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Scottsdale gallery owners don't often coo about competitors the way they do about Kraig Foote. They say he's a quiet saint in a racket filled with gossipy sinners.
"He really is pretty special," says Lisa Sette, who owns the Lisa Sette Gallery a few doors away from Foote's Art One gallery on Marshall Way.
But then, Foote's place isn't the usual art barn. Since opening six and a half years ago, Art One has been devoted to showing and selling art by the area's youngest or least-known talents -- many still in college and high school.
Collectors, artists and fellow gallery owners characterize the enterprise as a cultural farm team, where artists not yet ready for the major leagues can settle into their aesthetic positions and hone their skills.
"He's really carved himself a niche as an incubator of young talent," says Michael Costello, director of Scottsdale's Vanier Galleries. "So he provides a pretty valuable opportunity that few other galleries can. In fact, many small galleries not only can't do what Foote does, they don't want to."
Building a commercial venture on the sale of what many in the art business call, with a sneer, "student work" has rarely been seen as a winning proposition. When Foote opened his shop in 1993, some art dealers muttered that a gallery of student art would further diminish the area's already limited cultural integrity.
But Foote's generosity and devotion to the cause of young artists has won over many artists, dealers and collectors.
"I don't think anybody could ever say that Kraig is a money-hungry art dealer," says art collector Anton Schiffenhaus. "He cares about these artists. And cares about them enough to continue at this."
Over the years, Foote, 37, has given cash-strapped artists small grants to purchase needed art supplies. He's lent them money for studio and apartment rents. And he's provided students with air fare to fly to college interviews.
Through it all, says Schiffenhaus, "He keeps turning up talent."
Schiffenhaus and his wife, Joan, who have a substantial collection of modern and contemporary art, have been buying art at the gallery since it opened. "He has a wonderful eye," Schiffenhaus says. "So many of the galleries -- including many I like -- have the same stable of artists. So, year after year, you're seeing the same artists over and over again. Here, every time you walk in, you can be incredibly and delightfully surprised."
The gallery typically carries a variety of paintings, photographs, drawings and collages. Foote also exhibits sculptures, furniture and assorted works in ceramics, wood and glass. This quirky mix of flat and three-dimensional media has no unifying theme, aside from the gallery's overarching one of showcasing worthy unknowns.
Foote estimates that he has exhibited works by more than 150 artists since he opened.
Recently, on a quick tour of the gallery, he pauses in front of two black-and-white figurative abstractions on paper by Preston Graves. Foote says the gallery hasn't sold many of his things yet, but Graves won the $5,000 grant from the Arizona Artists Guild and just received a scholarship to attend the Chicago Art Institute.
The hit parade of established sellers and promising newcomers that Foote ticks off includes Todd West -- "one of our better downtown artists" -- Kyle Coffey Scott and Ian Davis, who came out of ASU. Foote says he's sold more than 350 of Davis' paintings in the past six and a half years.
Yet Foote considers the artists who have outgrown Art One to be some of the gallery's greatest successes.
That attitude makes him an anomaly among dealers who customarily jealously guard their stable of talent.
"Here's a guy who's delighted when a gallery around the corner picks up one of his artists and begins selling their work for more," says Schiffenhaus. "And he never feels bad about it and he continues to tell you where all of the artists who started with him have gone."
"Here's another one," Foote says, pausing in front of an abstract painting by Hilario Gutierrez. "The Vanier Gallery is taking him on."
Gutierrez exemplifies Foote's broad view of beginners. Gutierrez is 49. He began painting about six years ago, as a diversion from his day job as a hair stylist. In the past three years, Art One has sold about 200 of his works, which are colorful abstract surfaces built with layers of added and scraped paint.
"I could have gone begging to Vanier," says Gutierrez, "but it was the sales that caught their eye. What I was told is that they kept hearing my name from some of their clients."
Vanier's Costello says the gallery "had tracked his work and sales for a couple of years. Basically we made him an offer because we felt he's ready to graduate."
The commencement, expected to occur sometime this summer, means a rise in prices for Gutierrez's works, says Costello. He mentions possibly doubling Gutierrez's current prices, now $1,000 to $2,000 per piece at Art One.