For Art's Sake

Don't ask me how I came to be a gallery curator. I suppose it happened because I finally grew tired of complaining about how the downtown art scene just wasn't giving me enough of what I wanted. And about how, not so many years ago, one went, on any given Friday night, to Radix Gallery to see new work by Jim Cherry or Bob Adams (and a new artist named Mayme Kratz), then on to MARS Gallery to see what Jeff Falk and Annie Lopez were up to, and finally to Gallery X for an evening of thrillingly creepy performance art.

Back then, hanging out wasn't the point, it was an after-art kind of thing that one did at places like Metropophobobia, a café/gallery where we met to compare notes on the exhibits we'd seen that night and to discuss art with whomever was hanging around — Rose Johnson, Pete Petrisko, Linda Ingraham, Janet DeBerge Lange — artists who moved and shook back when the downtown art scene was more about art and less about hanging out and drinking wine.

I know there are still movers and shakers in the downtown art business today. There's Helen Hestenes and the (soon-to-close) Icehouse and Beatrice Moore, the official queen of Grand Avenue, who's all about art (so much so that I'll need a whole other essay to cover it). And I love that Roosevelt Row and First Friday (the official website for which tells us "is about the inner-city urban experience" — but what about the art?) and the Grand Avenue galleries have created an excitement around art and artists.

Jo Whaley's gorgeous mono-prints are on
display at Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale.
Courtesy of Lisa Sette Gallery
Jo Whaley's gorgeous mono-prints are on display at Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale.

But I wish this scene were more about art and less about partying. The established artists I love are rarely shown downtown anymore, and if they are, it's in a group show, where their work often as not shares space with junk by kids who are entering a gallery scene that's not really set up to nurture them.

Which is why, rather than just complain about the sad state of affairs — and don't think I don't still bitch up a storm, because I do — I became a curator of art. I started booking shows by established artists and the occasional up-and-comer at a local gallery, not because I have a secret desire to work for free, but because I've begun to worry that no matter how hard arts advocates like Beatrice and Greg Esser and Cindy Dach work to provide places for artists to show their work, others have to step up and make sure that the bulk of that work is worth seeing. Otherwise, I'm convinced, the art scene in downtown Phoenix will devolve into a party at which paintings by the sister of the best friend of the gallery owner's next door neighbor have been hastily hung and are beside the point, anyway. And because I'm convinced that an arts community, no matter how vibrant, can't just be about displaying new artists but must also be about nurturing the careers of the folks who've been painting and sculpting and creating all along.

Otherwise, they leave. Jeff Cochran, a talented painter of abandoned downtown Phoenix buildings, found representation in New Mexico about eight years ago. Eddie Dominguez, whose paintings and charcoal sketches depicted our local skyscrapers as the Holy Trinity, moved his studio to Las Vegas in 2005. Chris Winkler, a painter of some local renown, took off for California more than a decade ago. He was, he told me at the time, tired of waiting for someone to discover his work (which was — and presumably still is — brilliant).

If we want artists to stay, we have to offer the promise that they won't be overlooked in favor of kids who are just getting started. We have to make wall space available both for those who've been toiling for decades and for up-and-comers. And so I, finally tired of carping, found a gorgeous little gallery at Seventh Avenue and Thomas and persuaded its owners to let me book a year's worth of exhibitions there. At Willo North Gallery (you can find it on Facebook; the gallery has no website at the moment), I'll mostly be showing work by established artists like Janet DeBerge Lange, Lawrence McLaughlin, Annie Lopez, Jeff Falk, and the late Sean O'Donnell, but I'll also be featuring work by talented and undiscovered artists, like the exhibit of work by painter Eric Cox that I have up now.

I know: I have a lot of nerve, working alongside gallery owners and curators who've been doing this for years — not to mention promoting my own exhibits on this page. But that old adage about being part of the solution has lately been stuck in my head and, in the meantime, I find myself heading away from downtown Phoenix when I want to look at art. Mayme Kratz's new show, now on display at Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery, is a stunner, and Sette (whose sophisticated aesthetic sets the bar for every other gallery in town) is including a new show by conceptualist and video artist William Wegman, one of her stable of artists, in May. ASU Art Museum is offering more: Gregory Sale's Social Studies program expands on the old artist-in-residence idea by having Sale transform an empty gallery into work created through interaction with both its audience and other artists. ASU museum director Gordon Knox has latched onto a new national trend in mixed disciplines and, in partnership with other ASU schools, is creating programs that blend science and sustainability with visual art. Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art continues to push limits with shows from talents like Brazilian conceptualist Rivane Neuenschwander, a multi-media artist whose "A Day Like Any Other" (opening next month) is the first comprehensive exhibition of her work.

Downtown, things are still a little less exciting. Still, I'm counting the minutes until Peter Bugg's show this April at eye lounge, a collective with a real commitment to emerging artists. I'm certain that Greg Esser's soon-to-open Regular Gallery on Sixth Street will offer stunning shows by talented, committed artists (there are rumors that he'll be doing a Brian Boner exhibit — I hope so). The Phoenix Art Museum's upcoming season is sort of a snooze, with no big touring show included. But Self and Nation, a Mexican modernist exhibition of paintings and sculptures made in the first half of the last century, looks really interesting for July.

In the meantime, I'm pinning my hopes on Modified Arts and its new director, Kim Larkin. Modified, which is in the dead center of the party-hearty First Friday/Roosevelt Row scene, appears to be steering away from the whole party vibe and is focusing instead on the art — huzzah! — showing new and established artists from here and abroad. Larkin's recent exhibit of work by Saskia Jordá (and her current show by multi-media artist Brent Bond) is exactly the sort of "real" art that Roosevelt Row needs in order to grow. Two more galleries like this, showing similarly stunning work, and we'll have a downtown arts scene that is once again about the art, and not about cheap wine in a plastic cup.

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I think Robrt hit it right on the nail.Coming from a small town in Mississippi, and being a self -taught artist, I have seen some great art from a truly diverse mixture of artists.But the one underlying theme that seems to remain the same is that the core of the inspiration, the true passion of the art and artist is overshadowed with the superficial addition of advertising geared to attract rather than inspire.I love first fridays, I really do. It is a great way to expose the public to what art really is. But at the same time the exposure must have substance, a definiton of what is to create and be creative.Not just music and pictures to entertain. It is more than that.The artists are telling their story through the medium.A true artist does work from emotion,inspiration, life, passion.If this message is lost between "seeing" and not "feeling" the art then maybe the approach should be re-evaluated.The times we live in now are so saturated with shallow images and text is hard to distinguish between real depth and true emotion.So I say enjoy the open galleries and imaginative nightlife of first fridays but know that some of the art you are viewing is yelling something real , something you can connect with.Some of the sounds you hear go deeper than just your ear drums.


There was a panel in the early days of Artlink,held at Herberger Theater where AZ Republic art critic Richard Nilsen said he just wasn't given the space to cover most of the art events and shows. That was probably 20 years or so ago. It certainly hasn't gotten better.The Phoenix Gazette art writer never wrote anything but a repeat of the artist statement, and she would tell anyone that asked that she wasn't an art critic. I've generally been impressed with the work by Kathleen Vanesian, but miss the solid criticism of Ed Lebow. If Robrt Pela could write art crticism with the same education and savvy withwhich he writes theater, reviews, we'd have a better art city.

J. Schmuki
J. Schmuki

Leaving Phoenix was the best decision I ever made in my art career.......

Dain Quentin Gore
Dain Quentin Gore

This is part of the dilemma: We want to be able to have a lively atmosphere where we can also make some serious art deals. Other cities wish they had that problem...maybe not the ones that count, but hey.

Some great names of some great artists already here, some with whom I went to school. We have seriously great artists in Phoenix-Metro with some great ideas, all we really have a problem?

The road closures may have led up to this feeling, but it's been there since I've been going ('00)...are you a partier or a serious artist? Can we coexist?

Third Friday openings are generally about art openings, and First Fridays have been about the crowds and all that entails. That's fine, right? But if I miss a Third Friday, I may just skip out on the subsequent First Friday.

Also, I'm not a buyer, even though I seriously love art.


I truly appreciate this article. Robrt you never cease to hit the nail on the head in your articles. I encourage people to continue supporting the true arts organizations in this city, and prove that we can build and show great art. Please add Robrt's gallery, and look out for the Icehouse in the new year. I just began working with them, and we have lots of big plans for the year. Let's make this better! Here's the new Icehouse Facebook page, where you will be able to find all the up-to-date info on events, office space, and event space:


I'm tired of people bashing 1st Friday as a big party. Guess what, that is what’s needed for all of these galleries and businesses to survive. How many times are these places getting visitors the rest of the month? Your pretentious article proves your inability to look past your own nose. There are plenty of established artists showing at most of the galleries. Just because they're not your friends is your main concern? Get over the BS, First Friday is about Art! That’s why we have 15k walking through the galleries. Just because they are not necessarily "Art Buyers" whom line your pockets, doesn't mean they are not enjoyers of the Phoenix Art Scene. Get over it and take your art and bad attitude towards a great event elsewhere. As for me I've been an artist and musician in Phoenix for 23 years and have owned a gallery for 5. Love it or leave it.

Pete Petrisko
Pete Petrisko

While I cannot disagree with Pela's basic premise -that partying has surpassed artistic dialogue and support within the downtown arts as the norm - I don't believe his editorial tells the whole story.

The arts has always had a "marriage of convenience" with the media. However, in Phoenix, the Az Republic has left it widowed and New Times has filed for divorce.

I remember when the Az Republic included a local appearance by performance artist Frank Moore (internationally-known for his night-long pieces that include participatory audience nudity) in its Fall Arts Guide, when the Phoenix Gazette gave sustained ink to local arts, and New Times pushed the envelope past both daily papers by providing keen in-depth coverage of the more cutting-edge cultural happenings.

That was a long time ago.

Now the Rep has trouble getting the facts straight, the Gazette is long gone, and New Times regularly substitutes the depth of facts with surface flash in its online blogs.

When it comes to Jackalope Ranch, research and details are too often sacrificed for what amounts to Doodle Journalism.

The best talented and undiscovered artists can hope for is coverage of what they're wearing or how many tattoos they may have, possibly with a hyperlink to their art website included. Instead of writing about what these artists do, and why - even if in the context of a more superfluous topic - the new standard is that hyperlinks are used to fill the void left by a lack of more relevant story content in such articles.

My criticism is less about what's NOT written about but more of what isn't included when it is written.

That's not to say there aren't a few culture writers at New Times who regularly place substance over style, by doing more research and avoiding cookie-cutter questions, producing lengthier blogs that are far more satisfying. But it's seemingly not the norm, which may have more to do with editorial direction rather than what all the writers are capable of producing.

Even opportunities to combine hard facts with some flash are regularly missed. As recently as this Tuesday, in its coverage of that night's First Friday street closure meeting, the blog ended with "don't fret if you can't watch the sparks fly tonight -- we'll have a recap tomorrow right here" - then Wednesday came and went, with no recap being published.

I only wish the culture blog (and its sister blog, Up on the Sun, which reads like Pitchfork-Lite, at the expense of other music genres) would reach for the high-content bar set by NT's political/social blog entries. I don't believe I'm alone in that sentiment.

Bottom line, vacuous coverage will only encourage vacuous culture.

I commend Pela for speaking out, and becoming part of the solution to return a more art-centric role to the arts scene, but my question is this: Will the rest of Jackalope Ranch follow suit, by more regularly digging past the surface to provide more insightful detail in its coverage?

Heck, it may even inspire other galleries in downtown to follow Pela's curatorial lead. That's kind of how marriages work, even ones of convenience.


There are a number of really great artists who were shoowing their work prior to the downtown art scene and who have been sort of 'silent' over the past ten years or so. I would love to see a new show of the work Suzanne Klotz is doing these days. Her work always inspired. Yeah, I'm old, but her art was always wonderful and deeply layered and complex and worth a trip to wherever she was showing it.



"I don't like the art being presented at certain galleries. I also don't like the artists being presented at those galleries. I'm inserting a promotion for the gallery shows I am putting together. Here are a list of artists I like."

The above is all this article boils down to. His taste conflicts with theirs, wah wah. Judging by the artists he fawns over in the first half of the article his taste is pedestrian at best, uninformed at worst.


YOU are incredibly WRONG."that is what’s needed for all of these galleries and businesses to survive"No, that is what is needed for the OTHER places to survive.... galleries need art purchasers.

Dain Quentin Gore
Dain Quentin Gore

And what galleries and their artists really need is representation, if the goal is to be serious at selling. Curators have vision for specific exhibits or series, but Gallerists make money and bring in clients. Different roles.

Galleries can survive both financially and culturally, of course, if they can have both.

“If you would like to continue working for Gagosian I suggest you start to sell some art. Everything is going to be evaluated in this new climate based on performances I basically put in eighteen hours a day, which any number of people could verify.

If you are not willing to make that kind of commitment please let me know. The general economy and also the art economy is clearly headed for some choppy waters; I want to make sure that we are the best swimmers on the block. The luxury of carrying under-performing employees is now a thing of the past.”

~Larry Gagosian(from Gawker, Dec. '08)