Visual Arts

Known for helping artists, Art One owner Kraig Foote now needs someone to help him

Nine years ago, a guy named Brian Boner moved to Phoenix as a fresh college grad with an art degree from Minnesota State University. Boner stopped by gallery after gallery in Phoenix and Scottsdale, trying to make a connection. Inexperienced and shy, Boner didn't have a résumé or portfolio — just a stack of paintings.

Then Brian Boner met Kraig Foote, who owns Art One on Scottsdale's prestigious Marshall Way, home of world-renowned galleries like Lisa Sette and Bentley.

"Kraig was really the only one that was personally engaging, and was legitimately curious about my story and who I was," Boner says. After a few months of building a rapport with Foote, Boner finally got the courage to ask for help. At the time, Boner's paintings were works featuring heavily textured and abstracted silhouettes. They were a far cry from his art today, paintings that depict beautifully rendered children playing in ethereal landscapes. Still, Foote saw something in those early pieces and picked a few to hang. Boner's made a living as an artist — something he'd thought impossible — ever since.

It wasn't the first time Foote had taken a chance on an unknown. Far from it. For the past 14 years, he's made a name for himself and his artists with a gallery that represents only novices — mainly high school and college students.

Foote, now 45, woke up one morning many years ago and discovered his idea. Scrawled on a chalkboard next to his bed were the words, "Open an art gallery for students." It was a thought that came during a sleepy haze on a midnight trip to the bathroom — he doesn't remember writing it. At the time, he was selling imported fabrics at a design center, and dating an art professor whose students were so poor, they had to dumpster-dive for art supplies. With financial backing from a friend, Foote opened his doors on Marshall Way.

The business was a success. Sales kept the gallery open and his artists were pulling some cash. Foote was then further inspired to set up a nonprofit organization, The Newlon-Foote Foundation for Student Artists, that takes donations for school art programs, collegiate scholarships, and artists in financial hardship.

But now, Foote is finding it hard to make his own ends meet. And there's a chance that Art One — really, the first spot in town to celebrate and support budding artists — might go under.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, it was business as usual on Marshall Way. Foote, a slight guy with wispy long hair and a toothy grin, holds court — greeting everyone who comes through the door. Art One has two large rooms, full of sculpture and paintings hung from ceiling to floor. The works are colorful and playful; a painting by high school student John Babbit shows a yellow thought cloud emerging from a hole, and leaking scarlet raindrops onto an outstretched hand. On the floor is a ceramic sculpture of a full-sized human body, curled into the fetal position on top of a huge pillow. There's an installation of an unruly mound of cubes in the front window — all decorated in stripes and geometric designs by a Coronado High School class. Today's traffic includes buyers, young artists dropping off work, parents, and former volunteers. Those who know Foote hang out and catch up. His natural banter is infectious — it's no wonder he's stayed open for over a decade.

Whatever the future holds, Foote's legacy is undeniable. Consider Brian Boner. Art One launched the painter's career. He's been a member of eye lounge, a collective gallery in Phoenix, and has shown at local museums like the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and the AZ Museum for Youth. He's currently represented by Wilde Meyer gallery in Scottsdale and Tucson.

Foote shies away from the spotlight, preferring to watch his artists emerge from the shadows. In fact, he didn't want his photo taken for this story and confessed he's made employees pose for him in portraits for other publications.

Greg Esser, president of a group that advocates for businesses on Roosevelt Row, including eye lounge, which he co-founded, sees Art One and Foote as an integral part of the Valley's art scene. "I don't want to understate how his leadership would be sorely missed," Esser says. "It would be a tremendous loss. He's been a shepherd; advocating for a roster of artists that have become the lifeblood of our arts community."

Foote doesn't just hang work. He seeks out inexperienced artists (mostly from local high schools and colleges) to mentor. He teaches them how to put together a portfolio, write artist statements and successfully market their work. He frequently fills paid positions with his artists and some spend their free time volunteering in the gallery.

Not just any kid with a paintbrush can get in, although no one leaves without some advice. But an artist's work has got to be saleable to get him or her representation. "We choose all based on whether we have clientele for it or not," Foote says. "There are artists that we turn down — we just don't have clients for their work."

Foote doesn't make it easy. He expects a lot out of his artists, especially the students. If they get below a C on schoolwork, skip class, or mouth off to a teacher, their work gets pulled. And while Foote encourages his kids to visit nearby galleries, they know one complaint will ruin their chance to sell.

"It's more trying to get them to realize that they're students, and they're representing every student that comes through here. So be respectful," Foote says.

The gallery brings together the best of both worlds — the art has to be quality but the prices aren't untouchable. Esser sees Foote as a go-between. "He's basically the person who's made the connection between the Scottsdale art buying market and downtown [Phoenix] visuals," says Esser. "He's brought the vitality of the downtown community to the Scottsdale community."

Some of Art One's most faithful clients, Foote says, are contractors, real estate agents, designers, and young art collectors — people looking to hang affordable art in their homes and offices without resorting to generic prints from IKEA. Typically, prices max out at $1,500 and start as low as $150.

Foote's had his ups and downs, and some experiments haven't been successful. For almost four years, he ran a second location in downtown Phoenix on Grand Avenue, sandwiched between The Trunk Space and The Bikini Lounge.

But the First Friday mayhem was too much of a departure from Foote's calmer home in Scottsdale. "It got to the point where our clients wouldn't even go down there," he says. Late in summer 2007, Foote left Grand Avenue. Almost immediately, Vestar Development Company offered Foote an 8,000-square-foot space in the new Tempe Marketplace. It was a temporary gig: six months, free of charge.

"We were treated like royalty," Foote says. About 70,000 shoppers passed through during Art One's brief stay in Tempe. The Tempe location closed in March 2008; that's when things started looking grim.

With the economy faltering, Foote's found himself in the hole.

"As far as what's happening right now, this is the worst we've ever had in 14 years," he says.

June 1 was marked as doomsday, but after talking to his staff, Foote decided to stick it out. "I just sat down and I said, 'What do you guys want to do? How important is Art One to you?' And they said, 'It's everything.'"

Others agree. His landlords (who own the neighboring stationery store, The Paper Place) are helping with rent. Artists not only slashed prices but donated works to the gallery. Employees took wage cuts, and Foote even put his house up for sale.

"You know, I sat here and I looked at all of these high school kids and I thought, 'I've seen them grow up. How can I just walk away?' and I thought, 'You know, I'm just going to lose it all anyway, so I might as well battle for it.'"

A few doors down at Lisa Sette Gallery, it's a different story. The high-end gallery represents powerhouse artists like James Turrell and William Wegman. Sales are good, things are busy, and they're seeing an increase in international sales. Owner Lisa Sette says she was sorry to hear of Foote's struggles.

"I like Kraig and was happy when he became our neighbor," she says. "Art One provided the community of younger artists a great place to learn about the business of art."

Sette refuses to even consider Foote's defeat, or what Art One's exit would mean for Marshall Way. "I'm not going to speculate on how the street would change if he were to close," she says, "in hopes that he does not."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi