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.
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.
But unless you own and rent out the buildings (like Beatrice Moore on Grand Avenue) or run regular events in your building (like Helen Hestenes of the Icehouse), it's not likely you'll make a living.
Phoenix Art Museum Director James Ballinger has been heavily involved in the community since the mid-'70s, when he took a job as curator of collections at PAM. Since he started, Ballinger says he's seen a series of rises and falls in the local art community.
"Before the economic decline, local galleries were really on the right track," he says. "It'd be great to see a handful of galleries run by well-intentioned, smart people that represent the best of emerging artwork, where people from the community and all over can visit during the day to get a sense of what's going on in Phoenix."
Lisa Sette owns one of these galleries. Sette's been in business in Scottsdale for more than 20 years. On a Thursday afternoon in June, she talks over the phone while scrolling through the roster of artists she represents. The 53-year-old has owned her gallery for more than 25 years. She says of the 36 artists she represents, 13 are from Arizona. Two of them teach and one owns a meditation center. The others, she says, create art full-time.
"Is it possible to aspire to be a full-time artist? Yes," she says. "Is it realistic? Possibly . . . I can't estimate the number of artists who are really making a living creating artwork in Phoenix. It's a very small number — a couple dozen maybe — and to make it into that group, you have work, perhaps teach, or have a day job on the side for a long time to get to that point."
Sette's artists do well, but before you head over to Marshall Way with your portfolio, be warned: She rarely takes on anyone new. Every two years, her gallery hosts an open call. Two years ago, 500 artists from around the world submitted their work for her perusal. Sette chose one artist: Phoenix's Alan Bur Johnson.
"To be honest, some days, I don't know as a gallery owner how you make it here in the art community," she says. "Of course, the arts are important. Artists are at the forefront of every issue we encounter. They teach us about it, they feel it first, and they can help the general public understand it . . . but I don't know how anyone makes a great living while doing it."
Ted Decker has a few ideas. He sponsors dozens of local and international exhibitions and artist-marketing materials through his Catalyst Fund.
Decker grew up in Phoenix and has traveled extensively. He's been to more exhibitions, art fairs, and artist studios than he can count. But he can name only about 10 artists in the community who he knows are make a living solely creating art.
"The life of a contemporary artist is all very romanticized," he says. "And I think part of the problem is that there are too many people who are not qualified to be making art — they don't know how to draw. They walk around with a video camera and call themselves video artists, pile stuff in the middle of the room and call it an installation . . . It's absolutely possible to make a living creating art, but you have to be good, you have to have to be smart, and you need to have a plan, a website, and a portfolio so you can get a residency or a grant — and not have to be a waiter."
As for Phoenix Art Group, Decker says he's changed his mind.
"I used to be one of the people who was very dismissive of them or any commercial art producer, but now — and I know I can get slammed for saying it — I think artists really need to do what they have to do to survive," Decker says. "But don't get me wrong, if you're going to do commercial work, you better still be doing the best work that you can."
The romanticized view of starving artists and the struggle of the creative class is nothing new, and there is an obvious place for artists who teach other artists in the classroom and studio and those who create public projects. Those sentiments and gigs extend far beyond Phoenix. But 40 years ago, John Cline gave Phoenix artists another option.
In the 1970s, today's arts-focused area of downtown Phoenix was rezoned as a high-rise incentive district, with the goal of bringing in huge, dense residential and office buildings. The zoning stunted growth of the largely single-family home neighborhood, and as residents and businesses moved out, the value of the area plummeted. Boarded-up buildings and vacant houses became attractive to artists because they were affordable for studio spaces and galleries, but most artists still needed full-time incomes.
For this story, New Times tracked down 16 current and former members of Phoenix Art Group. Six declined comment, five never returned our calls and e-mails, and five agreed to talk.
Cline (who was interviewed by New Times in 1994 but declined to comment for this story) studied art at ASU. After graduating and living the life of a starving artist in Los Angeles, he came back to Phoenix and met businessman Joseph Grassia (who also declined an interview request — as we said, these guys are secretive). They joined forces, set up shop, and placed ads in local newspapers for talent.
According to former employees, Cline's idea was to gather and educate a large group of artists who would produce work for corporate clients. And from that idea came Accent Graphics.
Eight artists were hired to create work targeted toward the commercial market and worked under a number of pseudonyms. For Accent Graphics, this created an illusion of a large and permanent "stable." No matter who came or left, the names and profiles of the fictional artists would remain the same on promotion materials.
For artists, the pseudonyms created a mask. A number of different artists could reproduce designs and sign each painting with the fake signature of its designated fake painter. In short, it protected their value in a time when commercial art was frowned upon by the high-brow art community and often viewed as "selling out."
To the artists who agreed to share their Phoenix Art Group stories, commercial gigs pay the bills — but at a high cost.
Greg Gronowski answered an "artists wanted" ad in the paper. He became one of Accent Graphics' original eight but says he had no qualms about doing commercial work.
"To me, all art is commercial, whether it's sold in a gallery or it's in a hotel. The only thing that changes is the subject matter," he says. "A lot of artists will consider that below them . . . You really cut your chances of survival by doing that. "
Gronowski says the group started out painting butterflies and watercolors for local hotels but quickly expanded, added more artists (both on the production floor and in the fake-artist roster), and began selling internationally and playing the art market game in the '80s and '90s. Gronowski remembers traveling to the East Coast for huge commercial art shows where buyers knew him as "Barrett."
He says his pseudonyms probably are more famous than his own name (you can still find "Barrett's" work selling on Art.com, and he says he's seen auction resales of his commercial work for thousands of dollars), but ultimately, he says, it's not about his own signature at the bottom of the painting.
"If you want to survive in this industry, you can't really hold on to your ego. People look at Rafael or Michelangelo and don't know that a lot of this artwork was done by a staff of artists who were individually really good at hands or excelled in expression," he says. "Production of art has been around since the beginning . . . You just have to learn to bend a little. And that's what I learned from John Cline."
In the '90s, the economy picked up and construction in Phoenix and all over the country exploded — and for commercial art, that meant business.
Cline and Grassia expanded. They employed more than 100 people and sold prints and paintings for as much as $10,000 to hotels and hospitals from Las Vegas to Dubai under the name Phoenix Art Press (another commercial art venture of Cline and Grassia), according to former employees.
Gronowski says artists were paid about $150 per month, but as demand for their work grew, Cline and Grassia combined Accent Graphics and Phoenix Art Press into Phoenix Art Group. They started granting commissions based on the sales. Gronowski remembers artists taking home $4,000 to $5,000 per month — all for making artwork.
In the '90s, three young Phoenix artists submitted their résumés and samples. They were all in their early 20s and were looking for jobs that would pay the bills and let them paint.
It was inside Phoenix Art Group that Randy Slack, James Angel, and David Dauncey first met and worked together.
On a sunny Wednesday in March, Angel sits over an iced tea at a crowded Starbucks in the Biltmore neighborhood and compares the commercial art world to the music industry. To determine how well a piece will sell, he says, you have to push all the buttons that make something that will stick in people's heads.
"When I worked there, I used to flip through magazines and look for the high-end fashion ads," says Angel. "Whatever colors Gucci was selling that season were a safe bet. It's all about color trends."
Angel was one of Phoenix Art Group's stars. He figured out the formula and, since Cline and Grassia's model changed to pay artists per piece instead of per month, Angel painted as much as he could. Cline promoted Angel to a designer position and later gave the same gigs to Slack and Dauncey.
In 1994, the downtown art district was stabilizing. Artists continued to move in, fix up buildings, and look for jobs. Phoenix Art Group moved into its current 72,000-square-foot building on 14th Street north of Indian School Road.
A year later, Angel recognized the difference between what he was being paid and how much Phoenix Art Group was selling the work for (often in the tens of thousands of dollars) — and he left along with Slack and Dauncey.
"It was just time," says Angel. "We knew it was time to move on, and all of us really wanted to start focusing on our own artwork."
Today, the Phoenix Art Group building is closed to the public, but from the parking lot, anyone can see activity on all four floors through the large glass windows.
Former employees say that on the top floor, a small number of artists work as designers who create artwork with carefully documented techniques, colors, and step-by-step instructions. These designs travel down to the third floor, where a larger number of artists reproduce the pieces (on canvas, surface-measured and stretched on the second floor) according to demand for that design or how well that particular "artist" is selling.
Those paintings go to another floor, where they're framed or reproduced as prints. And the final products travel to the first floor, where sales representatives have them packaged, shipped, and sent off to all corners of the world.
And if they don't sell, they're sent along with last season's materials to the dumpsters.
Phoenix Art Group's international success wasn't long-lived. Tougher competition from Florida-based commercial business Rosenbaum Fine Art and smaller producers meant strict rules for artists: no showing "similar" styles in local galleries (even under their own names); no complaining; no taking supplies home; and certainly no challenging the way the business was run.
Jay Hall, whose pop-art paintings and designs are sold locally at Frances and Phoenix Metro Retro, says he was fired after arguing with Phoenix Art Group CEO Harriett Hilburn about hand-painting 2,000 framed mirrors with leopard spots. In Hall's opinion, there was an easier and faster way to get the paint onto the frame. According to Hall, Hilburn (who also declined to be interviewed by New Times) thought that way was out the door.
"I was in an industry that is looked at through a very romantic lens," he says. "Artists are supposed to be laid back, drink a lot, get laid, wear mismatched socks, have funny haircuts . . . When John first started [Phoenix Art Group], we painted, we played music, we had beer on Fridays. But when money got involved, it became all about the formula — the more we produced within a simple, very non-offensive palette, the more we could make by capturing the largest part of the market."
Today, Phoenix Art Group is still producing and selling artwork, but the company is well past its peak. Most of the original members — including Fred Tullis, Susan Woodruff, Mark Pasek, Mike March, and Gronowski — have left, but the roster of fictional artists they (and dozens of other artists) painted as on the Phoenix Art Group website remains the same.
There are no more big parties or gallery openings, no talk of tight competition or extra commission bonuses, and for fear of losing any kind of "cred" in the art community, many artists still won't go on record to talk about their experiences or involvement.
Phoenix Art Museum's Ballinger says he recognizes the need to make a living and insists that commercial involvement doesn't affect how he looks at an artist's work or whether or not he chooses to include them in museum exhibitions.
"Even the earliest American artists started life as currency engravers," he says. "Or take a look at Norman Rockwell, who people love and hate for his imagery but have to respect for his technique . . . Good artwork requires getting out there, experiencing life, and responding. In my opinion, it depends on how an artist views their work. Is there a separation between what they paint for a hotel and their personal work? Ultimately, art that makes a difference has heart and soul. That's what I look for."
It's often said in any arts community that "it is not the business of art to conform to conventional taste." But take a quick survey of artists who create commercial work alongside their personal work, and they'll tell you, it's actually great business.
When Angel, Slack, and Dauncey left Phoenix Art Group in 1995, they grabbed a studio in downtown Phoenix and formed 3CarPileUp, one of the most successful contemporary art collaborations in town.
Angel and Slack (Dauncey declined an interview request) agree that the work they created right after leaving was in direct response to the commercial work they were reproducing and, later, designing at Phoenix Art Group.
But though he did manage to make a name for himself in the Phoenix fine-arts scene, Angel never left commercial art.
Today, it takes almost five pseudonyms to support James Angel. He notes that there's a big gap between his personal work, which he signs with his own name, and the commercial art he continues to create under a variety of personas, which can be spotted (along with designs by Slack and Dauncey) in any given Pottery Barn store or big-name hotel lobby.
"I think we're now all used to bumping into our work on the walls of hotels [including Hyatts, Hiltons, MGMs, and Trumps] and and on coasters around the country," Angel says. "But there's a huge difference between something that is appealing and something that will hopefully evoke a response."
After checking out any 3CarPileUp show, Slack's annual Chaos Theory show at Legend City Studios, or the art the three now regularly rotate throughout the Saguaro Hotel in Scottsdale, anyone familiar with commercial art style can see they're still rebelling and still reacting to what was defined as successful in the commercial world.
Although Slack continues to create commercial pieces, he smiles when he says his personal work would never sell in the commercial world.
He builds his own massive canvases that rarely fit through residential doors and are nearly impossible to transport. (Lucky for him, Legend City has rolling garage doors.) His subject matter draws from pop culture — big-boobed, stein-slinging beer girls and larger-than-life tributes to The Bad News Bears. And his colors, often of the hot and neon variety, will never be found in Gucci's latest campaign.
Angel's work, though similarly rebellious, is more calculated. He creates modern sculptures almost too large to hang, landscapes that are intentionally blurred, and draws patterns and shapes with thick markers over images taken from Arizona Highways.
Now when he paints, he says, he mixes colors on magazine pages. For years, he collected these "unintentional paintings," which he included in 3CarPileUp's 10-year anniversary exhibition at monOrchid Gallery in downtown Phoenix.
Angel and Slack disagree on the educational value of Phoenix Art Group. Slack says he wishes he had listened to his high school art teacher, who told him not to join, and says he still feels conflicted about producing commercial work to support personal work. Angel says he looks at the entire time as a learning experience and an important step in his financial stability.
But they both continue to have a similar mission — to paint beyond the rules of "successful" artwork and to never sign anything (with their own names) that's meant to hang over a couch.
Hall was with Phoenix Art Group for about eight years — a long time for anyone in the building, he says. Today, when he's not helping friends out with construction gigs, he creates graphic designs and paintings for sale in popular local boutiques.
"Art is, and always has been, a business," says Hall. "Any artist or community member who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves."
Hall says his time at Phoenix Art Group changed his view on artwork and the artists who are often forced to create it.
"I don't call myself an artist anymore," he says. "There are too many artists in the world. Plus, I know my name is tainted because I worked for the 'commercial' side, according to some arts people," he says. "But in the end, you should create art because you want to and you should buy art because you like it."
Not long after he left Phoenix Art Group, Gronowski moved to Los Angeles and started Handpress International, which he describes as a "mini Phoenix Art Group."
He still paints under a variety of names and personas — one for landscapes, another for surrealism, another for modern, he says — but he's also still reserving time to make his own work.
Before jumping on a plane to Hong Kong to do an art gig for Disney, he says he refuses to believe his commercial involvement affects his personal work or his own work's value.
"After all, that's just wallpaper," he says. "It doesn't have my name on it."
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