Art Detour

Some of the Valley's finest artists are getting the hell out of Phoenix

If appearance counts for anything, the art scene in Phoenix is thriving. Literally thousands of people make their way from gallery to gallery the first Friday of each month, flooding Roosevelt Street and Grand Avenue. The interest of locals has been echoed nationally, even drawing notice in Art in America magazine.

But they didn't coin the term "starving artist" for nothing. And for the most part, all the attention is not yet translating to sales -- even for some of Phoenix's most talented artists. Artists often mount a show without selling a single piece of work, which is frustrating for those struggling to make art a career and not a hobby. Many say that even with all the growth in the scene, gallery space is a problem as well, with inadequate venues for displaying and selling contemporary art.

Despite its flaws, Phoenix has been able to foster a number of successful artists. But the city has trouble keeping them here.

I Am an Incredibly Powerful Business Person by Casey McKee.
I Am an Incredibly Powerful Business Person by Casey McKee.

In the recent past, the Valley has lost many celebrated artists, such as painter Jeff Cochran, now in Taos, New Mexico, who's selling his landscape and monkey paintings at prestigious galleries around the country; and Robert Anderson, who lives in Portland, Oregon, and says he sells $250,000 worth of art in a good year. Angela Ellsworth, a performance artist and educator whose nontraditional work met with great acclaim locally, has also moved to Los Angeles to pursue her art.

Ellsworth's move reportedly had more to do with love than money, but what was there to keep her here? Even as momentum builds, the exodus continues. In recent months some of the city's most talented artists have decamped for other cities, including two photographers, the renowned Bob Carey and the prodigious Casey McKee.

McKee, 26, moved to Berlin two months ago. He says he realized early in his career that he needed more than what Phoenix could offer, and candidly recounts the struggles and frustrations of the past four years.

McKee got his start in Beatrice Moore's studios on Grand Avenue and had his first show in the fall of 1998. Fellow artists welcomed him, and he felt comfortable in their midst, as well as enthused by the First Friday throngs.

Initially, McKee was excited at the prospect of producing and preparing for a First Friday show. "I'd spend a week cleaning up my studio, relighting and hanging the show." He'd pay great attention to the food and beverages served and feature live music. And he'd spend equally long taking work down when the show was over, often without selling a single piece.

"It's a big party at the cost of the artists," he says. "You dedicate half the month to this thing that doesn't do you any good except it's fun. Other than that, what's the benefit for the artists? "

Gradually, McKee says he realized the young hip creatures flitting from gallery to gallery on a wine-fueled once-a-month art fix were not serious collectors. "I don't know if Phoenix changed or if I changed, and it was no longer fulfilling," he says. "Art was getting overlooked and pushed to the background. Art was not being purchased, although anything under $100 you might sell."

McKee decided to look elsewhere. Others should, too, he says. "Too many people settle for what Phoenix has to offer, and that's not a lot. I did everything I could to get work out of state."

He says he spent six months researching galleries and putting together the best possible presentation of his work, sending off 20 packets to galleries all over the world. He also visited cities with a portfolio in hand, knocking on doors at galleries and more often than not getting rejected. By the fall of '99, a year after his first show, McKee's work was hanging in Minneapolis and Atlanta. By the spring of 2000, he was in New York and London.

McKee says he realized that as an artist he could live anywhere, and began planning his escape. "Berlin has 40 art museums. At any given time there are dozens of interesting things to see, monumental works of art, plays, music." Not surprising that a 26-year-old artist would find more creative inspiration in one of the world's most culturally rich cities.

Bob Carey, perhaps best known locally for his monumental self-portraits that graced the walls of the now-defunct Phoenix restaurant RoxSand, left the Valley for New York this past April, drawn to the beauty and grit of urban living.

"The chances of having a human experience here are much greater than in Phoenix," Carey says. "The other day I walked out of my building and found a big vibrator in the street. That's funny. So I took pictures of it. I spent all day on Coney Island in a tutu. I could have done that in Phoenix, I guess, but here I feel this freedom to do whatever I want."

Phoenix, he says, was like "a small town in my head. You could think big but not too big." Still, Carey recognizes some of the advantages of beginning his career in Phoenix. "It's possible that it's better to be without all the sensory overload of what it is to be here when you are trying to learn how to express what's inside you. When you are always out and seeing what others are doing, it's hard to have your own vision."

John Spiak, director of festivals for the Arizona State University Art Museum, says one of the biggest problems for emerging contemporary artists in Phoenix is a lack of gallery space. For those who are a step above Holga's (the downtown Phoenix artist colony that apparently accepts anyone) but not ready for Scottsdale's big-money galleries, there is little in between. With a few exceptions (such as ArtOne in Scottsdale and Studio LoDo in Phoenix), "there's nobody representing, selling, and taking risks on emerging artists," Spiak says.

The market, he adds, is definitely there. "Some of the biggest collectors in the United States have primary and secondary homes here. They're looking for emerging artists," he says. "Do they go to [the smaller, less-established galleries that show on] First Friday? No. Do they go to LoDo? Yes, because they are showing edgy work."

Spiak adds that the resources are there for those motivated enough to take advantage of them. Often a nationally known artist will give a lecture and only a handful of people will show up. "Too many artists are lazy," he says. "The ones that make it are the ones who show up at every event in town."

"It's an exciting time," Spiak says, referring to downtown Phoenix galleries like eye lounge, 515 and Modified, which are now coming into their own. The arts community in Phoenix is young, he says, and the momentum is there. But there's still much room for improvement. "We need more galleries that know how to treat artists with respect, how to court collectors and how to install a show properly. We could use five more. It's all part of the growth process and it's gonna take us a while."

E-mail susy.buchanan@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8440.

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