dinghy of art be expected to float on its own in a town flooded with city- and university-driven culture? Or is an arts center even necessary amidst the cultural profusion of ASU's programs and the nearly $1.4 million the city plans to spend on public art in the next year?

Like most squabbles over public funding of the arts, this one has produced plenty of muttering. Some of TAC's more ardent partisans fault the city for not providing the high level of support that neighboring Phoenix, Scottsdale, Chandler and Mesa have given to their cultural facilities. Key members of Tempe's Municipal Arts Commission (TMAC), which was formed in 1987 to advise the city on cultural programming, snipe back that the center is a private organization that just doesn't know how to make a living.

The truth seems to lie somewhere in between. In some respects, TAC's decline is a measure of downtown Tempe's economic success. At its inception, the arts center was viewed by the city's political and cultural leaders as a key ingredient of the Mill Avenue redevelopment. But in the past 10 years, its role has steadily diminished to that of a bystander that can't keep up with downtown's economic pace.

"Over the last 20 years, we've seen a greater than tenfold increase in land values," says Dave Fackler, the city's deputy director of development services. Available space that used to sell for $3.50 a square foot in the early 1980s now goes for about $45. During the same period, the center's budget ($130,000 to $180,000 yearly) and membership (about 200) have remained comparatively stagnant. Even in the "cheap" days, it couldn't afford to keep its $3,000-a-month home on the second floor of the old Tempe Hardware Building on Mill Avenue north of University.

Downtown's arithmetic has shaped more than just the center's fate. It has created Mill Avenue's civic and commercial identity. In the past two decades, the once-funky strip of empty buildings and small businesses has evolved into a busy food and clothing court dominated by chain stores. City officials and private developers say the chains are about the only businesses that can afford today's tab. Yet as homegrown organizations, like the arts center, have been hootered to the periphery, Tempe's downtown planners have begun to worry about the boredom that comes with an excess of brand names.

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