Visual Arts

Growing Pains

Greg Esser is a man who thinks in broad, connected strokes -- a big-picture guy.

"What we're doing here," he says, standing in the middle of a raw, modest space at 515 East Roosevelt, "is creating a synergy and an aggregate. A destination."

When he says "here," Esser refers not just to 515, the artist-run collective and the newest in a series of contemporary galleries in this part of downtown Phoenix. He's talking about what he hopes will become known as "Roosevelt Row" -- "a kind of art spine that will include Alwun House and what's happening on Grand."

Or, in Gertrude Stein's terms, a genuine "here here."

Coming from Esser, this is anything but idle talk. A self-described arts activist and a founding member of 515, he also is a co-owner and member of eye lounge, the noteworthy year-old artists' collective down the street. By day, he's the director of the City of Phoenix's public art program.

Before moving to Phoenix, Esser was involved with the Denver art space Pirate, a DIY artists' collective that has survived for more than 20 years on what used to be, literally, the wrong side of the tracks. He knows firsthand the difference between an arts community that gentrifies and moves on and the kind that's in it for the long haul.

"The Pirate building is owned by artists," Esser explains. "When property values increased, they didn't sell. They stayed."

Esser's hope is that Pirate's exception will be the rule in downtown Phoenix. He foresees a progression here similar to what Denver has experienced in the last decade, and he's not alone. Kimber Lanning is the owner of Modified, an art/performance space on Roosevelt that features art and really loud bands, both in the punk tradition (good, bad and everything in between).

One of the area's pioneers, she started Modified four long years ago. "When we opened, the only other two operating businesses along that stretch were a transvestite bar called the 307 Club, and Libations Unlimited, a liquor store across the street," she remembers. "Danny Bonaduce got arrested right in front of where Modified is now. People thought we were crazy, but it's been a steady increase of businesses that are similar-minded, and along with that come the crowds. It's been phenomenal. I can literally stand on Roosevelt and get misty -- all these people walking around."

To further solidify their position, six of the art spaces on Roosevelt and nearby -- eye lounge, Artfit, Modified, New Urban Art, Paulina Miller Studio Gallery and Studio LoDo -- have banded together to form the Downtown Phoenix Gallery Association (DPGA).

Says Esser, "It's the first time that commercial galleries have collectively marketed what's happening here."

Last month, the DPGA announced its birth to the nation with an ad in Art in America's 2002 Gallery Guide. The ad also listed the Phoenix Art Museum and the Heard Museum under the banner: "Galleries and Museums of Downtown Phoenix." Starting this week, all six galleries will have common core hours on Fridays and Saturdays, in addition to their own hours.

Also last month, 515 opened with a cheerfully creepy exhibition of paintings called "The Cross," by Oregon painter Michael Kippenhan.

On Friday, September 6, after much Sheetrocking, tiling and painting, the gallery offered its first group show, featuring works by all 11 members of the collective. The members range widely in age, from Paul Booth, a talented printmaker doing his undergraduate work at ASU, to Mary Shindell, whose intricately built-up drawings in colored ink and pastel hint at her previous life as a painter.

In between, you'll find Michael Goodwin, maker of cast metal "icons" that combine religious and industrial imagery; Melissa Martinez, who incorporates natural elements such as birds' nests into her concrete sculptures; and Brad Konick, whose work here -- an organic wooden mound resembling a woman's form or maybe a musical instrument, accompanied by its rusted steel patchwork "skin" -- has the satisfying quality of being at once positive and negative.

What links the members of the collective is the fact that they're simultaneously committed to their own particular, idiosyncratic vision -- and to the idea of the group. Their enthusiasm is infectious and indicative; in the last two years, participants in the downtown area's "First Friday" art walk have multiplied from 1,500 to a reported 15,000. (The numbers come from the Downtown Marketing Group and may well be somewhat inflated, but the fact remains that attendance -- and sales -- have exploded since 2000.)

The synergy that Esser talks about does seem to be in the air, in spite of the recent economic chill. David White, owner of New Urban Art, sums up the prevailing sentiment in the downtown Phoenix art world (and elsewhere in the local arts community): "This is a good time for Phoenix."

As for Greg Esser, he's thinking about the big picture. "There's a genomics facility that's going in at Seventh Street and Fillmore. That's a $90 million investment," he enthuses. "Scientists love culture.

"So this," he says, referring to the beehive of arts activity around him, "is something that's a great complement to that. As opposed to parking for a new football stadium."

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Deborah Sussman Susser