Editor's note: On Tuesday morning, as this week's issue was going to press, ArtLink announced it was going to create a map for this year's Art Detour.
I've been thinking about Art Detour. It's been off my radar lately, ever since three years ago, anyway, when I was working on a story about the annual art event's 20th anniversary. On that occasion I started out, like any 21st-century reporter might, by heading to Artlink's website for background material on what I expected to be a huge 20-year blowout.
The website hadn't been updated in more than a year. There was no mention of that year's Detour event.
I wrote my piece anyway, then attended the tour just as I've done every year since 1989, carefully marking my Detour map with little Xs to indicate which galleries and artist studios I planned to visit, then climbing aboard the free shuttle buses that ran us art lovers from one spot to the next. But I haven't been back since, for one very simple reason: I can't quite figure out why — with the advent of the monthly First Friday art event, which has spawned the ever-more-popular Third Friday affair — there's any point in Art Detour at all anymore.
Word on the street lately is that gallery owners and artists tend to agree with me. Earlier this month, my colleague Claire Lawton reported on Jackalope Ranch (phxculture.com) about how there are no Art Detour maps being printed this year. And no shuttles. And no real clear answer, at least as far as I can tell, why one would go look at art on the third weekend of the month when one can do so on the first and third Fridays of that same month.
As this year's event approaches — and while Artlink is facing a potential lawsuit from disgruntled former board members and at least one local gallery owner — there are no simple answers, though I went looking for them.
The main difference between Art Detour and First Friday, Artlink president Sloane Burwell assured me, is that artists who don't have gallery shows are more likely to throw open the doors to their studio once a year than they are once a month — or they were, back when there were those nice maps to show you where the studios were located and cozy buses to take you there.
"The trolleys were incredibly expensive," Burwell sighed. "And they're not cost-effective, because most people like to park their car and walk around on their own from gallery to gallery. Our shuttle ridership figures were way down, so we're not using them this year."
And the maps? How am I supposed to find Eric Cox's studio at the Galleria or know whether Kathy Taylor is showing anywhere this year without a map to guide me? "We'll have information booths set up in each neighborhood," Burwell said. "You go to the booth on, say, Grand Avenue, and we'll have a walking tour, with a tour guide who will take groups around from gallery to gallery. And we're talking about a light-rail tour that will start at Practical Art over on Camelback and Central."
A walking tour. With no map to guide me. And a tour guide. Or I can just get on light-rail and do it myself. Again, with no map.
"Well," Burwell told me, less than two weeks before Detour was scheduled to commence, "none of these things is finalized yet. But we do have two tour guides signed up so far."
Baffled, I telephoned Beatrice Moore. She founded both Artlink and Art Detour, which began when Moore hosted an arty open house at Madison Street Studios in 1989. "It grew from there," Moore reminded me. "I went around asking all the artists if anyone would be interested in an annual art walk type of thing. We had the usual meetings, and I applied for the grants, and it kind of evolved into Art Detour."
Back then, Moore told me, there was a greater need for an annual art walk. "Downtown was a wasteland 23 years ago. You had to hunt to find an art-related thing, where today you walk into any cafe and there's art on the walls. That's true of any city as it grows and develops, but I'm not sure that Art Detour has grown along with this city. It may have outlived its usefulness."
Moore agrees with Burwell that Art Detour is uniquely different from First Fridays, and that there's still a place for it in the downtown art scene. "If it completely went away, we'd really lose something," she says. But right now, it's unclear exactly what that loss would be.
"That's because there hasn't been proper promotion in making a distinction between the two events," Moore says. "It's true that many artists only participate in Art Detour, and you won't get to see them on a First Friday. But it's also true that Artlink has not done a lot to explain that to people, so they may not come."
A number of gallery owners, frustrated with this unique approach to a once-exciting event, are going rogue this year — participating unofficially, without paying the $100 Detour fee that would have once covered their inclusion on a map and defer the cost of the shuttle service to their gallery. Others, according to Moore, simply aren't participating. "Artlink has done such a terrible job promoting it," she says, "that some gallery owners don't know if anyone will come. So they figure, why bother opening?"
"We've asked, over and over again, for information about how to participate," artist and Deus Ex Machina gallery co-owner Annie Lopez told me. "We've ended up having meetings by ourselves, with no Artlink representation present. I don't even know that any gallery on Grand Avenue has signed up, or what we would get for our money if we did." (In fact, the Grand Avenue Arts and Small Business District this week announced its own Art Detour map and directory of Grand Avenue participants, available here.)
What do galleries get for those hundred bones? "We have ads dropping all over the place," Burwell assured me. "We're doing a guerrilla marketing campaign, with signs, and lots of social media. We're tweeting our brains out."
Signage must cost something. But Twitter and other social media are free. So what's to keep galleries from doing their own Facebook campaign and throwing up their own signs this weekend?
"It's always been the case that some galleries have participated in an unofficial capacity," Burwell admits. "I'm not sure we can do anything about it. We're not a protection racket."
They're not much of anything these days, if you ask me. While the Tempe Festival of the Arts draws upwards of 250,000 people over a three-day weekend, and the Scottsdale Arts Festival averages 40,000 attendees at its annual weekend event, Art Detour's numbers are, in its 23rd year, declining. "We think we're doing great with 7,500 people," Burwell acknowledges. "We have to grow and change and kick it up a notch. I'd like to see Art Detour become a huge festival, with bands and performances and a whole big deal going on."
She means like it used to be.