WTF Is Going on With the 2017 Mayor's Arts Awards?

Mayor Greg Stanton speaks during the 2015 Mayor's Arts Awards.
Mayor Greg Stanton speaks during the 2015 Mayor's Arts Awards. Derek Larramore
Accolades are all good and fine. But the latest crop of Mayor’s Arts Awards nominees has us wondering: Are the right people really getting the spotlight?

Phoenix Center for the Arts announced the 2017 nominees on Wednesday, September 13. They’ll reveal the winners on Thursday, October 12, during an event dubbed Art in the Park held at downtown's Hance Park.

Proceeds from the evening benefit Arizona military veterans and their families. Winning artists receive a plaque, and an original work of art created by one of Phoenix Center for the Arts' instructors.

The awards were founded in 2012 because Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton wanted to honor innovative artists living and working in Phoenix. "The Mayor's Arts Awards serve to identify outstanding leaders," according to last year's event program.

That's not what happened this year.

Frankly, the 2017 list of nominees is light on high achievers, and it has some serious omissions.

It may certainly be the case that each nominee is doing good work ... But it doesn’t mean the work is having significant impact.

tweet this
Eleven artist nominees made the cut in three different categories. Only a handful are well-known on the local arts scene.

We get that it shouldn’t be a popularity contest, but how distinguished can someone’s work be if people who closely follow the Valley arts scene have never heard of them?

The nomination process is pretty simple. Phoenix Center for the Arts puts out an open call for community members to nominate people and organizations for the awards.

A panel chooses the nominees from submissions made by community members. This year's panel included representatives from Stanton’s office, the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture, and Phoenix Center for the Arts, as well as past Mayor's Arts Awards recipients.

Panelists look at criteria including innovation, impact, and integration. That final category refers to partnerships with other community organizations, including those involved with the arts.

Previous Annie Lopez exhibition that included work referencing her family's immigrant roots.
Lynn Trimble
This year’s best-known nominees are visual artist Annie Lopez, and three of four dance nominees: Angel Castro, Julie Akerly, and Lisa Starry.

We wouldn't argue with those choices, considering the three criteria panelists used to choose nominees.

Other nominees include Shyla Ganesan in the dance category, as well as visual artists Jenita Landrum, Swarma Sitaraman, and Kristin Wesley. Landrum was also nominated in 2016, although she exhibits only periodically.

The music nominees are Brian Eisenberg, Mark Richardson, and Scotty Spenner. That's triple the number of nominees they had last year, when sole nominee Jerry Lawson took first prize. Spenner teaches music at Sounds Academy, which won the music award in 2014.

It may certainly be the case that each nominee is doing good work. That’s true for hundreds of artists working in metro Phoenix. But it doesn’t mean the work is having significant impact.

However, it does mean that significant artists aren’t on the list.

What about Randy Slack, the visual artist whose "Chaos Theory" exhibition at Legend City Studios has been a staple of the metro Phoenix arts scene for nearly two decades?

Or others who’ve made important contributions to the visual arts landscape in Phoenix – such as Emily Costello, Lalo Cota, Sam Gomez, Beatrice Moore, JB Snyder, or Steve Yazzie?

Of course, some worthy candidates aren’t on the list because they’ve been recognized with a Mayor’s Arts Award in the past.

Since it was founded in 2012, the program has honored more than a dozen artists – including Liliana Gomez, Tania Katan, Ann Morton, Nicole Olson, and Mary Stephens.

Dancers who should have been singled out this time include Ib Andersen, Elisa Cavalero, Carley Conder, and Jessica Rajko.

Andersen has created two-site specific works performed by Ballet Arizona at Desert Botanical Garden in recent years. Conder presents the annual Breaking Ground dance festival, which includes a Tiny Dance element that’s been so well-received it’s been incorporated into several Phoenix art exhibitions.

Some incredibly significant artists have been left off the Mayor’s Arts Awards nominee list in years past, too. Consider the case of Postcommodity, an artist collective that included a Phoenix-based member when it was selected to show work at the prestigious 2017 Whitney Biennial exhibition.

click to enlarge
Scene from Arizona Opera's Riders of the Purple Sage.
Tim Trumble
And what about Phoenix musician and composer Craig Bohmler, whose many musicals and operas include Riders of the Purple Sage, which Arizona Opera premiered earlier this year?

Shouldn't these awards be going to artists who've made truly exceptional contributions to the City's arts scene?

And there’s another problem with this year’s list.

The 2017 Mayor’s Arts Awards don’t include any theater or literary artists.

No theater artists were included because the call for nominations only had five categories: visual artist, dancer/choreographer, musician/composer, literary artist, and innovative arts organization.

For literary artists, the panel decided none of the people whose names were submitted sufficiently met the criteria.

If organizers plan to continue the awards program, they should include the theater community. Previous recipients in that category include Space 55, Phonetic Spit, and Rising Youth Theatre – all clear examples of truly influential theater and performative arts here in the Valley.

But they should also do more to secure qualified nominees in every category.

It’s certainly not the case that Phoenix is without literary talent. So, it’s troubling that not a single person is noted as a distinguished literary artist or creative writer this time around.

click to enlarge
Mural painted by Tato Caraveo and Graham Carew at Crescent Highland.
Graham Carew and Tato Caraveo/Photo by Lynn Trimble
Finally, there’s the issue of nominees in the innovative arts organization category.

This one really threw us for a loop.

Ten organizations were singled out, which makes it look like having someone nominate you is all it takes to get recognized in this category.

And two of those nominations are downright bizarre.

First, there’s Crescent Communities/Crescent Highland. That’s the apartment development near Camelback Road and 24th Street that commissioned impressive murals by Tato Caraveo and North Carolina artist Graham Carew.

Plenty of condos and apartments are hiring artists to paint murals around metro Phoenix. That doesn’t make them innovative arts organizations, no matter how great the murals may be in some cases.

There’s also Dirty Yoga, which just makes our head hurt. Because yoga, for all its many virtues, isn’t art. We can all agree on that, right?

Here, the problem isn’t just who made the cut. It’s also who didn’t get a mention. Among those deserving is Phoenix Institute of Contemporary Art (or phICA), a nonprofit headed by curator, collector, and educator Ted Decker.

During the 2016-17 season, phICA showed work by 73 artists through 18 exhibitions in five venues. The group also coordinates an artist residency program and helps Phoenix artists publish catalogs of their work. And this year, a video about Phoenix artist Beth Ames Swartz that phICA produced, was aired on PBS.

So, what’s the essential dilemma here?

Individuals and groups who aren’t making truly noteworthy contributions to the metro Phoenix arts scene are being recognized with Mayor’s Arts Awards nominations.

And people who make a big impact get nada.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble