Ghosts of Mars

The movement that Phoenix's Chicano artists began 25 years ago is far from dead. But the gallery that was their headquarters soon will be.

Annie Lopez was 24 when she saw an ad in a newspaper for a membership meeting. "My friends warned me against it, they said they were a bunch of really radical Chicanos." And they were, she soon discovered. "At that time they were making people really uneasy."

From that first meeting, Lopez relates, she had found what would become a family of artists that became both friends and mentors as she and her work evolved.

Lopez would meet her husband, Jeff Falk, when he became the first white member of MARS in 1986. They married five years later, and renewed their vows 10 years later at a dual show called "Ten Years to Life."

Annie Lopez created You Are So Judgmental in response to a negative New Times review of her work.
Annie Lopez created You Are So Judgmental in response to a negative New Times review of her work.
Suffering, by Ernesto Nuñez, 24. When he asked at a local gallery where a young artist could get some guidance, he was referred to MARS.
Suffering, by Ernesto Nuñez, 24. When he asked at a local gallery where a young artist could get some guidance, he was referred to MARS.

Lopez says that although there had been white members before, Falk "was the first to be admitted who wasn't associated with someone brown, and it was a really, really big deal, a huge decision." Lopez said that artists who wanted to join MARS were asked if they were supportive of Chicano art, and Falk was. But that in itself wasn't enough to allay concerns among some in the cooperative. "It upset a lot of the older members of the group."

Though at first exclusively Chicano in orientation and membership, MARS today has just three Hispanics among its 17 members.

The decision to let non-Chicanos into the collective was among the many things that spelled the beginning of the end for MARS, Covarrubias says. In his mind, the gallery has been dead for 15 years.

But opinions differ when it comes to just what did the gallery in. Covarrubias, in an angry tirade, blames opening the cooperative to non-Chicanos, rampant racism within Arizona's public arts community, and the fact that after Covarrubias left, there was nothing to see.

"Those cats just aren't as good as I am, that's why they can't sell," he says. "I'm the best artist in Arizona. When you're good, people come to you."

Other factors include the reshaping of downtown, especially the construction of America West Arena, which many say drove up rents, drove out artists, curtailed foot traffic and made parking a problem. Some say it was the lack of a strong board of directors. But as always, the main factor was money.

Five years ago, faced with declining revenues, MARS was forced to reduce its space in the Luhrs Building to a much smaller storefront, with one-third of the square footage it had before. Since then, MARS has seen its budget shrink from a high of more than $100,000 in the late '80s to $12,000 this year, which hasn't been enough to pay the $706 rent, the phone bills, and other operating costs.

When revenues dropped below $60,000, MARS no longer qualified for certain city grants that had been a major part of its funding. This, in turn, meant that the Mexican American Print Series MARS had produced every year since 1985, which was a major source of income for the group, had to be discontinued in 2000. Economically, MARS had painted itself into a corner.

For his part, curator and 23-year member Ralph Cordova says the idea behind MARS has simply run its course, the funding issues being merely a symptom of a greater disease — the frustration and fatigue of butting heads with the mainstream art community for more than two decades.

"Even if we didn't have the money problems, I don't know if we'd continue," he says. "I'm tired. It's time for other institutions to step in and do the things we have been struggling so hard for so long to accomplish."

Ralph Cordova is looking forward to the day people will stop looking at him like he's from MARS. Twenty-three years at the gallery has taken its toll on the artist, who calls the legacy of the gallery his biggest success. He seems to be at a loss for what he will do without the gallery, and although he pretends to welcome the change, there is a stoic sadness to him he hides poorly. "Come July 31 I'm hanging a sign on my door that says 'Gone Fishing,'" Cordova says with a sigh.

He is one of three remaining Hispanic members of MARS, and also one of three longtime members who have decided not to continue with the other 14 after the gallery closes at the end of July.

According to some artists, MARS is not actually going away, just evolving into something different. The gallery will cease to exist, the name will be changed, the mission statement will be different; in two years they say they will be moving into a space at the Phoenix Family Museum, scheduled to open in 2004 at an as-yet-undetermined location. Members say they plan to honor the heritage and legacy of what came before them, but the focus will not be on Chicano art.

MARS member Kelly Barrett is optimistic. "The truth is art doesn't have to happen inside of walls," she says. "If you don't have a permanent space as an organization, it forces you to be more creative, more inventive with your shows." She talks of maybe having a show inside "some old grocery store, or a parking lot, we're not sure. Artists always find a way to do what they have to do somehow."

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