Set up to enhance the visibility and prospects of Mexican-American artists, it evolved in the early 1980s into a come-one-come-all collective of area artists who, by birth, marriage, interest or aspiration, share an affinity for Mexican-American culture.
It's difficult to say exactly what that means. America is a blender that blurs ethnic cultures into a homogenous froth. That might explain the hodgepodge of personalized styles and interests found in the exhibitions that MARS has assembled to mark its birthday. In addition to a sampler show of works by some MARS members, the gallery has set aside three rooms for larger doses of work by fellow MARSians Jeff Falk, Tim Timmerman and Ed Kennefick. An additional room contains a Day of the Dead altar to which everyone appears to have contributed something.
The assortment ranges from paintings, sculptures, photographs and a room-size installation to assemblages made from children's toys and a tidepool of found objects. It's a ho-hum collection that makes you yearn for works that reflect more of the organization's history.
When it was formed, says Ralph Cordova, who directs and has been a member of MARS for 19 years, "there really was a void of Chicano art exhibitions, or any acknowledgement of Chicano art by the art establishments." It was equally clear, he adds, that "Arizona artists were just as disenfranchised as Chicano artists." So the two united and became the artocracy that has survived to the present.
Lenee Eller, who directed MARS in the mid-1980s and now runs the art program at Sky Harbor Airport, recalls that one of its early strengths was its community programs. "We did all sorts of lectures, workshops and classes for children." MARS' quarters, then in an old market at First Avenue and Buckeye, provided one of the few cultural community lights in south Phoenix.
Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the National Association of Artist Organizations, says that MARS, like Phoenix's Crash Arts and Tucson's Dinnerware, two of the other better-known artist-run spaces in Arizona, has always been a cut above the average artist co-op.
As an incubator of unknown or overlooked talent, it provided an exhibition home for local artists such as Cordova, Susi Lerma, Rose Johnson, Larry Yanez, Linda Ingraham, Frank Ybarra, Steve Gompf, Martin Moreno and many others.
When the National Endowment for the Arts had the funding to support such things, MARS was able to assemble numerous regional and national juried exhibitions. It hosted guest stints by such artists as Gronk, Luis Jimenez, Rudy Fernandez, Patssi Valdez, Tina Fuentes, installationist Daniel Martinez and performance artist Guillermo Gomez Pena. Since 1985, it has commissioned an annual series of silkscreens from artists throughout the West and lithographs by Jimenez, Diane Gamboa, Carmen Lomas Garza, Alfredo Arreguin and more.
And who can forget MARS' annual Blue-Light fund raiser, where works by Valley artists can be had for sofa-art prices?
Bedoya and other experts of small artist-run organizations point out that the MARSes of American culture have been proving grounds for art forms and ideas that larger institutions haven't had the inclination, flexibility or just plain nerve to sponsor. Before installation and performance art became the staples of museums and commercial galleries, they were the pride and joy of artist-run spaces. The identity art--gay, lesbian, Latino, black, etc.--that has made the rounds of American museums in the past decade also got its start in MARS-like organizations.
Bedoya estimates there are about 300 artist-run organizations around the country. Like MARS, most of them took root in the social and cultural protests of the 1960s and '70s. They emerged as alternatives to museums--as places that welcomed the minority voices that established art institutions had either neglected or ignored.
Many of them drew their initial funding from the NEA. Before Congress cut its funding by 40 percent, it had several programs dedicated to funding culturally deprived areas, and alternative and experimental art venues and special projects.
Rudy Guglielmo, who directed MARS for two years in the late 1980s and is now Expansion Arts director at Arizona Commission on the Arts, recalls that during his term at MARS, public funding probably accounted for about half of the organization's total budget. Last year, only 23 percent of MARS' $49,000 budget came from the government.
Such declines have come at a time of significant investment in larger cultural institutions, says Bedoya, adding, "In the 1980s and 1990s, just about every major city in the country built new libraries, new concert halls, new theaters, new museums. This is money that has gone into building institutions, instead of training artists."
He and Guglielmo say that Congress' 40 percent cut in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has forced small arts organizations to scale back their programming. MARS, for example, has reduced its guest artists series. Instead of organizing regional and national shows, it has had to rely more upon local talent.
Yet many experts say that organizations like MARS face more than financial challenges. The looming question is whether they'll be able to sustain their relevance in an age when new technologies are undercutting old ideas about alternative spaces and what constitutes a cultural community.
MARSian spaces may not necessarily be obsolete. But there is a growing sense among arts administrators that young artists are looking for a different kind of opportunity than MARS provides.
Says Guglielmo, "A colleague of mine who runs a service organization in New York was saying these younger artists have access to technology. They have access to information. They can create projects or partnerships in cyberspace. They may not need the formality of a nonprofit agency and a board of directors."
Bedoya says, "We're finding out that the younger artists have a different sense of organizing. They have an incredible sense of self-reliance, but it comes with a feeling that life is a hassle, so they don't want to do anything with obstacles. They'll do the gallery in the living room, or rely on word of mouth."
As generation gaps go, this one probably says more about where our collective sense of community is headed than it does about the fate of organizations like MARS. But why worry about it? MARS' Blue-Light sale begins next week. Prices have crept up over the years--but savvy shoppers can still snag deals for considerably less than the $2,000 maximum.
MARS Artspace's 20th-anniversary exhibitions run through Tuesday, December 1, at 126 South Central. The Blue-Light sale begins Friday, December 4, from 7 to 10 p.m. For more information, call 253-3541.