Lisa Sette: 2014 Urban Legend Award, Visual Art

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In honor of the fifth annual Big Brain Awards, New Times is recognizing five Urban Legends, established creative pioneers who have made Phoenix a better, cooler place.

Leading up to the Big Brain Award announcement and Artopia on April 25, Jackalope Ranch, Chow Bella, and Up on the Sun will profile the legends. Up today: Lisa Sette, Visual Art.

From its earliest days, Lisa Sette Gallery has always been a grown-up -- even when its proprietor and namesake was still a kid.

See also: Scott Biersack: 2014 Big Brain Awards Finalist, Design (VIDEO)

As Old Town Scottsdale battled a reputation as a place to buy kokopellis and howling coyotes and downtown Phoenix struggled to keep a handful of galleries afloat at all, Lisa Sette quietly made a national and international reputation for herself as a gallerist who showed only the finest contemporary art -- always with her own elegant appeal, and often from Arizonans like James Turrell and Angela Ellsworth, artists with reputations as storied as her own.

But today, as New Times prepares to present Sette with a well-deserved award for her leadership in the visual arts, we could just as easily present her with our prize for Urban Vision, as the recent news that Sette is leaving Scottsdale for midtown Phoenix is almost as exciting as any of the shows her gallery has hosted in its 28 years.

Sette began her gallery career in the living room of her Tempe home, showing the work of Arizona State University students. She later set up shop in two different spots on Mill Avenue, until one day the late attorney and art collector Sy Sacks walked into her small space and famously asked, as Sette recalls, "What the bleep are you doing here?"

Her response: "Who the heck are you?"

And his: "You should move to Scottsdale!"

The rest is history -- and will be one for the books when Sette's final Scottsdale show, of the work of painter Carrie Marill, closes. The first Phoenix show, entitled, "Hello Midtown!" will open this summer in an Al Beadle building near Third Street and Thomas that is now being renovated.

Sette has plans to shroud the semi-subterrarean building in fabric. Beadle's signature beams will stay exposed. There will be plenty of wall space in a setting that makes sense in the desert and Sette is excited about a lot of things -- including the fact that she will finally have a kitchen for her staff to use. (Previously they washed dishes in the bathroom of the Scottsdale gallery, which Sette says someone told her makes the room a "shnitchen.")

This is a bold move for Sette. She's losing street traffic (the new gallery space is next door to her husband's design studio, but little else) and density -- because even in the middle of one of the nation's largest cities, there's still plenty of empty and/or unused space. But Sette has confidence in the central corridor -- mentioning that her north Scottsdale clients already drive to the neighborhood to dine at Bink's Midtown and the Tuck Shop. With Phoenix Art Museum, the Heard and Roosevelt Row to the south and Upward Projects' restaurants (among others) to the north, Lisa Sette Gallery will certainly be a destination spot in the middle.

At least one Phoenician has every confidence in Sette.

"Lisa Sette has always had her visionary finger on the sometimes very erratic pulse of the fine art world and has shown work here that we'd never see anywhere else in Arizona," says Kathleen Vanesian, New Times' longtime art critic. "She's also been selectively supportive of a variety of local artists who have gained national and international recognition as a result of her auspices and hard work.

"Thank God she's decided to stay open and start a new phase of her long career in an iconic midtown architectural landmark she's invested in. I would venture to say she's the Leo Castelli of the Valley of the Sun."

"I feel like things are going to grow toward midtown," Sette says with a rueful smile. "It just can't take 20 years."

See also: Lisa Sette Gallery to Leave Scottsdale for Midtown Phoenix This Summer

Artopia will take place from 8 p.m. to midnight Friday, April 25, at Bentley Projects in downtown Phoenix. Tickets are $25 in advance and $35 the day of the event. See more at www.phoenixnewtimes.com/bigbrainawards.

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