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Ted Decker smells really good. But don't ask him what scent he's wearing. Decker can recite the names of every one of the artists who created the more than 1,000 pieces in his private art collection, but he has no idea what his cologne is called.
"It's some kind of aftershave," he says with a shrug. What he really wants to talk about is "Declaring Independence," his new exhibit at the Eric Fischl Gallery. Decker, who says he'd never do a group show featuring only Phoenix artists ("I can't think of anything more provincial," he insists) has assembled an amazing list of nearly two dozen artisans (16 from Arizona) for this new exhibit, among them Bob Adams, Ann Morton, Sue Chenoweth, Sam Chung, Jon Haddock, and Michael Marlowe.
Decker's theme isn't about the subject matter suggested by the show so much as it is the fact that these exceptional artists — many of whom have wide fan bases and are shown in museums here and abroad — have no commercial gallery affiliation here.
"It's unfathomable to me that none of these artists have gallery representation," he says of those in his new exhibition, which also includes work by Carolyn Lavender. "I understand the dynamics; it's been part of the art market since the late 19th century: There's a limited number of galleries, and the gallerists have their own aesthetics. Some artists don't want to be affiliated with only one gallery. Other artists just don't want to market themselves. But whatever the reason, these artists are the missing link in the art food chain. Really, how can Sue Chenoweth not have representation?"
It's this outrage that led Decker — who has served on nearly every arts board in the state and has worked at every one of the Valley's better museums — and a pair of friends to create the Phoenix Institute of Contemporary Art (phICA) four years ago. Decker co-founded the institute, which collaborates with other groups to curate and market contemporary art projects, with artist Eddie Shea and gallerist Greg Esser (who has since moved on to a post as the director of ASU Art Museum's Desert Initiative program), but Decker says he'd been thinking about creating such an organization since the '90s. "There was a need for an institute that wasn't caring for a collection or managing its own gallery or trying to hold educational forums," he says, "but that would educate people about art by showing art."
phICA rose from the ashes of Movimiento Artístico del Rio Salado, a collective and gallery launched in 1978 by Phoenix artist Jim Covarrubias and other local Chicano and Native American artists. The MARS gallery, originally located at Fifth Avenue and Monroe Street, closed in 2002. MARS still exists, sort of, as a 501(c)3 — a sort of fiduciary agent for arts-related organizations and causes, among them the Ted Decker Catalyst Fund, which Decker founded eight years ago to support artists and curators working in the Valley.
"All I really did with the Catalyst Fund is formalize something I'd been doing for years," Decker says. The aptly named Catalyst Fund encourages artists to consider the business of art by offering them small grants to be used for marketing — but just enough, for example, to pay for part of a print-run of postcards to promote an artist's show. "I want artists to have to go out and find the rest of the money, which is part of the whole process of showing your work — learning how to fund it and get it out there."
In the eight years since he founded the Fund, Decker has doled out nearly $100,000 collected from individuals and institutions. His latest largesse amounts to $20,000 toward a coffee table book documenting the career of painter Barbara Rogers. Decker is amused that others think he's wealthy, and that he's handing out his own dough to further artists' careers. "I don't buy clothes, I don't drive a fancy car," he says. "But I buy art, and somehow in people's minds, that means I'm rich. But buying art is what you do when you're a curator."
Decker's curation typically avoids tired principles of creating tension between works; he tends to hang pieces that complement one another. In "Declaring Independence," he's placed a Michael Marlowe painting of what appear to be body parts intertwined like colossal gears alongside a stunning Craig Smith photograph of a factory in New Jersey; a smooth, slick, porcelain glazed piece by Sam Chung hangs alongside ceramic tile portraits by Matias Mesquita. Decker's aesthetic has roots in art history, and he's taken heat for his love of contemporary pieces that pay homage to Old Masters. Paulo Santos' "Venus Brasileira," one of the pieces in Decker's new exhibit, is a slick, airbrushed acrylic painting that curtsies to Sandro Boticelli. "I've gotten some shit for that one," Decker laughs. "One of the curators in Brazil said to me, 'I can't believe you're going to show that. Where did you buy it, on the beach in Ipanema?'"
It's likely that the Santos piece will show up in Decker's upcoming book showcasing 20 artists from Brazil, Decker's home away from home. In the meantime, there's his new exhibit, which he refuses to speak of with any pretense — a rarity among curators. "This show is not my hierarchal ordaining of the best artists in Phoenix or any other place," Decker says. "It's about getting eyeballs onto some of the best work that's being made here, and elsewhere. And that's what showing art should be about."