Visual Arts


It's just before midnight on a Saturday evening, and Rose Johnson is putting the finishing touches on a 25-foot mural outside her downtown Phoenix art studio. Inside, Johnson's studio-mate, Anne Thompson, is displaying glass etchings and mixed-media paintings. Around the corner, at arty hangout Metropophobobia, a group of volunteers is logging entries for an erotic mail-art show.

With weeks to spare, these artists are preparing for Art Detour, an annual tour of downtown Phoenix art spaces and studios that showcases work by both established and emerging artists.

In just three years, Art Detour has become the primary means of introducing locals to the downtown art scene, and has consolidated the burgeoning artists' community there. It's also raised questions about the categorization of art by suggesting a distinction between alternative" artists working in Phoenix's art district and the contemporary gallery scene in Scottsdale.

Art Detour grew out of a 1988 open-house tour of Madison Studios, an art space since torn down by the Phoenix Suns Arena project. The Madison event, organized by artist Beatrice Moore, was such a success Moore decided to restage it with additional studios participating. Moore formed Artlink, Inc., a nonprofit organizational group, and with a tiny grant of $600 staged the first Art Detour in 1990.

It's been uphill ever since," Moore says. We had more than 10,000 people come through last year, and sponsors come more easily now."

If for no other reason, Art Detour deserves kudos for introducing folks to a newly refurbished downtown, long considered a lifeless place where people worked but never played.

People are still afraid of downtown Phoenix," says Peter Wirmusky, director of Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery. Especially people who live in Scottsdale, who tend to be fearful of buildings without doormen. But it's getting better, as more people discover the area."

Art Detour has renewed interest in the Phoenix downtown area for artists as well. There's a fuller sense of a downtown arts community emerging, as artists settle into high-traffic Detour spaces year-round. Thompson admits that she looked within the Art Detour borders when searching for the studio she and Rose Johnson share.

There's a collaborative feeling down here that's important to me as an artist," Thompson says.

During Art Detour, more people will see work by established artists like Thompson and Johnson than probably saw their work all last year. But the event provides exposure to emerging artists as well. While Moore contends, Geography doesn't matter; there's good art being done everywhere," Art Detour focuses on the downtown Phoenix Arts District, a scene typified by nontraditional or progressive" art.

Such distinctions trouble Moore. I don't think there is such a thing as progress in art," she says. I see too much emphasis by artists on being `alternative' or new or anything other than mainstream. The art that's being called `alternative' isn't all that different from a lot of the stuff that's showing in Scottsdale galleries."

Still, Art Detour's 1992 Trash Art Competition exemplifies what the event is all aboutÏdisplaying work you won't find along Marshall Way. Open to everyone, artists and nonartists alike, the first-time exhibit features guerrilla artÏlike Robert Nimlo and Sarah Dannerbeck's Anything Can Be a Weapon," a freestanding sculpture containing an IV bag, parts of old baby dolls and a crutchÏalongside crafts like The Gift," made from old gift wrap and ribbons by students at Arcadia High School. There isn't much new about trash art, an ecology-minded, late-Sixties form of expression, or mail-art, popularized in the early Seventies. But the real difference exhibited by Art Detour appears to be in the philosophy of the artists and not in the style of their work.

The most obvious difference reflects the old art-versus-commerce saw: True art is always about expression, never about sales. The local version runs: Scottsdale art is about popularity; salability dictates public taste. On the other hand, most downtown art spaces are meant to showcase art rather than sell it, providing real freedom of expression for artists.

Scottsdale galleries are businesses designed to generate money from art," Metropophobobia proprietor Peter Ragan says. Essentially, we are diametrically opposed."

Ultimately, characterizing art by where or how it's shown is futile. There's no denying that Scottsdale is where our critical art mass is, or that alternative" art is sometimes posturing and self-righteous. But in their attempts to define nontraditional techniques, the artists of Phoenix's downtown district are turning out some of the most interesting work in the state.

During last year's Art Detour, in fact, late Scottsdale gallery owner Elaine Horwitch discovered two new artists she wanted to show, upending the theory that good art never sells and mainstream galleries are artless tools of capitalism.

WHY FIFE'S HISTORY... v4-01-92

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela