Phoenix Terminates Fortoul Brothers Public Art Contract for Sky Harbor Airport

Isaac Fortoul (left) and Gabriel Fortoul at a 2015 event in downtown Phoenix.
Isaac Fortoul (left) and Gabriel Fortoul at a 2015 event in downtown Phoenix. Benjamin Leatherman
The city of Phoenix terminated a public art contract with the Fortoul Brothers recently, following allegations of sexual misconduct against Isaac Fortoul. The contract involved work for Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

The Fortoul Brothers, an artist team that includes Isaac and Gabriel Fortoul, have had a significant presence on the metro Phoenix arts scene for several years. They’ve created murals downtown, partnered with major arts organizations including Phoenix Art Museum and Heard Museum, and created work for festivals such as FORM and Lost Lake.

On May 29, Phoenix artist Merryn Alaka alleged in an Instagram story that Isaac Fortoul sexually harassed and groped her on December 31, 2018. Brittany Lea also came forward on Instagram, accusing Isaac Fortoul of raping her in 2016 after she attended a party at a gallery where the Fortoul Brothers were showing their work.

A Fortoul Brothers exhibition held several years ago in downtown Phoenix. - LYNN TRIMBLE
A Fortoul Brothers exhibition held several years ago in downtown Phoenix.
Lynn Trimble
Both brothers have denied these allegations. Gabriel Fortoul sent a one-page statement to New Times on May 30, and posted the statement on social media. That same day, Isaac Fortoul sent a text that concluded as follows: “I have never sexually assaulted a woman in my life. These allegations are unfounded and hurtful.”

Phoenix New Times is working to obtain a copy of the police report Lea filed following the alleged incident, and has learned that the police are looking into allegations made against Isaac Fortoul.

“I can confirm that there is an ongoing investigation,” Mercedes Fortune, a Public Information Sergeant with the Phoenix Police Department Public Affairs Bureau, told New Times via email on September 9. “No arrests have been made,” Fortune wrote that same day.

Even so, the City of Phoenix has terminated at least one public art contract with the Fortoul Brothers. An August 4 letter addressed to Gabriel Fortoul and Isaac Fortoul, and signed by Deputy City Manager Karen Peters, begins as follows:

'This letter serves as formal notice of termination of City contract 150370, 'Artist Design Contract for the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Terminal 4 South 1 Concourse Connector Bridge Public Art Project.'"

It’s one of two Fortoul Brothers projects included in a proposed Fiscal Year 2020-25 Public Art Plan that the City Council was set to consider during a June 17 meeting. The item was withdrawn, however, so city staff could make revisions to the plan.

click to enlarge Gabriel (left) and Isaac Fortoul during an Artlink event a few years ago. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Gabriel (left) and Isaac Fortoul during an Artlink event a few years ago.
Lynn Trimble
Now, a revised FY 2020-25 Public Art Plan is part of the City Council’s Wednesday, September 16, formal meeting agenda.

The Fortoul Brothers had two projects in the earlier plan — including one for enhancing the design for the connector bridge to the new South Concourse at Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor Airport. That’s the project referenced in the August 4 termination letter.

The other project involved enhancing publicly accessible areas of a planned Water Services facility and customer service center. The Fortoul Brothers submitted an invoice to the city on July 28 for “100% Final Design & Documentation Completion” on that project, and the city confirms that the invoice has been paid.

However, it appears that design will not be incorporated into the West Yard project, based on the current Public Art Plan proposal. For both projects, the city replaces “The Fortoul Brothers (AZ) artist team was contracted” with “An artist will be contracted.”

New Times has asked the city of Phoenix to confirm the reason for these changes to the proposed FY 2020-25 art plan, and the amount of money the Fortoul Brothers would have received if both projects were completed as expected. So far, that information has not been provided. However, the City Council approved a maximum budget of $125,000 for their Terminal 4 work during a May 15, 2019, meeting.

click to enlarge Gabriel Fortoul discusses an early Fourtoul Brothers design for light rail art. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Gabriel Fortoul discusses an early Fourtoul Brothers design for light rail art.
Lynn Trimble
There’s another significant commission that may be affected by allegations of sexual misconduct.

More than two years ago, the Fortoul Brothers were selected to design and fabricate a Central Avenue and Lincoln Street station for the Valley Metro South Central light rail extension. On June 3, a representative for Valley Metro notified New Times by email that this project is being reviewed.

“We've heard the concerns raised by the community,” it read, in part. “We are, however, re-evaluating our contract with them for future work associated with the South Central Extension/Downtown Hub light rail project as one of the 18 teams selected to design station artwork.”

As of April 2020, the Fortoul Brothers had been paid $49,440 for work on that project, according to a June 4 email from Valley Metro, which indicates that the balance due for the project is $224,060.

A pair of prominent Fortoul Brothers murals in Roosevelt Row were painted over by the businesses that had commissioned them in the aftermath of these allegations. One was located at First Avenue and Roosevelt Street, and the other was located at Roosevelt and Fifth streets.

New Times reached out to the Fortoul Brothers about the impact of sexual misconduct allegations on their past and future projects, but had not heard back as of this writing.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble