State of the Arts: Phoenix's Arts Community Is at a Make-or-Break Moment. It's Time to Grow Up
Carrie Marill pauses.
Over a hot cup of Earl Grey at Songbird Coffee & Tea House in downtown Phoenix, she's considering what it's like to be a working artist in a city where art isn't a top priority, where artists get burnt out, where being talented isn't enough.
"It can feel like you're working in a vacuum," the visual artist says. Backlit on a sunny afternoon in early March, she tucks a chunk of her choppy blond bob behind her ear. "I can see why that would be frustrating."
Marill is one of Phoenix's most successful artists, represented by Lisa Sette Gallery, a contemporary art mainstay with a solid national reputation and widely considered one of the best in town. Marill previously lived and worked in San Francisco and New York, but she moved to Phoenix in 2004. And she's stayed.
Without the constant hustle of working to pay the high-price rent that comes with big-city living, Marill and her husband, artist Matthew Moore (a fourth-generation farmer of Arizona land), have created their own paths to artistic success.
Often geometrically focused, Marill's drawings and paintings pull from the natural world, her home life, and society. She consistently exhibits her work in local and national galleries and creates large-scale murals. She recently completed one just down the road from this small cafe on the south side of Combine Studios, a live-work space she and Moore own that works closely with ASU Art Museum to host international artists.
It's not easy to cut it as an artist in this town. There are only so many galleries and so few collectors, and opportunities don't just fall into laps. But it's not hopeless. Cheap rent and a burgeoning creative class are making Phoenix a viable place for professional artists to call home, provided that artists build up a network beyond the bubble of Phoenix.
"If you can carve out a living here and make connections," Marill says, "why leave?"
Amada Cruz, formerly of Artpace San Antonio, is Phoenix Art Museum's new director.
Phoenix's arts scene is scrappy. It's underfunded, fragile. But it's also experimental, inclusionary, and evolving.
And with new leaders at major cultural institutions, it's also in transition.
Amada Cruz is now the director at Phoenix Art Museum, replacing James Ballinger, who held the position for 32 of his 40 years at the museum. Ballinger's tenure is polarizing. Some say he did great things for Phoenix, leading its young museum, which opened in 1959. Others say he stunted Phoenix's artistic growth.
Steven Tepper became dean at Arizona State University's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in July 2014, leaving Vanderbilt University. Herberger is one the largest art programs in the country, with several schools and disciplines, including visual art, design, film, dance, theater, music, media, and engineering. Tepper's predecessor, Kwang-Wu Kim, is an acclaimed pianist. By comparison, Tepper — whose focus is on how art and design intersect with public life and policy — comes from a place of more expansive ideas.
Phoenix's To-Do List
Consider yourself on notice, Phoenix. Here are 10 things to do in the next three years.
Phoenix Art Museum: Hire a contemporary art curator who develops at least one Phoenix-centric exhibition.
Dance companies: Engage a non-traditional space with a new work, like Ballet Arizona did with Topia and the Desert Botanical Garden.
Heard Museum: Show an original contemporary art exhibition with work strictly from Arizona artists.
Phoenix Theatre: Bring in a new curator to create changing exhibitions for the lobby.
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art: Hire a new curator of performing arts — and bring back Lit Lounge.
Arts organizations: Create partnerships with local schools — and not just arts charters — to bring the arts to all kids.
Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue: Create a new signature event that connects the arts districts and is more than another art walk.
Arizona State University: Establish a program connecting arts grads to jobs and funding opportunities in Phoenix.
Independent galleries: Start competing with high-level galleries by showing serious exhibitions, paying curators, and opening for regular hours during the week and weekends.
Politicians: Stop cutting the budget of the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Artists need more grant opportunities like Art Tank, not fewer.
Those aren't the only institutions facing change. Scottsdale Cultural Council and the Musical Instrument Museum have new leadership and the Heard Museum is currently looking for a new director.
With fresh faces come new ideas, important changes, necessary self-reflection, and big questions. What's happening in Phoenix's art world, and why?
More than anything, these changes signify that it's time for Phoenix to grow up. The sixth-most populous city in the country unquestionably should be the sixth-best arts hub. Without a clear-cut path and no blueprint to follow, how does a city, specifically metropolitan Phoenix, get to that next level — and what does that level even look like?
A survey issued to readers of New Times' culture blog, Jackalope Ranch, looked for answers and turned up interesting ideas from some of the city's up-and-comers and major players.
Survey says? Participants, organizations, and institutions need to build and sustain better connections. Consider that step one.
There's agreement across the board that the true tipping point for Phoenix will be when emerging and mid-career artists can make a living here. Without more collectors, serious galleries, programs that support artists, job opportunities, and financially invested participants, that's pretty much impossible.
"I know when I was there — and I am sure it is still the case — there was talk of the creative drain, people leaving Phoenix to find opportunities in other cities," says John Spiak, former ASU Art Museum curator who left in 2011 to become director and chief curator of Grand Central Art Center at California State University-Fullerton, in an e-mail to New Times.
"Yes, this may be true for some artists," Spiak continues, "but I was also intrigued how the artists that left always kept close ties, held high regards, and returned on regular occasions — sometimes creating specific projects because of the opportunities provided by Phoenix and its community."
Not only do Phoenix's cultural institutions have a chance to evolve, its smaller arts organizations — from independent galleries to artist collectives — and the greater Phoenix community also need to step up. Though it's in the midst of morphing from a launch pad into a boomerang city, one that creatives return to after trysts with New York, Portland, and Seattle, Phoenix should be a place where creatives want to stay — and one where they can.
Making any city into a healthy, sustainable place for the arts and artists is a tough job, says Ruby Lerner, founding president and executive director of Creative Capital, a New York-based nonprofit that awards grants to artists across the country.
Lerner offers a lengthy list of things communities need in order to cultivate stellar arts communities: affordable places to live; time and low-cost spaces to work; diverse venues for exhibition; money from collectors and grants; promotion; informed criticism; travel opportunities; bringing in outside artists; organizations ensuring that artists make enough money to support themselves; financial tools beyond grants, like loans; an environment free of censorship that encourages experimentation and growth.
All art scenes outside of New York and L.A. go through phases of heating up and fading away. However, Lerner says, the only way to keep operating at a high level is to make arts infrastructure permanent.
"There has to be a focused commitment," Lerner says. "It won't just happen."
ASU Herberger Institute Dean Steven Tepper wants more alumni to stay in Phoenix.
If Phoenix is ever going to become a cultural destination, one to which collectors, artists, and innovators flock, then its cultural institutions have to be fearless. Or, at least, less fearful.
Phoenix Art Museum, the Heard Museum, and other cultural institutions rely heavily on support from major companies and donors. This is Arizona — so many of those companies and individuals are conservative, both politically and in their artistic tastes. With dollars dangling in front of arts institutions, ready to be snatched away when bad press rolls out or someone gets offended, museum offerings become decidedly milquetoast. Museum leaders have learned from experience: Controversy hurts the bottom line.
In 1996, there was "Old Glory," a Phoenix Art Museum exhibition that, in her New Times review, Kathleen Vanesian called "stale," "slightly cheesy," and "an American-flag diorama more appropriate for a historical institution."
Yet, the inclusion of Dread Scott's What Is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?, which invites viewers to stand on an American flag, resulted intense national scrutiny. Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain denounced "Old Glory." So did Newt Gingrich. Though museum director James Ballinger touted the fact that the exhibition spurred national discussion, SRP's board of directors cut $29,000 in funding for the museum.
So much for the national spotlight. Since then, most of PAM's shows have been touring blockbusters designed to bring in cash. Notable exceptions include the recent "Vanitas," which drew on the collection of Arizona-based internationally recognized contemporary art collector Stéphane Janssen, and "Order, Chaos, and the Space Between," curated from Diane and Bruce Halle's collection of Latin American contemporary art. But pre-made traveling shows such as "Hollywood Costume" and "The Art of Video Games" have reigned supreme.
Also problematic for PAM has been its turnover among talented curators. Whether they've simply found better gigs or grown weary of Ballinger's rumored difficulty (or a combination of each) is hard to say, because everyone's mum.
Regardless, the museum's been without a contemporary art curator since Sara Cochran left the position in September 2013. Cochran now works as associate director, curator, and educator at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Meanwhile, Ballinger, who announced his intention to retire in April 2014, had all but hired Jennifer Sudul Edwards as the new contemporary curator in November 2014. However, the museum's board, clearly not on board with Ballinger's decision, rescinded Sudul Edwards' offer.
Soon after that drama subsided, the museum announced that Amada Cruz would replace Ballinger.
The Heard Museum drew national and well-deserved attention by connecting with and exhibiting younger artists in the early 2000s. With Joe Baker as its Lloyd Kiva New curator of fine art, the museum made itself exciting and relevant to downtown's First Friday set.
Memorable exhibitions during Baker's time at the Heard included Hector Ruiz's solo show "La Realidad," which used multimedia works to assault capitalism and explore border issues, and "Holy Land," which stirred up controversy for including a Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie video in which Jahalin Bedouin members discussing how Israeli urbanization has encroached on their way of life.
When Baker departed in 2007, it was no secret that museum donors had complained about exhibitions shown while he served as curator. Although no one at the museum directly connected the controversies to Baker's leaving, the Heard hasn't shown such daring contemporary work since.
Public art, by contrast, has had the benefit of somewhat guaranteed funding, with one percent of the city's capital improvement program budget going toward paying for new public art projects. That's why there's such impressive art at Phoenix Convention Center, the PHX Sky Train, and at Civic Space Park. However, because the funding comes from bonds issued for big construction projects, it's contingent on economic boom times. And from an artist's perspective, though public art can be financially and creatively rewarding, it's also a taxing process in which ideas must be malleable and conform to others' opinions.
Phoenix's theater world is vibrant, with strong independent companies Stray Cat Theatre, Nearly Naked Theatre, and Black Theatre Troupe, and three equity house theaters (Arizona Theatre Company, Childsplay, and Phoenix Theatre), increasingly sophisticated audiences, and great venues. But companies face issues similar to museums when it comes to drawing audiences. They're beholden to ticket holders and have to present at least a few shows a year with mass appeal. That's why a season doesn't go by without crowd-pleasing staples like A Christmas Carol and The Sound of Music.
Actors Theater prided itself on paying its artists living wages and presenting daring and challenging works. Four years after removing A Christmas Carol from its annual schedule, the critically acclaimed company shuttered in December 2014, explaining that it was simply out of money. While it wasn't exactly shocking, as the company had previously closed and reopened, it wasn't great for morale in Phoenix's performing arts community.
"That was discouraging," says longtime Arizona Theatre Company artistic director David Ira Goldstein, adding that there's a lesson Phoenix can learn from it. "If you need to get a cheap ticket, get a cheap ticket. If you have the means to pay double, do so. Otherwise, we won't be here when you want us. People need to make the arts an economic priority as well as a spiritual priority."
Phoenix Art Museum director Amada Cruz wants the institution to embrace bilingual culture.
Courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum
Phoenix has never been a cultural destination. The arts have always come second to spas, golf, and real estate.
The Valley has suffered for decades because its cultural institutions, particularly Phoenix Art Museum, haven't engaged the culture around them. PAM exhibits costumes from Hollywood blockbusters instead of putting a spotlight on talented local artists. The Heard brings in a Lego-themed show instead of curating contemporary and local Native American art. These sorts of exhibitions provide bang for the museums' bucks, but there's next to nothing uniquely Phoenix about them — no trace of their city and state's actual culture.
(The Heard's Lego show did feature work from area artists Lalo Cota, Steve Yazzie, and Dave Shaddix. That doesn't change the fact that the exhibition was built around and with children's toys with substantial commercial appeal.)
If there's truly nothing worth showing or engaging here — which, of course, is not the case — then why bother with cultural institutions in the first place?
It's unfair to expect arts institutions to be everything to everyone, but they should strive to surprise and engage audiences through exhibitions and supplementary programming. They should reflect their communities and serve as places for learning and coming together.
Part of the problem with PAM's offerings, apart from canned exhibitions, has been that Jim Ballinger's taste veered heavily toward western and cowboy art. The annual "West Select" exhibition served as a moneymaker for the museum. Its selections tended to be stale horses-and-cowboys fare and not particularly engaging. The show was less a curatorial effort and more an ethically questionable fundraising one. Each piece in the show went up for sale, with proceeds going to the museum.
Ballinger declined to comment on the arts in Phoenix.
Amada Cruz, who took over as PAM's director last month, says she has curatorial priorities. "I'd like to have more large-scale exhibitions created in-house," Cruz says, "and then travel around the world."
A week into her new job, Cruz readily admits that she doesn't have all the answers. But she does have some big ideas.
"The possibilities, in my mind, are really endless," says Cruz, who comes to Phoenix after working as executive director of San Antonio's Artpace, a nonprofit contemporary art gallery. Her priorities include working more closely with ASU and U of A's downtown campuses to bring more students to the museum and embracing bilingual culture, with more tours and wall labels available in Spanish.
"It's symbolic," she says. "I want people to feel that they are welcome here."
Down the line, her loftiest dream is to offer free admission daily.
Regardless of the price of admission (currently it's $15 for adults at PAM), museums need new reasons for people to return. That makes having new exhibitions curated in-house and bringing artists to the museum to work with collections and create original installations more important — and probably way more doable — than making the museum a perennially budget-friendly destination.
It also makes it all the more necessary that the museum finally hire a new curator of contemporary art, a position that hasn't been filled since Sara Cochran left the job. It was a great loss to the museum, but metro Phoenix is lucky that Cochran stayed in the Valley to join Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Cochran worked at PAM for five years, engaging the local arts community during her tenure. She's kept quiet her reasons for leaving the museum. "I probably have very little to say on the record about working with Jim," she says.
SMoCA, meanwhile, has been one of the Valley's greatest arts assets, and not just because of what's on the walls. In January 2012, the museum brought on writer and performer Tania Katan as its first-ever curator of performing arts. During her tenure, SMoCA found raging success with Lit Lounge, a literary event series that featured local and national writers, actors, and comedians reading stories each month, accompanied by local musicians.
Katan left the position in January 2015. There's been worry since that the job might be eliminated. Cochran says that replacing Katan is top priority, though she acknowledges that it's impossible to replicate the one-of-a-kind personality Katan brought to the job.
Lit Lounge gave people from across the Valley a reason to visit SMoCA, and a reason to engage with art in a way that they can't at any other major institution in town. Reaching beyond the walls of the museum is necessary for success, with offbeat ideas often turning out to be the most notable.
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver has some of the country's most exciting arts programming. Its weekly Black Sheep Fridays are low-cost and promise decidedly oddball and lighthearted fun. Take, for instance, "Miami Vice President," a table reading of Miami Vice featuring Joe Biden and Dick Cheney impersonators or A Wes Anderson Purim, where attendees were encouraged to dress as Anderson characters and eat hamantaschen.
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit has worked to engage its community through typically free programming largely targeting area teens. The non-collecting institution also is bolstering its local arts community by pairing up Detroit artists with more nationally recognized artists for a multiyear project that will result in 10 exhibitions that examine Detroit and aim to contextualize it globally.
The time to get weird and introspective? That'd be now.
Turns out, Phoenix isn't unique when it comes to its major institutions and their challenges.
Most museums, location notwithstanding, are beholden to financial backers and have tended to skew more conservative in their offerings, Ruby Lerner says, particularly in light of the economic downturn. No institution's perfect; even New York's Museum of Modern Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art don't get it right all the time.
What sets Phoenix apart are its independent galleries, working artists, and collectives. The city's Latino community, Native American population, and mind-numbingly frustrating political climate are unique. These are authentic, the things Phoenix has that nowhere else does.
Native Arizonan and noted contemporary artist Liz Cohen says that it takes all kinds of artists, with varying priorities, to make a complete artistic ecosystem. So Roosevelt Row's galleries can satisfy some, others need a statewide scope, some require a regional audience, and others look to have national and international audiences.
Cohen's work blends vintage vehicle modification, lowrider culture, and photography. She's won a Creative Capital grant, shown at SMoCA, and now resides in Detroit, where she moved for its automobile infrastructure and serves as artist-in-residence and head of photography at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
"Phoenix has some really amazing curators," Cohen says, mentioning Sara Cochran, ASU's Julio Cesar Morales, and Claire Carter, SMoCA's curator of contemporary art.
Though those curators, and others, mix and mingle with up-and-coming artists, Cohen says, it's not necessarily the mission of their institutions to provide opportunities for local creatives.
"Their mission is to give them food, bring them art that they wouldn't see otherwise," she says, adding that it's not a reasonable expectation to have local artists' work on view in museums. That might be fitting for mid-career artists, but they shouldn't be shown in museums just because they're in town.
Which highlights something major missing in Phoenix: high-end galleries. While indie art districts Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue can serve artists up to a point, there's not much opportunity for artists who want to move past that level. Lisa Sette Gallery and Bentley Gallery are the only nationally recognized spaces commercially dedicated to contemporary art and artists.
Phoenix is also lacking when it comes to collectors. They go hand-in-hand with the lack of high-level galleries, and it's a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Are there not more world-class commercial galleries because there isn't the collector base here to support them, or are there not many serious collectors in Phoenix because there aren't a slew of galleries to hold their attention?
Contemporary art collector Stéphane Janssen, who lives in Carefree, says there are so few collectors in metro Phoenix because there aren't many galleries operating on a high enough level to attract the caliber of buyers and bidders that flock to New York and Miami.
But being an art collector doesn't necessarily mean dropping thousands on a vase or being the highest bidder for the hottest new artist. Lerner says it's crucial that there's financial support for artists who are just getting started.
"When you're starting out, small amounts of money mean so much," Lerner says. "A couple thousands of dollars can really be life changing."
The best thing about it, she says, is that it's validating. "It's a little letter to an artists: Keep at it."
It's not hard to find Herberger Institute alums throughout Phoenix's arts scene. Perhaps most notable when it comes to 20-somethings impacting Phoenix's arts is curator and ASU grad Becky Nahom, who got her start interning and/or working at nearly every arts institution in the metropolitan area.
Now, with Julia Bruck, Nahom operates Halt Gallery out of a repurposed shipping container on Roosevelt Street, alongside Greg Esser and Ted Decker's Hot Box Gallery. Nahom has carved a space for herself and interesting art in an exemplary way. She also works for SMoCA and Scottsdale Public Art.
Not all grads find their place in Phoenix, though. Liz Cohen says that it's not a problem exclusive to the city. "There are a lot of people who are really great artists who are underutilized because there are only so many teaching positions and galleries," Cohen says.
In the past, former art students have found themselves rudderless after graduating, unprepared for the reality of being a working artist who needs to develop a brand, a voice, and an audience.
Herberger Institute Dean Steven Tepper wants to change that.
"I'd like to see hundreds of our students working with partners across the city using their creative talents to make things happen throughout Phoenix," he says.
Tepper envisions a design and arts core where the Herberger Institute is an active partner with cultural institutions and government agencies in employing art and design to make the city a better place. And he wants to see a better system for connecting arts students with post-graduation jobs in the Phoenix area.
Carrie Marill says that artists need to use their creativity to push for more jobs — and jobs that aren't necessarily teaching.
"The age of social media makes being an artist easier," Marill says.
She uses Instagram, a website, and a blog (punkwasp.com) to engage audiences around the world. "You're in control and can get work out there without galleries and museums."
But that doesn't make working as an artist a cakewalk. "I think you have to be flexible," Marill says. Artists have to be willing to think beyond being an artist and more along the lines of bringing creativity to a position, as Tania Katan did at SMoCA.
Tepper's not alone in wanting to keep creatives in Phoenix. That's Julie Akerly and Matthew Mosher's mission with [nueBOX], a recently founded arts platform-meets-incubator for Phoenix-area emerging dancers, performers, and installation artists to push forward, connect with audiences, gain feedback from peers, and have a studio space, thanks to a collaboration with Phoenix Center for the Arts.
The program stands independent of such companies as Frances Smith Cohen's Center Dance Ensemble and Ib Andersen's Ballet Arizona, two staples in the Phoenix dance scene.
"This is not really something that I want to do," Akerly writes in her survey response, "but until someone else steps up and starts doing it in Phoenix, I am going to keep doing it." So what can be done?
Ruby Lerner says Phoenix needs more organizations like [nueBOX], groups that are bridging the gap for artists between school and being established. More galleries functioning in this same capacity are needed, too, whether they're entry-level places working toward higher levels of taste or serious curators and recent arts grads creating new venues for themselves.
Both Sette and Bentley galleries continue to present world-class exhibitions, but their locations are off the beaten path for the average First Friday attendee, who likely walks along Roosevelt and Grand and calls it a night.
There's not a set path for artists in Phoenix to move up from entry-level arts spaces and high-end galleries. Without that, it's tough to navigate how to move from Trunk Space, a small but invaluable part of Phoenix's arts ecosystem up to, say, Sette.
As more of these in-between institutions that aren't quite high-end but are beyond entry-level surface and establish themselves as important within the arts community, so should organizations that can provide more funding to keep them going.
Successful grants programs, like Arizona Arts Commission's lauded Art Tank (which blends entrepreneurial arts funding with public pitching and voting), aren't guaranteed to return year after year because they're dependent on Arizona's legislature for inclusion in the annual budget. Indeed, the Commission's budget for 2016 has been cut by $1 million. And it wouldn't be surprising to see more arts-related funding on the chopping block. That's why smaller groups working to support artists are supremely important.
"We have funded a lot of fantastic Phoenix artists," Ruby Lerner says of Creative Capital. "You've got great artists and always have. But they should be getting local support, too. There should be more grant opportunities there and more of an infrastructure of more grassroots, artist-driven organizations."
"I don't see myself as an artist in Phoenix, but as an artist who lives in Phoenix," Randy Slack says, looking out Giant Coffee's oversize glass windows and across the street to Phoenix Art Museum.
Slack runs Legend City Studios, a downtown Phoenix gallery and studio space where he hosts the annual Chaos Theory exhibition, which, as the name suggests, is a bit of a free-for-all showing. Slack uses Chaos to show off his work and that of his friends, and it's probably Phoenix's most notable recurring art show, and it counted former PAM director Jim Ballinger as a regular attendee.
Chaos is more about hanging out than it is about art, Slack says — more of a celebration, or an after-party, where people are the main attraction, and the art's almost secondary.
For Slack, Phoenix is a base, not a be all, end all. He's prepping for an upcoming show in L.A. and a mashup art-meets-food event in Phoenix. He rattles off the names of artists who operate similarly: Colin Chillag, Carrie Marill, Matt Moore. They're all talented and have established connections beyond Phoenix.
Slack thinks back on a show he put on in 2004 or 2005 at Legend City during Art Detour, an annual gallery/studio tour throughout Phoenix. Only seven people showed up the first day. Partly pissed and partly motivated, Slack drew up a list of people he wanted to have see his new work and e-mailed them.
Among the recipients was John Spiak, then at ASU Art Museum. Spiak ended up coming to the show and bringing others with him, Slack remembers. People were receptive to his invite, he says, even though they didn't owe him anything.
Now, as he gears up for a show in L.A., he's been in touch with Spiak again. "It's what makes the world turn, those connections," he says.
Slack wonders what it would be like for Phoenix to have stellar galleries on Roosevelt, to have more artists working to step up their game here, and more artists coming to work here in affordable studio spaces.
"It would be nice to have other people come to this town and be intimidated," he says. "We need something new to strive for."
In order to be a world-class art city, Phoenix has to act like one. It isn't the next L.A., the next Detroit, or the next Berlin. It's Phoenix — and that's a good thing.
"If everyone is kicking ass, then we shouldn't worry about Phoenix," he says. "Because we are Phoenix."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.