Arizona art provocateur and gallery owner Michael 23 has died | Phoenix New Times


Arizona artist and gallery owner Michael 23 has died

The longtime fixture of downtown Phoenix's art scene died on Tuesday at age 53.
A 2014 photo of artist and gallery owner Michael 23.
A 2014 photo of artist and gallery owner Michael 23. Lauren Sherman
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Arizona’s arts scene has lost one of its more beloved and unique figures. Michael 23, the influential gallery owner, artist, and community organizer who was a fixture of downtown Phoenix’s cultural landscape for decades, died on Tuesday. He was 53.

Michael 23, who in recent years owned Miami Art Works in eastern Arizona with his wife Joanna, posted to Facebook on Tuesday that he’d collapsed at work after severe chest pains and was being treated at a nearby hospital. Hours later, his wife announced in the same thread that he’d died.

“Michael passed away today,” she wrote. “Thanks for being his friends and sending all this love and concern to him today.”

Michael 23’s contributions to the local art scene were considerable. Tributes from friends and fellow artists posted on social media following his death provide a glimpse at his impact and influence, as well as the multitudes he contained: Artist and advocate. Prankster and provocateur. Fringe culturist and philosopher.

Michael 23’s best-known role, though, was his ability to foster talent and bring people together, serving as what local photographer Dapper Gatsby described on Facebook as a “brilliant beacon [and] beloved community/culture creator.”

And he did so via the various art collectives and creative spaces he launched in the Valley and elsewhere over 30-plus years, including now-defunct spots Thought Crime and Firehouse Gallery.

According to a Facebook post by local artist Pete Petrisko, it's what Michael 23 did best.

“Michael built lighthouses,” Petrisko wrote. “Not the literal kind, of course, but ones lit by a creative spark that helped guide misfits (artistic [and] otherwise) to safe harbor, where they could gather to play and learn collectively in the arts, while also building community together.”
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Michael 23 (crouching at center-right) in a 2005 photo with fellow members of the Thought Crime collective.
New Times archives

Tales of a Thought Criminal

Michael 23, born Michael Hudson, came to the Valley from Illinois in 1987 to study engineering at Arizona State University. Two years later, he founded the Thought Crime artist collective at a house and “art compound” in Tempe dubbed “Little Guyana.”

"In engineering, they train you to solve problems," he says. "In Phoenix, it became apparent that I could participate in something that was bettering the world around me — I saw a direct way to help resurrect a society."

Thought Crime began hosting public art events at the house. Meanwhile, Michael 23 was creating art as subversive as the Orwellian term that inspired the collective’s name, including constructing a 38-foot robotic crucifix or reportedly planning to set himself on fire (the Tempe Police Department prevented it from happening, though.)

In 1995, Thought Crime moved to a building on Central Avenue near Roosevelt Street in downtown Phoenix. It later spawned the Firehouse Gallery on First Street. Both functioned as art and studio spaces, communes, retail stores, community resources, and performance venues.

They also hosted art events and live performances on the regular. Musician Scott Mitting says Michael 23 provided opportunities and encouragement for creatives.”

“He opened so many doors for so many people,” Mitting wrote. “My life trajectory has completely changed from just being adjacent to what he was up to.”

Thought Crime and the Firehouse Gallery were early stakeholders in downtown Phoenix’s art scene during the rise of Roosevelt Row and the monthly First and Third Friday art walks in the early 2000s. Gentrification inevitably followed, eventually resulting the closure of both spaces due to redevelopment (Thought Crime was shuttered in 2005 with the Firehouse following in 2016).

Welcome to Miami

In 2007, Michael 23 and his wife co-founded the Miami Art Works. Located in a two-story historic building in the sleepy mining town of Miami, Arizona, it offered a similar mix of studios, living spaces, and a gallery.

The couple eventually moved with their son to Miami, but didn’t leave the Phoenix art scene behind. Artists and musicians from the Valley were regularly showcased at the space.

Longtime friend Keith Ritchie stated on Facebook the couple’s efforts helped bring new life to the town.

“[Michael 23’s] creative energy and drive has been decades in the making with deep roots in the Phoenix community,” Ritchie wrote. “His vision and dreams for [resurrecting] Miami was starting to take hold.”

Former Valley resident Lauren Sherman told New Times that Michael 23’s enthusiasm for creating communities will ultimate legacy.

“He was a contagious dreamer; he not only had big dreams for art and community, but he encouraged others to dream big and bring those dreams to life,” Sherman says. “There are so many artists, small business owners, writers, and creators who took the plunge and brought a version of their dream to life because Michael 23 convinced them it both was worth doing and that it could be done; it was a truly powerful and transformative gift.”
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