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"In the old days, it was a lot more about the art," says artist Scot McKenzie, co-owner of .anti_space, a contemporary art and experimental music space on Madison Street. McKenzie used to be more of a music promoter, throwing raves and DJ events, but casually displayed artwork at local clubs. Still, he admits that hordes of people swarming downtown streets have had a good effect on the neighborhoods. "Grand Avenue before all those people came was Crackville," he says.
Jason Rudolph Peña, a painter who has a studio on McDowell Road and will be showing his saucy portraits of wide-eyed waifs at Mainstay Gallery during Art Detour, likens the recent atmosphere to a swap meet. "Galleries need to be a little more stern about who they let show. A few years ago, there was really good talent all the time," he says. "It's hard to sell here. And people who can afford it think it's too low. At the same time, I've had people tell me I'm selling out because I want to make money off of my art. So am I supposed to keep a dead-end job and just make art on the side?"
Casey McKee, who had a studio on Grand Avenue from 1999 until July 2003 (he had a local show last month but won't be showing during Art Detour), says he has mixed feelings about the popularity of First Fridays.
"It's great that people are coming down and that it's a big event, but the quality has gone way down. It used to be smaller. Then it seemed to explode when I left. Now, I think it's kids coming down to get free alcohol."
McKee adds that a number of good artists have stopped showing, and bandwagoneers have filled the void. "There's a mentality of, 'Oh, shit, it's Tuesday,'" he says, describing some who slap together a piece at the last minute, in anticipation of a First Friday opening. "You have a lot of artists who do quick pieces to sell for a little. There's not an incentive to do bigger work because it won't sell."
The frenetic scene downtown and many galleries' lack of regular business hours also interferes with sales, McKee says, so some artists end up doing exhibitions in Scottsdale. McKee himself started showing work there in 2002, at the Cultural Exchange Gallery, and recently had a solo show at the Larsen Gallery, also in Scottsdale. "It's nice with Bentley down here, but we need more mid- and upper-level galleries."
Recognizing that need herself, painter Lezli Goodwin -- who has exhibited at Scottsdale's Art One and Marshall Arts Gallery -- decided to start her own business. She opened Studio Hub, located on Central Avenue, in January 2004. So far, she's gotten a good response. "People with checkbooks are coming. And I want to make sales because I think the people doing the work should get paid," she says. "I wanted to make a New York-style gallery to offer artists the chance to do professional, creative solo shows. There aren't many opportunities for that here." Goodwin distinguishes her space from many downtown galleries by keeping regular business hours, promoting shows with full-color postcards, covering the costs of opening receptions instead of making artists pay for them, and providing insurance for the artwork.
Goodwin argues that overall, there's more good art because there's more art, period. "The best and worst thing about Phoenix is that anyone can show. But it's a fabulous breeding ground for the future. After about 10 shows, everybody's a lot better. But there's not enough for mid-career artists."
Some local artists who wrote off downtown as too much of a see-and-be-seen circuit are starting to reconsider.
For painter Sara Hubbs, showing her work at Hector Ruiz's three-month-old Chocolate Factory space on Grand Avenue has actually inspired her to come back to First Fridays. (Her paintings will be featured there through this month.) "Roosevelt Row used to be the meeting point. I have heard so much talk about Grand Avenue being like a SoHo, but never believed it because the quality wasn't there. I think that with the Chocolate Factory, the tide is turning." Hubbs mentions Roberta Hancock's new venture, the Gold Spot Gallery, as another exciting sign of progress: "It's a link between Roosevelt and Grand, and shows established artists as well as serious emerging artists."
"I think the quality of the art has gotten better," says Nan Ellin, associate professor of urban design at Arizona State University's College of Architecture and Urban Design, who took a couple of friends to First Friday during their visit from Los Angeles. "I had warned my friends -- I had prepared them for the worst. But they actually liked the art. And they noticed the lack of snobbery -- everybody wasn't dressed in black, and there was every age and ethnicity."
Along with a lack of snobbery comes a level of accessibility that you can't find in more gentrified art towns -- and artists aren't the only ones who benefit. Look at Lara Taubman, a writer for Shade magazine who had only organized a couple of student art shows before curating "A WarLike People," a show at monOrchid on Roosevelt Street that several arts professionals mentioned to New Times as noteworthy.