State of the Art

If you paint it, they will come. Then what?

What began as a quiet gallery stroll is approaching full-blown street fair now that thousands of regulars clog Roosevelt Street on the first Friday of even the hottest Phoenix month. Walking a block can take strategy and patience, because the art isn't just in the crowded galleries anymore. Recently, countless enterprising types have joined the First Fridays party and still found places to display their work, even if it means showing canvases out of the backs of U-Haul trucks parked in dirt lots, or selling sketches from card tables set up along the sidewalks. Live music echoes from all directions, and along with art, you can browse vintage clothing, coffee mugs, magnets or jewelry.

Some of the art's not bad, some is pretty good. A lot of it's amateur schlock. But if you really want to know what's going on in the art scene in Phoenix, you'll have to skip Roosevelt and Grand Avenue for Grant Street, a dark, quiet stretch south of America West Arena, south of the railroad tracks, south of where most people roaming the streets of Phoenix dare -- or bother -- to go.

They will soon.

Brush with fame: Artists from every corner of the world are starting to show and sell in Phoenix.
Mike Maas
Brush with fame: Artists from every corner of the world are starting to show and sell in Phoenix.
The Vice Monkeys, by Shag, at Perihelion Arts
The Vice Monkeys, by Shag, at Perihelion Arts

The lone art outpost on Grant Street is Bentley Projects -- an offshoot of the well-known Bentley Gallery in Scottsdale -- which opened a little more than a year ago. Bentley's had regular shows since last spring, but its discreet location keeps the gallery off the familiar downtown art radar. No matter; serious collectors will still find the place, where list prices for most works hover in the five- to six-figure range. As the city's new revitalization plan takes hold, Bentley may end up becoming a magnet for more galleries of its caliber.

Bentley's already drawing comparisons to galleries in New York's SoHo district, and not just because it's a converted warehouse space. Beyond its courtyard entryway, where large, abstract sculptures cast shadows on a smooth expanse of gravel, visitors encounter an enormous grid of muted paint swirls fleshing out a self-portrait of celebrated New York artist Chuck Close, whose work is often exhibited at places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA. Further inside the cavernous warehouse, you can see Jun Kaneko's serene, Buddha-like cast bronze heads; John Nelson's witty panels depicting iconic objects, plants and animals; and ethereal floral paintings by Hiro Yokose.

No, Grant Street doesn't have the dynamic, over-the-top atmosphere of Roosevelt on a First Friday. But unlike most of its neighbors to the north, Bentley Projects is a grown-up. It has regular daytime business hours, so you could drop by on a random afternoon. It also has a branch of Scottsdale's Poisoned Pen Bookstore, and, soon, an Arcadia Farms cafe. While First Fridays often get more attention for colorful attendees than for the art, Bentley Projects is more of a quiet reminder that art in Phoenix should be taken seriously.

Across the country, art and artists have often led urban areas into revitalization, and at this defining moment for a culture-hungry city where so many people are banking on a downtown resurgence, it will take plenty of great art as well as a dynamic scene to make it thrive. If you go to the 17th annual Art Detour, Phoenix's weekendlong showcase of galleries and private art studios, you'll see plenty of evidence -- both in the quantity of the crowds and the quality of the art -- that this city is finally reaching critical mass.

The state of the art downtown has strengthened significantly in the past year, with skyrocketing attendance at First Fridays, growing crowds at Saturday After and Third Fridays, more art than ever (which is a good or bad thing, depending on whom you talk to), significant commitments from the city, and signs of life throughout the month, hinting that Phoenix is edging away from its sorry status as a commuter city and closer to finally creating a 24/7 culture.

"I'd love to see how it happened in other cities," says photographer Casey McKee, who left Phoenix for the excitement of Berlin but comes back several times a year. He wonders if Phoenix will eventually be walkable or have things going on around the clock. "Maybe this is where it's supposed to start."

Last March, as many as 25,000 people visited Phoenix art spaces during Art Detour, which includes the first Friday of the month along with the following Saturday and Sunday. Tell that to folks at some Scottsdale galleries, though, and don't be surprised to hear something like one employee's disdainful response to New Times: "Art Detour? Like, I don't even know when Art Detour is!"

Those people really don't know what they're missing.

Of course, that's not to say that every Phoenix art space is giving the established Scottsdale galleries a run for their money. The quality of the art on display at downtown Phoenix galleries does vary wildly, from sublimely sophisticated to ridiculously shoddy, even from one month to the next at the same space.

Among artists who started showing their work downtown before First Fridays caught on, there's a definite sense of nostalgia for earlier times -- meaning as recently as two or three years ago.

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