It's a hot, muggy July night — and still they come. A crowd of hundreds of mostly young adults, flashing acres of tattoos and ironic hairdos, cram the sidewalks of a section just north of downtown known as Roosevelt Row, where — even on this holiday weekend, when the rest of the city has all but emptied out, and even though some of the galleries and boutiques and cafes they're wedging into and out of aren't air-conditioned — they come, to this monthly downtown arts party.
Mostly, though, they're not there for the art. In this bustling crowd, there are few who've turned up to look at the new Ryan Peter Miller exhibition or to check out what eye lounge has on its walls this month. First Friday on Roosevelt Row is a happening, favored by young hipsters who like a crowd, a little live music, maybe a late-night cappuccino.
There are about to be even fewer who come to this hub of downtown's self-proclaimed arts district looking for art, because one of its better-known galleries is closing, and the fate of the jewel in its crown is up in the air. Again.
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News of the closing of Pravus Gallery, sister to the popular artist co-op Perihelion, was met with sadness from folks who thought that this promising new gallery, which shut down last month, meant that more art-focused galleries were coming to the Row. But word that curator and manager Kim Larkin was stepping away from Modified Arts meant a lot more.
"Modified is the big success story, as far as the downtown gallery scene goes," says Ted Decker, a local curator and art collector. Decker, who's often referred to as the "godfather" of the local art scene, thinks that the problem isn't that Modified is losing its gallerist, but that its success hasn't turned any tides. "The hope has always been that Modified's approach to exhibiting better art would inspire other galleries to follow suit, to match the caliber of the exhibitions that Modified has done, especially since Kim Larkin stepped in. There are some better galleries, like Perihelion, that continue to do what they do well. But no one has matched Modified in more than 10 years."
Lanning opened Modified in 1999, in the former home of Metropophobobia, a gallery and hangout for arty types that thrived in the early '90s. "I wanted it to be inclusive of the arts," she says, "so we did theater, film, dance, and live music, as well as visual art." Lanning's multimedia format was a success, but she left Modified's day-to-day operation in 2006 to focus on Local First, a nonprofit that supports local businesses. Lanning has remained involved in Modified — she completely overhauled the space last year, a renovation that the Arizona Republic credited to Larkin — and has leased it to gallerists and guest curators for exhibition during the past five years.
"No one has done as much with it as Kim Larkin did," Decker says. "And now that she's moving on, there's this great concern about what will become of the downtown art scene now. But, really, does it matter? Is anyone coming there on First Friday to look at art? Is anyone down there selling art?"
That's the question that has haunted Roosevelt Row throughout its estimable success these past several years and may be the reason its most successful gallery is losing yet another gallerist. Is anyone buying art? And if not, how is any gallery expected to survive?
"It's one of the biggest challenges," according to Amy Young, co-owner of Pravus Gallery and Perihelion. "Yes, some of us are selling art. But if a show doesn't sell, you have to be able to dip into your own reserves and pay the gallery's bills, which not every gallery is able to do."
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Young says she's closing Pravus "to focus on doing different things, maybe two or three national shows each year," and not because of lousy sales. And she insists that shuttering Pravus and closing Perihelion for the summer (the gallery will reopen in October) isn't part of a trend. "I haven't heard of any other gallery down here that's either closing or closing down for the summer. It's just us."
Decker isn't so sure. "You can't survive as a gallery if people come only two nights a month," he says. "Some of the spaces are selling, but none are selling enough to stay open, and vital, and thriving. This era of the downtown art story may have run its course. Speaking as someone who has curated shows there, Kim and Modified has come as close to making ends meet as any gallery ever has — and maybe ever will — downtown."
But will Modified go on? "I'm not really ready to talk about that," Lanning demurs. "I can say that over the next few months, I'll have some guest curators doing some shows, a small acoustic performance, and a modern dance performance coming up."
Lanning isn't being coy; it's likely she truly doesn't know the fate of Modified Arts. She doesn't seem worried that Modified will curl up and blow away, and she's not angry about the way that gallerists seem to come and go. "Modified was always meant to be a springboard," she insists, "where people can come and learn to present art, and then move on to a bigger realm. Right now it's waiting for that next person who wants to take it on."