Mesa Rising: The East Valley City Is the Unlikely Home of a Vibrant Arts Scene

Sculptor Matt Smith operates a plasma cutter during his welding class at Mesa Arts Center.
Sculptor Matt Smith operates a plasma cutter during his welding class at Mesa Arts Center.
Tom Carlson

Back in 2000, Mesa’s own arts and culture landscape was evolving. It was the last year of Wayne Brown’s term as mayor. During his tenure, in 1998, Mesa voters approved the half-percent “quality of life” sales tax that funded the creation of the $94.5 million Mesa Arts Center. Before it was built, the City had been using a historic 1936 building for art classes, performances, and exhibits.

The idea to build a new Mesa Arts Center originated with arts and community activists during the late 1970s or early ’80s, says Mike Hutchinson, former city manager for the City of Mesa. Like the baseball stadium built during Brown’s term, Mesa Arts Center was meant to solidify Mesa as a key player in the region.

Ornstein arrived in Mesa, where she also serves as director for the City of Mesa Department of Arts and Culture, in 2010. On the heels of a major U.S. recession, she needed to continually demonstrate Mesa Arts Center’s value to the community. Since arriving, she’s repeatedly increased revenues and participation in Mesa Arts Center programs, and made physical improvements to the space itself.

Some have touted Mesa Arts Center as the new urban savior, saying it would help to revitalize downtown Mesa — which took an economic hit as the proliferation of malls and freeways pulled people away from Main Street. But quantifying how Mesa Arts Center programs affect the surrounding community is tough, Ornstein says.

Most days, downtown Mesa still looks like a ghost town, even though Mesa Arts Center has been around for a decade. “It’s very rare for a city to put in an arts and cultural center, and suddenly everything works out,” says Rob Melnick, executive dean for the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. At the very least, Mesa Arts Center is bringing in the bodies, which is something downtown Mesa sorely needs. And it brings diversity — with people of all ages, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds — showing up for community events.

And yet, there’s a down side, says Carmen Guerrero, a Mesa artist with a long history of arts advocacy and volunteerism in Mesa. When people see the giant Mesa Arts Center campus, they assume that must be where all the arts and culture happens. So they’re less likely to go in search of the city’s grassroots arts scene.

Of course, some Mesa art, including towering installations along the Central Mesa Valley Metro light rail route, is hard to miss. Main Street also boasts sculptures from the City’s public art collection and a new pocket park west of Mesa Arts Center that has large-scale sculptures glowing with bright colors in the dark.

Mesa’s art scene was impressive even before the City built Mesa Arts Center, says John Spiak, a former ASU Art Museum curator who now serves as director of The Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California. They showed really solid, juried exhibitions even then, Spiak says. But the new Mesa Arts Center opened during an important time in the metro Phoenix arts scene — as other museums were doing away with spaces for experimental works or exhibitions for showcasing local artists. That made their work even more relevant and significant. “I remember seeing a lot of good, smart shows there,” he says.

El Mac stands on a scissor lift and works on his large-scale mural at Mesa Arts Center.
El Mac stands on a scissor lift and works on his large-scale mural at Mesa Arts Center.
Lynn Trimble

El Mac stands about 20 feet up in the air, on the platform of a parrot-green scissor lift he’s using to paint his two-story mural on the concrete exterior of an elevator shaft at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. It’s a late afternoon in March, and the sun is streaming through an opening in a nearby wall onto his work — illuminating the elaborate pattern of lines and circles comprising the face and upper torso of a young woman holding a long-stem red rose. It’s the portrait of a friend expecting her first child, but he leaves the lower torso blank — creating a poetic homage to the open future for both the child and the city where his mural will become a symbol of Mesa’s rise within the regional arts scene.

Several changes are in the works as the Mesa arts scene continues to evolve. A national nonprofit real-estate development firm called Artspace, which specializes in creating work/live spaces for artists and other creatives, is scheduled to open Mesa Artspace Lofts by early 2018. And the City of Mesa has signed an agreement with Arizona State University to bring a campus to downtown Mesa, although plans for financing it have yet to be approved. It’s likely the campus will offer several arts programs and open in the fall of 2019, says Rick Naimark, associate vice president for Program Development Planning at Arizona State University.

But something else is needed, Campana says. She wants a more vibrant scene in downtown Mesa — with the types of restaurants, retail, and mixed-use housing that attracts and keeps people in the area. That may or may not happen. Either way, Mesa Arts Center will likely continue to draw an intriguing mix of people from around the Valley.

Phoenix couple Janet and Whitney Johnson arrive at Mesa Arts Center one Saturday morning in early June, and discover the campus abuzz with young dancers. Wearing costumes laden with sequins and spandex, the dancers have come to participate in a national competition. But the Johnsons, dressed in jeans and long-sleeve chambray shirts, are on their way to a welding workshop led by Matt Smith — a sculptor and ASU School of Art faculty member who also teaches Mesa Arts Center classes. Within a couple of hours, they’re using their body weight to activate a large machine that cuts sheets of metal and connecting two small pieces of metal using the flame from a welding torch. Staring at its eight-inch flame through the dark lens shade of a welding helmet, they’re not worried about whether Mesa ever rises to the level of its edgy arts center — which basically affirms Melnick’s bottom line on that issue.

“They’ve already got the arts center,” Melnick says of Mesa. “So the rest will just be gravy.”

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