Spaced Out in Tempe

The Tempe Arts Center (TAC) has always existed precariously. It was conceived by a well-meaning city committee in 1981 to be an independent, nonprofit spot of culture on then-run-down Mill Avenue. It grew into an ad hoc arts center that mounts a wide range of exhibits and sends artists into Tempe's elementary schools, and once built a hodgepodge sculpture garden on the deck of the old filled-in pool at Tempe Beach Park.

Since opening in 1982, the center has scraped along with too little money, inadequate space, and too many fires to quell to do any genuine planning. Its devoted friends and patrons have never been able to convert their enthusiasm into the cash or political muscle needed to secure a permanent home in downtown Tempe. And its programs--good as they occasionally are--have never drawn the kind of crowds that would convince the city to give the center more than a modest yearly dole (usually $40,000 to $60,000) of cultural conscience money.

Even so, this year has been rougher than most. In April, the center lost its 11-year home in the city's old pool buildings at Tempe Beach Park to the advancing Rio Salado Project, Tempe's mammoth recreational and commercial development along the Salt River. Its director, Vicki Stouffer, resigned. And just last week, the interim director, and curator, Claudia Anderson, also departed--the fifth director or curator to leave the center in the past four years. Anderson is leaving the area. The previous four moved on to more stable and remunerative arts jobs here and elsewhere.

Anderson and Stouffer say the center's troubles can be traced to the vicious cycle afflicting many small arts organizations. Stouffer, who left in April to head Business Volunteers for the Arts, in Phoenix, says, "We always needed more money so we could do more programming. But more programming meant more staff, and that required more money and spending more time fund raising."

Other former directors chose not to speak for attribution.
Despite TAC's lack of long-term funding, leadership or exhibit space, its board seems to be taking the difficulties in stride. Some of its members even speak brightly about the organization's future. They say they'll appoint an interim director and mount a full-fledged search for a more permanent leader who knows how to raise funds. They'll raise the director's salary--now only $25,000--to a level that would encourage someone to see the position as more than a steppingstone to higher ground. They'll find a new curator and develop a board that knows how to move and shake the way successful nonprofit boards should. And they'll do whatever it takes to secure a permanent home.

In the meantime, TAC's office, exhibits and effects are scattered in three places. It has no gallery shop. And its final show of the season is squeezed into a space at the Mat Corner, a frame shop across from Arizona State University's museum of art, where TAC's board hopes to mount all of next year's shows.

The board's optimism might be a remnant of the organization's history. The center has been in plenty of pickles over the years. But this one has many longtime Center friends asking if this is its last picture show. And if it isn't--then how can such a dinghy of art be expected to float on its own in a town flooded with city- and university-driven culture? Or is an arts center even necessary amidst the cultural profusion of ASU's programs and the nearly $1.4 million the city plans to spend on public art in the next year?

Like most squabbles over public funding of the arts, this one has produced plenty of muttering. Some of TAC's more ardent partisans fault the city for not providing the high level of support that neighboring Phoenix, Scottsdale, Chandler and Mesa have given to their cultural facilities. Key members of Tempe's Municipal Arts Commission (TMAC), which was formed in 1987 to advise the city on cultural programming, snipe back that the center is a private organization that just doesn't know how to make a living.

The truth seems to lie somewhere in between. In some respects, TAC's decline is a measure of downtown Tempe's economic success. At its inception, the arts center was viewed by the city's political and cultural leaders as a key ingredient of the Mill Avenue redevelopment. But in the past 10 years, its role has steadily diminished to that of a bystander that can't keep up with downtown's economic pace.

"Over the last 20 years, we've seen a greater than tenfold increase in land values," says Dave Fackler, the city's deputy director of development services. Available space that used to sell for $3.50 a square foot in the early 1980s now goes for about $45. During the same period, the center's budget ($130,000 to $180,000 yearly) and membership (about 200) have remained comparatively stagnant. Even in the "cheap" days, it couldn't afford to keep its $3,000-a-month home on the second floor of the old Tempe Hardware Building on Mill Avenue north of University.

Downtown's arithmetic has shaped more than just the center's fate. It has created Mill Avenue's civic and commercial identity. In the past two decades, the once-funky strip of empty buildings and small businesses has evolved into a busy food and clothing court dominated by chain stores. City officials and private developers say the chains are about the only businesses that can afford today's tab. Yet as homegrown organizations, like the arts center, have been hootered to the periphery, Tempe's downtown planners have begun to worry about the boredom that comes with an excess of brand names.

Rod Keeling, who heads the Downtown Tempe Community, Inc., the private group that manages the downtown, says the issue isn't chains versus independents. "It's really unique versus homogeneous businesses. We want to differentiate ourselves from other competitors." The way to do that, he says, is to attract businesses that are unique to Phoenix or unique to Arizona--businesses like the arts center.

TAC is something of a hybrid. Technically a private, nonprofit institution, it was hatched by the Tempe Arts Advisory Council, a group appointed in 1980 by former mayor Harry Mitchell and the city council to recommend ways for the city to support the arts. The group also advocated the eventual formation of an arts commission.

"The effort was really just part of our coming of age," Mitchell now says. "We had been an agricultural place for so long and I just thought it was important to begin recognizing the many other facets of the community." Among the most obvious, he says, was the town's large number of ASU-related artists, students and art alums. Some, like Scottsdale gallery owner Lisa Sette and her husband, Joe Segura, who teaches at ASU and directs the Segura Publishing Company, a printmaking firm, had carved studios and nests out of the Casa Loma and other old buildings along Mill Avenue. The current term for these kinds of places is "arts incubators." But in olden days, they were known simply as dumps for which developers hadn't concocted a better-paying plan. Their low rents made them an art-squatters paradise. And, according to Sette and others, they generated a fair amount of community spirit.

"We had the publishing company in the basement of the Casa Loma, and an apartment upstairs," Sette recalls. "It was the kind of place where we ran a phone line down the outside of the building to the studio, but we had to go back up to our apartment on the third floor to use the bathroom." Sette and others say initially they had the same optimistic feelings that Mitchell and other leaders did about the arts center's potential to draw the crowd.

"We talked a great deal about this idea of making downtown an arts magnet," says Randy Schmidt, an ASU ceramics professor who served on both the advisory committee and the center's early board. "We didn't want to see Scottsdale end up being the arts center. There was nothing going on in Phoenix at the time. So we really thought we could actually make Tempe the home of the artist. We'd even talked about having a sign at the Mill Avenue entrance of the city: "Home of X number of working artists."

In addition to those in the Casa Loma, there were more studios in the Paradise building and another hive in the creamery (now Four Peaks Brewery) out on Eighth Street. Schmidt and others say that even in those early days, rising rents and talk of redevelopment were already pushing the artists out.

And Sette says there were other, less easy to pinpoint problems. In 1985, after exhibiting art in the front office of the publishing house, she opened a gallery space of her own in the back of the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel and quickly discovered that Tempe was a tough crowd for art. The gallery was just across the walkway from the publishing company. But after nine fruitless months, she threw in the towel and moved the gallery to Scottsdale, where parking was easier, rent cheaper, and people thought about more than just sports.

You can find lots of books and studies that lay out the attributes of stable arts organizations and businesses. But exactly what constitutes and creates a good art crowd is still a bit mysterious. Concentrations of artists, interest, and people with expendable time and money might be part of the recipe. Doctors and lawyers with wall space don't hurt. But whatever it is, Tempe has never had enough of it, outside of the university, to support any sort of serious art gallery.

However, to the arts center's originators in the '80s, the town was untried territory. And the rationale for such a center was clear. In those days before politicians learned to fear the arts, they were part of Mitchell's and the city council's vision of a healthy city. Moreover, downtown developers needed upscale businesses to improve their lots. And with city backing, the center was a surer bet than most. The city also needed to establish some credentials in the arts to qualify for the "All American City" status it received in 1985.

"The point," Mitchell says, "is that we were trying to do as much for the community as we were for the individual artists."

"I don't know that Harry or the council had a clear idea of exactly how the arts center would shape up," says Sally McKenna, chair of the city's 1980 arts advisory committee. "They wanted to provide some seed money to get the center off the ground. And I know they hoped that once it was up and running, it would become totally self-sufficient. But pretty soon we could see that economically it was going to be more complicated than that."

Tempe initially contributed $25,000. But by the end of the first year, it had to invest another $35,000. That level of city support, along with plenty of in-kind assistance (the city leased the park site to TAC for a buck a year), has continued right up to the present.

Since 1990, Tempe has pumped some $420,000 into TAC's operations. The city's yearly infusions, ranging from $40,000 to $60,000, have amounted to somewhere between 25 percent and 40 percent of the center's annual budget. In earlier years, the public percentage penciled out even higher.

City officials and members of TMAC say these figures prove the city's commitment to the arts center. They also point out that in addition to helping to pay for TAC's recent relocation ($2,360), the city has also given it office space. Members of the TAC board say they're grateful for all of it. But other longtime backers seem to view the city as a deadbeat dad who brought the art kid into the world only to feed it peanuts.

"I don't think they've supported the arts all that well here, given the size of the city and the prosperous times," says sculptor Jim White, who has taught at ASU for as long as TAC has been in existence. "And when you take away their building and space, that translates into bucks. You've just withdrawn the major support of that institution."

Such talk plainly irks the arts commission's former chair Barbara Carter, who now heads its facilities and arts incubator committee. The way she figures it, the city deserves the credit for any of the center's good programming:

"Those things were done with city-generated dollars. Not dollars that the board generated. Or that their auction generated, or their gift shop made. It's all because of what the city did for them. So, it grieves me to hear people say that the city hasn't done enough to support the art center."

Carter points out that the city allowed the center to keep the revenues from downtown event parking at the park--about $14,000 last year.

She adds, "The one thing they've really been good at is taking our money. What's happened all these years is we've fed them and fed them and fed them and they grew into a monster."

"I don't think they've grown into a monster," says TMAC's current president, Virginia Tinsley, "but I do think we've fed them and fed them. The arts commission certainly has provided them with a great deal of funding--way more than you would normally expect. And I don't think they've been hugely successful, if by that you mean they're making a lot of money or generating a great deal of interest."

Mary Baroni, another arts commission veteran, says she doesn't have much patience with this sort of talk. "The truth is, yes, we've given them some money, but they've put artists into the classroom who wouldn't have been there--Ann Coe came out of that system. They've done some good things, some top quality shows."

Technically, the arts commission didn't have anything to do with funding TAC's operational support until last year. Jody Ulich, the city's cultural services manager, points out that because the arts center came into existence before the commission did, back in the 1980s, it's received most of its money via the Tempe Community Council, the granting agency that funds the city's nonprofit social service organizations.

Nevertheless, Carter and Tinsley's testiness possibly signals the arrival of some cultural tough love from the city agency that's supposed to offer whatever support it can to the city's relative handful of arts organizations. Now that the arts commission controls the operational grant to TAC, Carter says she'd like to see the commission limit TAC's yearly funding to no more than 10 percent of its total budget--a reduction of about $26,000 had the rule been applied to this year's $44,000 city grant.

"Nationally, the rule of thumb is you don't support a local arts agency or organization to the tune of more than 10 percent of the total budget," says Carter. "That's a national standard from the National Endowment for the Arts." She says it won't be implemented this year, but is under discussion for the next. "What Jody and I would probably propose would be a gradual phase-in of that 10 percent and we would probably never cap it--never put it in writing because that puts too much constraint on the commission."

Ulich says the issue is being discussed, but no decisions have been made. Which is probably wise.

A.B. Spellman, who heads the NEA's panel and guideline operations, says the agency has no 10 percent rule. A number of years ago, there was a 10 percent limit in effect in one of the agency's then-numerous granting areas. He says the rationale for it was "to encourage organizations to build their budgets from plural sources. We didn't want to be the life or death of any organization."

But local and national cultural officials caution against imposing standards that can pull the rug out from under vulnerable arts organizations.

Tom Bradshaw, the NEA's director of research, says, "The percentage we fund varies dramatically by organization. Typically, the larger institutions that we fund might be around 1 percent or less. For small, emerging organizations, we could be 15 or 20 percent of their revenues." Yet the NEA and other granting agencies assume that when they fund the smalls, they're adding to a pot that already has a sizable portion of local public funding.

The key, says Dian Magee, executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, is finding a formula that makes sense: "Each community is unique. One thing that's apparent is that in the West there's a lot more public money involved in supporting the arts than in the East. Part of that has to do with the fact that we don't have the number of Fortune 500 headquarters here. And we don't have the older family foundations. So our spending tends to be more democratic and spread among smaller arts organizations."

After he quits chuckling, Bill Eggleston, president of the arts center's board, says he doesn't think it's fair to call the center a monster. He ticks off a list of things the city has gotten for its money over the years. Among them is TAC's artist-in-residence program, which since 1982 has brought art to a couple thousand children in the otherwise art-starved Tempe Elementary School District. City funds have also helped pay for summer art camps and TAC's 8 to 12 annual exhibitions.

"I know they say, we've given you all this money," says Jane Canby, a longtime friend and board member of TAC. "But isn't that what this money is for? Why is there an arts fund if it's not to fund an arts organization? Their response is often, 'You should be bigger and better than you are.' Well, we're trying."

But Shelly Cohn, executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, says that remaining small isn't necessarily bad. "By staying small, you remain very specifically connected to what generated the artistic mission of the organization in the first place. You're not trying to be something that you're not." Cohn thinks the center's ability to do "small, high-quality exhibitions is an extraordinary one. In fact, we have several of their shows that are part of our traveling exhibitions program."

The Arts Center changed its name and altered its mission with its 1987 move to Tempe Beach Park further up Mill Avenue. It ceased trying to exhibit all the visual arts and concentrated on crafts and sculpture. That concentration undoubtedly left some of TAC's old guard behind. Virginia Tinsley, whose husband, E.J., was an early president of the TAC board, admits she was one of them. But most observers agree that the theme suited the town and the center's limited indoor exhibition space. TAC's most productive period occurred from 1991 to 1997, when the shows were being curated by Patty Haberman--now directing Galeria Mesa, at the Mesa Arts Center. They ranged from ceramics, glass, metalwork and neon to photography, woodworking, basketry and quilts. As with all community arts organizations, their quality varied. However, Haberman was able to freshen the center's mission with new takes on old themes.

Dian Magee, who has served as a consultant to TAC's board, sees the center's focus on crafts and sculpture as one of its strengths. It taps an aspect that she and others consider unique to the Valley; namely, the large number of crafts people who have established studios here. "Essentially, they looked in the community, identified its strength and built their program on that. It became something they could really market."

But the marketing never got outside Tempe's small art world. Outgoing city councilwoman Linda Spears and incoming councilman Hugh Hallman both agree the center's failure to connect with broader segments of the Tempe community has limited its political and economic appeal. The Beach Park site, below the Mill Avenue Bridge, was too isolated to draw much foot traffic. The abandoned city facility was a crummy setting for art. Moreover, having the site for $1 a year apparently lulled TAC's board into thinking foolishly that if they spruced it up enough, the city would eventually give it to them. That fantasy may have been encouraged by the city's early 1990s idea of transforming the site into an arts park. But the city's Rio Salado Project effectively pushed those plans deeper into the city's files each year.

Nevertheless, in 1995, as the Rio Salado Project was beginning to shape nearly every project downtown, the center developed plans to improve the sculpture garden. Canby says the first inkling of trouble came when she took the plans around the city and got a distinctly cool reception. "People asked questions like: Why would you want to improve that old pool area? Why would you want to put any money in it? Nobody goes there now--why would they do it?"

Canby and others also met with members of the city council. "At some point in those discussions," she recalls, "somebody finally said that the Rio Salado commission has plans that show your buildings being knocked down. But that was really the first we'd heard of it. We decided we wanted to do this improvement, because we thought having an arts center there would be a beautiful gateway to Rio Salado.

Present and former city staffers, TAC staffers and board members say that development pressures and the Rio Salado train had been bearing down on the arts center since the early 1990s.

"The city basically said what it had always said about the center's plans to improve the property," says a person familiar with the arts center's plans for the sculpture garden. "Which was, hey, great idea, where are you getting the money to do this? And anything you do there should be of a temporary nature, because we're looking down the road at this property and it may or may not wind up including you."

None of those warnings ever seemed to light a fire under the board. It's easy to say the board had its collective heads in the sand. But Vic Linoff, a past president of the organization, says the board simply had too many other pressing matters.

"Having one more crisis is nothing new," says Linoff. "I was on the board for six years and I think every year there was some crisis or another. And not usually the center's doing." Linoff says you could point a lot of fingers, "but basically the organization was doing everything it could just to survive day to day."

According to Craig Dreeszen, an arts consultant and director of the Arts Extension Service of the University of Massachusetts, this profile fits a lot of small nonprofit arts organizations.

"Nationally, many of them are fairly vulnerable to changes in their environment or leadership. They're basically subsidized by volunteer staff and boards, by private contributions, by public contributions and grants, and by staff working at below market rates."

As a result, TAC has become a revolving door of arts administrators. With few exceptions, they don't stay long enough to develop the kind of institutional vision that distinguishes Barbara Meyerson's work at the Arizona Museum for Youth, David Saar's at Childsplay, the Tempe-based children's theater group, or Marilyn Zeitlin's current and Rudy Turk's past efforts at the ASU museum of art.

Without that vision, say several Valley culture watchers, the arts center will remain powerless to convince people to come. Yet they also stress that vision is wasted on a board that can't make things happen. Many say that most of the center's past boards were made up of friends of the arts who don't know much about running a business or a board.

"They called themselves a working board," says a former member of the organization. "And I never knew what the hell that meant."

And no one else seems to know, either. The leader of one Valley cultural institution says s/he'd prefer a trip to the dentist than to be saddled with a working board. "If they're not going to build the organization, then what's the point?"

Many people who care about the organization say that TAC's board essentially needs to decide whether it is going to raise money or guide. And if it's going to guide, then it needs to assemble another board to raise the money.

"I don't think any of the boards were ever really put together in a way that suited the needs of the community or the center," says Joe Segura, an early board member. "They were people who were really interested in helping, or people who were politically next to someone. But we weren't able to help the organization grow."

"Part of that might be due to the way it started," says Canby. "It's always been viewed as a community entity. And therefore the community was going to support it. But in realistic terms, there aren't very many arts organizations that can exist just on the good will of the community. It takes public funding. And I don't think that was as clear a message in 1980 as it is today."

The oddity is that after 16 years, the arts center is still faced with having to convince the city and public that it deserves the help.

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address:


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