Commercial Art Is Keeping Phoenix Artists Afloat -- But At a High Cost

It's not hard to find an open dumpster in this town.

Ask any college kid looking for a few moving boxes or urban forager looking for a meal. But there's something weird about the set of three tan dumpsters in the parking lot of a building on 14th Street and Indian School Road.

They're fitted with padlocks and monitored by surveillance cameras. But inside, you won't find blueprints or old computer equipment or sensitive financial documents. Pry one of those dumpsters open and chances are good that you'll be faced with a pile of last season's hotel art.

Phoenix may be home to a group of largely second-tier fine arts institutions, but it's also the headquarters of one of the country's most established commercial-art manufacturers. It's a high-stakes, high-paying (relatively speaking) business with more than 50 big-name hotel clients around the world (plus office buildings, private homes, convention centers, airports, and hospitals). That's a lot of wall space.

And it's also the dirty (or not-so-dirty) little secret of some of the best artists in town, who work or have worked at Phoenix Art Group to pay the bills and fund their more creative habits.

In the past 40 years, Phoenix Art Group has employed hundreds of members of the art community and produced countless decorative mirrors, stained metal sculptures, and sleepy landscapes. Any artist who's been involved in the local community for the past decade or so either has clocked in at Phoenix Art Group or knows someone who has — but most are hesitant to talk about it.

"You'd really be hard-pressed to find anyone who hadn't heard of Phoenix Art Group in this community," says independent curator and fine art consultant Ted Decker. "But for so long, the name was absolutely scandalous."

Truth is, it's never been easy to survive as an artist in Phoenix. But today, even in tough economic times, galleries and museums continue to open and students enroll in arts degree programs across the country. And because of public involvement, support from local government, and a group of seriously talented people, this city's art scene is the strongest it's been in years.

The artists, however, still struggle to make ends meet.

"The old joke goes something like, 'What do you call an art school graduate?'" says Greg Esser, a longtime Phoenix arts advocate.

Pause.

"Waiter."


Greg Esser is trained as a fine artist (he's a printmaker, sculptor, and intermedia artist) but makes his living these days as director of ASU's Desert Initiative, housed at ASU Art Museum. He's also the co-founder of the Roosevelt Row Arts District, a job that — like many in the arts — doesn't pay the bills. Esser moved to Phoenix in the mid-'90s and has seen, organized, and supported much of the art development in downtown Phoenix.

In short, he says, he's seen the arts district grow out of a crime-ridden abandoned neighborhood on Roosevelt Street. But he also notes there's plenty of room for growth.

"The arts have created a sense of place in Phoenix, and they continue to have a huge impact downtown," Esser says. "But pulling up our boot straps only works well, to a certain degree, without significant financial support."

Local artists open their studios and host gallery exhibitions on the first Friday of every month in downtown Phoenix, the final Friday in Tempe, and just about every Thursday in Scottsdale.

But what you see once or twice a month is hardly a peek into their real existence. Most of these artists take day jobs at restaurants and bars, some work office jobs they'll argue are mildly creative, and a few are lucky to nab positions within the arts community. Even fewer score grants from local and national organizations.

Go to any city around the world, and it's rare that you'll find artists who can support themselves solely on their own artwork. Even those at the top of the Phoenix arts pyramid — those who are highly regarded, collected, and curated into galleries and museums, and show regularly outside of the state — still spend most of their time outside their own studios.

Many choose to teach: Sue Chenoweth leads visual arts classes at Metro Arts; Carolyn Lavender teaches at Phoenix College; and Jon Haddock, Betsy Schneider, Angela Ellsworth, and Mark Klett (to name a few) are faculty members at ASU.

Others land public art gigs or bank on the handful of big-name collectors. (Good luck grabbing work by a promising emerging artist before Ted Decker, or a Hector Ruiz, Randy Slack, or James Angel piece before Treg Bradley.)

The rest rely on each other. Architects and developers at Habitat Metro just redid an old motel on Grand Avenue, Oasis on Grand, to create affordable housing for creatives. Artists Matt Moore and Carrie Marill are rehabbing a building on Third and Roosevelt streets and are collaborating with ASU's Desert Initiative to create housing for visiting international artists.

Collectives including MARS, Five15, eye lounge, and Artlink have been incubators for emerging artists who have settled in and built up Grand Avenue, parts of the warehouse district, and Roosevelt Row.

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24 comments
behrmannart
behrmannart

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

 

                When one of the “artists” in the piece “Paint By Numbers, August issue 9-15 volume 43 number 32” made the comment “Art is and always has been a business,” and followed with “ Any Artist or community member who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves,” really struck a chord.  

                As an artist who educates, writes, creates and exhibits work, something about reducing something so critical to defining our culture as just another “business” misses just what makes art special. 

Naturally, every artist wants to sell work, if for no other reason to develop without being distracted by the fiscal concerns that come with taking on work outside the studio.  No one disputes this.  But when art becomes just a commodity and it is created for strictly “commercial” concerns, then it becomes something very different. It is fine art no longer.

                A persistent argument in art is that commissioned work is always commercial work.  The argument usually goes back to renaissance and artists who actively sought patronage from powerful patrons. What is usually missing is that those art supporters were often highly educated, erudite people who saw art not as something decorative but as something of significance.  Even if the ideas that fuel the works were collaborative, at the very least artists and patrons were struggling to make epic statements, not floral effluvium to be discarded in dumpsters when styles change.

                There are in the Valley artists as uncompromising as any Ayn Rand protagonist.  The problem has been finding enlightened patronage, either small or large.  Often, support of local talent goes out of State leaving local talent struggling for whatever crumbs can be found.

 Either way, and it is not glamorous or particularly romantic, even with the struggles, sacrifice, loss and set backs, not going to the Phoenix Art Group remains one of my wisest choices.  Even if offered payment and economic security, I would rather struggle and find another way that become an exploited artist making someone else wealthy at my expense.  I am not saying this from an elevated cloud perspective.  I had a chance to join up, but I could not let my art slide so low.  I refused to go back for a second interview.  I never regreted it and never looked back on the experience. Your article made me realize just what I was “not” missing.

Over all, you wrote a great piece. 

 

dan.suhr
dan.suhr

OK, in my early art purchasing days I went by a PAG open house and bought a painting by Tanner. I have tried to figure out who this Tanner person is but gave up years ago. I thought about Tanner again after reading this story. The painting I purchased has been in a prominent place in my house for a decade. Almost everyday it stops me in my tracks and I see something new, different light, different colors and shapes. I feel very fortune to have that painting. If anyone might know how to contact Tanner please let me know.   

nomdeplume
nomdeplume

Yes. More please, great Arts Culture coverage. Thanks Claire.

 

I guess the case that I would like to make is that we were never making hotel art. I cringe when I see that stuff just like the next person, and I do not believe it to be selling out.

 

As designers we were creating art within the confines of market predilection, but if I learned anything there, it was more than that. It was to bring a new level of distinction and innovation to the industry and for the people who needed it in the worst way, interior designers, manufacturers, even corporate design teams and anyone else responsible for shaping the shared (maybe subconsciously)  contemporary design aesthetic.

 

Artists and designers have historically been more often celebrated for engaging the world with their specific approach and making it available to the masses for a reason. Value.

 

There is value to this niche market or it would not exist. It reflects a more and more sophisticated, ever-changing, public-aesthetic driven industry. After fine art, I am grateful and proud to contribute to this corner of the art world and encourage all creatives to be their own guarantor. Creating every day, regardless of the objective, absolutely informs my personal work in ways that cannot be measured and fine art one-of-a-kind originals become more collectible by designation. By subsidizing the costs of creating fine art in this way, I believe it gives rise to the most pure form of art...

Art without compromise. 

 

James Angel

Nope
Nope

It's not selling out to use your abilities to make a living.  It would only be selling out, if the artists abandoned their own work to just do this.  There are some artists who don't seem to have any personal work in them; for them it's all about technique and they're happy to produce other people's ideas.  Nothing wrong with that. But for those who have personal concepts within them, they will do their own work regardless of their day job, or no day job.  It's nice to have money to live on and buy art supplies!  I have worked in an art industry, not this one though I have known people who did.  It did not taint anyone, in fact, it gave them experience with materials and techniques.  Society pressures artists to conform and make pretty things.  The Art World pressures them never to do that.  Somewhere in between is reality.

ddauncey
ddauncey

user 29...i like to use my real name,but if you want to hide behind a number that is cool.

let me address your questions.

"is their personal art is not too good for 'mere mortals?'.it is done for me,in my spare time,and if i make any sales,then wahoo!,more gravy for the pot.

'too good to hang atop a couch?' no,not at all.

'where do i want it displayed?'not sure,wherever the client/person chooses.

'who is my ideal customer?'anyone whose checks have cleared,and who is satisfied with the level of my work.what we do,a lot of the time,is make accessories that happen to be paintings.they have to match with couches,lampshades,drapes,whatever.if this is below some of you,fine,but it is the BIGGEST art market in this country.

'do you not want to sell anything that you paint".erm.......silly question.

also,i do not think that you need to tell any body that sometimes jobs suck,that is a given for most,if not all people,i would imagine.

where can i see your art user29?are you an artist? if so,do you do well,sell to galleries/?

that goes for you too wayne,i have heard your name but i am not familiar with yer output....cheers!

 

David Dauncey.

user29
user29

Commercial art is meant to be seen and enjoyed by the public, so basically this artists are mocking the people that may potentially one day buy their "real" art. Is their personal art too good for mere mortals? Too good to hang atop a couch? So where do you want it to be displayed? Who is your ideal customer? Or do you not want to sell anything that you paint. 

I have news for this artists. Most times jobs suck, that is why they pay you to do it, other wise, it would be called a hobby. Grow up, and realize that maybe you think it is mediocre, but if it is selling it means that that commercial art is causing some reaction to the people looking at it. It must not be so bad. Be proud that your work is out there for "regular" people to enjoy, otherwise, what's the point..............

LyonintheSun
LyonintheSun

Very interesting article that gives a detailed historical perspective to the current art scene in the phoenix metro area.  Particularly pleased that that Dauncey, Angel and Slack continue their work in this area rather than moving on to greener pastures . . .

 

Although we are a desert on several levels . . . the contemporary art scene and market thrive in Phoenix based on the good incubation given to many artists by John Cline.  Cline and PAG deserve all our thanks for settling in the Valley of the Sun and nurturing so many young artists . . .

DDauncey
DDauncey

First off,cheers Claire,i enjoyed the article, (but we all left in 2000,and not 1995)

Wayne,i am glad that you sniffed out 'what was up" and decided to move on.It certainly would not have been for everyone,and i saw plenty of very talented artists leave before they had even properly opened their paints.I cannot speak for everyone else,but i left because i figured out some of the dollar amounts that i could be making outside of the company were significantly higher than what i was making at the time,and also it was,for want of a term,a bit of a 'sweatshop'.I burnt out.

Wayne,as for the art only being fit for hotels,that is an incorrect assumption on your part.Whilst it is true that a lot of P.A.G. art went to a lot of bigger institutions,there were numerous site-specific commissions/sculptures e.t.c. that were completed there,by people who qualify above the grade of "hack mill employee".

Don't get me wrong,i am no P.A.G. apologist,and i would advise anyone who came to me and asked if they thought they should go and work there to 'De-Cline' as i feel that their so-called glory days are way behind them,but i would say it without bitterness.I enjoyed my time there for the first 2 years,bought a house,contributed to a 401k,had my first child whilst there, and met some of the greatest friends i will ever have in my life ( as well as my future wife :-) )

i agree with the point made about Art Detour and ,First Friday.Warm bodies aside,i am not sure it is anything but a hipster turnout anymore,which is fine,but i personally sell next to nothing art-wise here.I suppose i am a sell-out in the sense that last week i went to my studio at 10 o clock at night and by the next day i had made my mortgage payment,plus a little extra......sometimes it is just a job.....cheers all!!!  David Dauncey

gremlin6
gremlin6

 

It's always intrigued me that artsits have this ideal image of making what they want however they want to, and then still expecting it to be a profession.  In almost any other industry, the economics of demand is what drives the supply, much like the commercial art world. If you own a restaurant, you have to make food that people want to eat.  If you make computer chips, you need to make something that works with the current computer models.  Even on a less corporate-ruledmarket like Etsy, you have to think about your market before you decide on a product to craft.  Maybe the art world and many people within it is in a sense, trapped in this idealistic bubble much like the entire concept of art itself... which isn't a bad thing as long as people understand the consequences.   So, thanks for keeping it real and putting this idea of commercialized art in the light. 

dain.gore
dain.gore

Great article Claire. More like it please! Also, is MARS even still around? I thought they shuttered around 2000...?

wayne146
wayne146

Had an interview there once back in the 90's, and once I saw what was up, I instinctively blew the interveiw- in retrospect, so glad I didn't get the job. If Artists want to be successful in PHX, they need to rethink the street party that is First Friday, and the impotent Craft Fair that is Art Detour, and instead concentrate on utilizing business techniques that actually work.For most of us, it's not about Ego- it's about producing work that speaks to both us and the world as a whole.This mill produces stuff that only can be shown in hotels for a reason, and that's okay- somebody needs to decorate the Ramadas of the country, after all. I'm not going to slam anyone who's trying to pay their bills, as lets face it- the good Mac and Cheese costs big bucks, and you gotta do what you gotta do.But it would be a whole lot nicer if some of the Creatives in this town stopped treating the craft like an after-school hobby, and more like the business that it needs to be. At the end of the day, we all rise or fail on the level of effort we've put into it.I've been a working Artist in PHX since 1991, so it can be done- all it takes is the knowledge that you have to try all options, not just the stereotypical few.If Artists want to go work in a hack mill, that's their choice. But if we all started working together as a unified force, we wouldn't have to.Respectfully,Wayne Michael Reich  AKA: "The ArtBitch"(http:www.WayneMichaelReich.Blogspot.com)

wayne146
wayne146

Had an interview there once back in the 90's, and once I saw what was up, I instinctively blew the interveiw- in retrospect, so glad I didn't get the job. If Artists want to be successful in PHX, they need to rethink the street party that is First Friday, and the impotent Craft Fair that is Art Detour, and instead concentrate on utilizing business techniques that actually work.For most of us, it's not about Ego- it's about producing work that speaks to both us and the world as a whole.This mill produces stuff that only can be shown in hotels for a reason, and that's okay- somebody needs to decorate the Ramadas of the country, after all. I'm not going to slam anyone who's trying to pay their bills, as lets face it- the good Mac and Cheese costs big bucks, and you gotta do what you gotta do.But it would be a whole lot nicer if some of the Creatives in this town stopped treating the craft like an after-school hobby, and more like the business that it needs to be. At the end of the day, we all rise or fail on the level of effort we've put into it.I've been a working Artist in PHX since 1991, so it can be done- all it takes is the knowledge that you have to try all options, not just the stereotypical few.If Artists want to go work in a hack mill, that's their choice. But if we all started working together as a unified force, we wouldn't have to.Respectfully,Wayne Michael Reich  AKA: "The ArtBitch"http:www.WayneMichaelReich.Blogspot.com)

Steve
Steve

Nice to see this, another artist and I were just talking about the John Douglas Cline Gallery of old. Well documented.

williswest1
williswest1

I make signs & have done illustrations to make ends meet. I would rather use the skills I have to make a living than do almost anything else. It also is good practice for my personal work. Many "Fine" artists have worked comercially. As long as there is integrity in there personal work who cares. It's to bad the patrons of these art factories just don't go buy "real art" directly from the artist or there gallery. We all have to eat.....

Liked the article Claire. ....MORE PLEASE!!!

 

How do you get an artist off your porch in Phoenix?...     Pay him for the pizza!

 

dumpsterdiver
dumpsterdiver

I worked for John Cline down on Buchanan st.Wasn't selling out,it was about eating

Opportunity is where you find it.

Oz32
Oz32

 @dan.suhr There is a good chance your artist's name is Sarah Stockstill.

RafaelArt
RafaelArt

 @LyonintheSun I worked there for a bit more than 4 years, while I don't regret working there, their business ethics suck. Their intention is not to nurture young artist but to squeeze all they can. Sure it's a business and the purpose of a business is to make money, but it can be done in a more ethical way. 

dain.gore
dain.gore

PS this new commenting system is a bit wonky...

gremlin6
gremlin6

 @wayne146  there is a lot of merit in some of these non-business minded events, and these are things that the state should be funding... because it's what makes our city fun and exciting, and adds culture that everyone complains the lack of.  However with public funding should come some sort of quality control.just sayin.  

 

but with other ideas i do agree.

dan.suhr
dan.suhr

 @Oz32 Thanks. Her work does have a familiarity to it. I'll drop her a line. 

LyonintheSun
LyonintheSun

 @RafaelArt Having read The Agony and the Ecstasy no doubt many artists over many centuries feel the same way about the art business and the ethics of their masters.  Michelangelo is said to have much the same feelings about his apprenticeships.  

 

Perhaps it is time to heal old wounds and rally around the many artists that graduated from Phoenix Art Group.  I propose a annual art show - hosted by John Cline - of the artists of PAG hung by date of hire.  We all can then judge the impact of Cline and PAG on the contemporary art scene.

LyonintheSun
LyonintheSun

@RafaelArt PAG is not a public gallery . . . perhaps a space in the Phoenix Art Museum would be a safe location to host the "PAG Graduate Show"?  And, if you object to Mr. Kline hosting the show maybe we could impose on Treg Bradley or another collector to jury the show?

 

You seem to fail to understand that all artists are a threat to each other . . . just as all realtors are a threat to each other and all bars are a threat to each other.  Mr. Cline is wise to protect his business interests . . . why do you find that threatening or negative.

 

I have never met Mr. Cline, but I know many people who have worked at PAG.  Some found the experience professionally and financially rewarding . . . others did not and years later remain bitter at the experience.  Such is life . . . some can find the good in a challenging experience; others do not . . .

RafaelArt
RafaelArt

 @LyonintheSun Lyoninthe Sun i appreciate your romantic view, none of us are welcome in the building, strangely enough we are seen as a threat, like the article says, they are very secretive. And I don't really want to be back, it's the past and it's good to keep it there.  

 

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