Art Detour 27 Made Important Phoenix Connections, But Artlink Didn't

Art Detour 27 organizers ran with a clear theme this time around: Connecting the dots. And they had some fun with it. Signs with giant red dots turned up in everything from dirt lots to planters. Green dot stickers sporting the word #phxdots hashtag got slapped onto all sorts of T-shirts and lapels. Dots started popping up on sidewalks running through Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue. Thankfully, no one sent around a "let's all wear polka dots this weekend" memo.

Artlink, the nonprofit organization that puts on Art Detour, is clearly onto something with this theme. We hear too often that "insider" venues aren't connected with "outsider" artists, that citizens aren't connected enough to the artists working in their communities, that artists in different sectors aren't connected to one another. But how successful was this year's event in connecting those separate entities?

See also: Say Goodbye to Ted DeGrazia and Lauren Lee's Roosevelt Row Murals

Though not part of Art Detour proper, most folks consider March First Fridays a prelude to the event. We saw plenty of connections between local artists, a cool cross-section of people, and one of metro Phoenix's most storied arts institutions as Phoenix Art Museum presented an Exploding Plastic Inevitable party in celebration of opening "Andy Warhol: Portraits" from The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

It wasn't perfectly executed, but the museum's EPI shindig modeled a couple of things we'd like to see more of around these parts: large institutions engaging local artists, making access to art affordable (Warhol tix were just $2 that night), and cross-pollinating visual arts with performing arts. The party worked well as a First Friday option, standing separate and apart from Art Detour. The museum was listed on the Art Detour map, but we can't put EPI's First Friday success in the Art Detour column.

Cross-sector pollination marked the Fifth Street Block Party, too -- where people bounced with enthusiasm between art, music, and food/ and beverage offerings. A myriad of street artists in town for the four-day Paint PHX mural event connected in ways not everyone around these parts will appreciate -- creating more graffiti than mural art, including a collaborative wall that conjures images of the ill-fated 5Pointz aerosol art mecca in Long Island City, New York.

The Saturday gathering, planned by select Fifth Street businesses and Paint PHX organizers, was one of four items listed under "Pop-Ups & Activities" on the Art Detour map. But in reality, it was planned separate and apart from Art Detour, just like Friday night's Exploding Plastic Inevitable and Sunday's Detour De Grand: Bikes, Beer & Bands event that got underway with a 10 a.m. bike ride before the day's Art Detour activities commenced at 11.

We're starting to see a trend here. Things are connecting, but Artlink isn't the prime connector.

One noteworthy exception was Artlink working with Baron Properties to open the soon-to-be-demolished 222 East Roosevelt Street building (which formerly housed GreenHAUS) so people could see the two Ted DeGrazia murals painted on its nterior walls. The mural was easily the most notable Art Detour offering, drawing a steady stream of visitors during the weekend. Lauren Lee spent part of Saturday there selling posters of her Three Birds mural, which is painted on the building's exterior, and showing people her design for a new trio of birds to be installed on the new housing units being built there.

Frontal Lobe Community Space and Gallery served as a cross-generation meeting place, drawing preschoolers through seniors to Grand Avenue both during Art Detour and the run-up to its eighth annual "Mutant Piñata Show," which featured opportunities for folks to make piñatas on site before and during Art Detour weekend. More than 100 people made artwork for this year's show, and many more popped in to see it.

"Mutant Piñata Show" organizer Beatrice Moore (who was instrumental in launching the first Art Detour) succeeded in bringing together professional artists and all those folks who enjoy the occasion romp with glue guns and colorful craft supplies like fuzzy pompoms and tissue paper, including students from several schools. Dots were prevalent in this year's designs, but only by coincidence.

Nearly three decades after Art Detour began, the coolest things are simply popping up around Art Detour, rather than originating within Artlink.

The best connectors may have been a set of tools not available when Arts Detour was founded nearly three decades ago: Social media. The Instagram crowd was out in full force, sharing snaps of new murals and other arts discoveries made while exploring in Art Detour mode. Others spread the local arts and culture love via Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. Some sharing was undertaken by Art Detour organizers and official participants, but most stemmed from grassroots efforts.

Despite all that connecting, there were lonely outliers. The warehouse district looked deserted when we popped over to see the Step Gallery/Grant Street Studios and Icehouse, where artist Jayme Blue lamented not being included on the trolley tour. Step Gallery/Grant Street Studios and Icehouse paid to be included on the list/map of "articipants," but Blue says organizers told her they were routing the trolley to CityScape instead. Rather than Art Detour's red and white dot sign, we found three homemade signs (including one with the word "ART" painted in white letters on a piece of cardboard) signaling the venue's location. After seeing a man with an Arts Detour map ask a Modified Arts staffer how to get to venues off the trolley line, we realized the trolley route was just as problematic for some event-goers.

It's hard to fathom that choice, given CityScape's focus on shopping and dining rather than arts and culture -- and the fact that Catrina Kahler, president of Artlink's board of directors, expressed concern during an Art Detour planning meeting that people are hitting downtown bars and restaurants without making the leap to nearby art venues. She'd hoped the green #phxdots stickers could help change that, explaining during the meeting that Artlink was arranging for some places to offer discounts during Art Detour to those who wore said stickers.

Coming late in the planning phase, the sticker project proved problematic. Moore told an Artlink board member who stopped by Frontal Lobe on Sunday that she never got information about what to tell event-goers about the sticker, and we couldn't find anything explaining where these discounts were being given.

There was also a problem when it came to what dots were being connected -- and why. In a city where artists often complain about having too few opportunities to show their work, we were puzzled by the decision to devote a large space at Oasis on Grand to an exhibition of work by Arizona Republic photographers. The photos rocked, but something like the former "Public Hanging" exhibition that welcomed works by artists of all ability levels would have been a better fit.

Like the Art D'Core Gala held on March 1 at the Crescent Ballroom, an event pitched as a fancy Art Detour kick-off complete with Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton heaping praise on Phoenix arts and culture, it's easily construed as an attempt to garner good standing with power players.

There were other glitches, too, including some volunteers who were ill-versed in Art Detour happenings. When we stopped by the information table at Oasis on Grand Sunday morning, neither volunteer could tell us where people were supposed to meet up for the 10 a.m. bike ride along the Art Detour trolley route.

At a certain point, we started to feel that familiar First Friday frustration. Most months, the Artlink First Friday newsletter comes too late to help with planning the night's itinerary, or it's peppered with generic descriptions that don't help event-goers know which venues offer the best match with their interests.

Despite all those cleverly-conceived dots, Artlink is still struggling to make the connections - and Art Detour, at least as Artlink plans it, is becoming irrelevant. It's a model that made sense decades ago, but nowadays it's just not working. It's time arts and culture types brainstorm other means for connecting people with arts and culture, then keeping them engaged.

Maybe starting with what worked best about Art Detour 27 is a good way to launch the conversation. People enjoyed having ways to participate through art-making or social media, seeing mash-ups of visual arts with performing arts, and going behind the scenes to see art studios and other spaces not open on a regular basis. Increasing the prevalence of those elements in First and/or Third Fridays might accomplish as much, or more, than continuing the annual art gorge called Art Detour.

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