Scottsdale gallery owners don't often coo about competitors the way they do about Kraig Foote. They say he's a quiet saint in a racket filled with gossipy sinners.
"He really is pretty special," says Lisa Sette, who owns the Lisa Sette Gallery a few doors away from Foote's Art One gallery on Marshall Way.
But then, Foote's place isn't the usual art barn. Since opening six and a half years ago, Art One has been devoted to showing and selling art by the area's youngest or least-known talents -- many still in college and high school.
Collectors, artists and fellow gallery owners characterize the enterprise as a cultural farm team, where artists not yet ready for the major leagues can settle into their aesthetic positions and hone their skills.
"He's really carved himself a niche as an incubator of young talent," says Michael Costello, director of Scottsdale's Vanier Galleries. "So he provides a pretty valuable opportunity that few other galleries can. In fact, many small galleries not only can't do what Foote does, they don't want to."
Building a commercial venture on the sale of what many in the art business call, with a sneer, "student work" has rarely been seen as a winning proposition. When Foote opened his shop in 1993, some art dealers muttered that a gallery of student art would further diminish the area's already limited cultural integrity.
But Foote's generosity and devotion to the cause of young artists has won over many artists, dealers and collectors.
"I don't think anybody could ever say that Kraig is a money-hungry art dealer," says art collector Anton Schiffenhaus. "He cares about these artists. And cares about them enough to continue at this."
Over the years, Foote, 37, has given cash-strapped artists small grants to purchase needed art supplies. He's lent them money for studio and apartment rents. And he's provided students with air fare to fly to college interviews.
Through it all, says Schiffenhaus, "He keeps turning up talent."
Schiffenhaus and his wife, Joan, who have a substantial collection of modern and contemporary art, have been buying art at the gallery since it opened. "He has a wonderful eye," Schiffenhaus says. "So many of the galleries -- including many I like -- have the same stable of artists. So, year after year, you're seeing the same artists over and over again. Here, every time you walk in, you can be incredibly and delightfully surprised."
The gallery typically carries a variety of paintings, photographs, drawings and collages. Foote also exhibits sculptures, furniture and assorted works in ceramics, wood and glass. This quirky mix of flat and three-dimensional media has no unifying theme, aside from the gallery's overarching one of showcasing worthy unknowns.
Foote estimates that he has exhibited works by more than 150 artists since he opened.
Recently, on a quick tour of the gallery, he pauses in front of two black-and-white figurative abstractions on paper by Preston Graves. Foote says the gallery hasn't sold many of his things yet, but Graves won the $5,000 grant from the Arizona Artists Guild and just received a scholarship to attend the Chicago Art Institute.
The hit parade of established sellers and promising newcomers that Foote ticks off includes Todd West -- "one of our better downtown artists" -- Kyle Coffey Scott and Ian Davis, who came out of ASU. Foote says he's sold more than 350 of Davis' paintings in the past six and a half years.
Yet Foote considers the artists who have outgrown Art One to be some of the gallery's greatest successes.
That attitude makes him an anomaly among dealers who customarily jealously guard their stable of talent.
"Here's a guy who's delighted when a gallery around the corner picks up one of his artists and begins selling their work for more," says Schiffenhaus. "And he never feels bad about it and he continues to tell you where all of the artists who started with him have gone."
Foote boasts that, in recent years, Robert Anderson and Richard Shrewsbury were picked up by the Suzanne Brown Gallery and other galleries in Santa Fe and New York.
"Here's another one," Foote says, pausing in front of an abstract painting by Hilario Gutierrez. "The Vanier Gallery is taking him on."
Gutierrez exemplifies Foote's broad view of beginners. Gutierrez is 49. He began painting about six years ago, as a diversion from his day job as a hair stylist. In the past three years, Art One has sold about 200 of his works, which are colorful abstract surfaces built with layers of added and scraped paint.
"I could have gone begging to Vanier," says Gutierrez, "but it was the sales that caught their eye. What I was told is that they kept hearing my name from some of their clients."
Vanier's Costello says the gallery "had tracked his work and sales for a couple of years. Basically we made him an offer because we felt he's ready to graduate."
The commencement, expected to occur sometime this summer, means a rise in prices for Gutierrez's works, says Costello. He mentions possibly doubling Gutierrez's current prices, now $1,000 to $2,000 per piece at Art One.
Foote says he keeps prices low "because the whole idea here is to help students. If you crank their prices up to $4,000, $5,000 or $8,000, no one is going to buy it."
Just about all the works at Art One sell for less than $2,000; most are less than $1,000.
Foote says the upward mobility of his artists helps to bulk up the gallery's credibility as a staging area for young talent.
So does the gallery's location along Scottsdale's art walk.
"In all honesty, this business is about perception," says Vanier's Costello. "What we try to do is create a heightened sense of perception about artworks, and a lot of that is based on presentation."
In the public's mind, the merit of art is measured in money, Costello adds, so sales raise the stature of young artists in ways that non-selling shows at coffee shops and non-profit community art centers do not.
Foote says the idea for the gallery stemmed from repeated encounters with student artists at ASU. His companion at the time was a master's student in architecture. "Kids would always come over to the house for critiques," recalls Foote. "And half of them would never pay for the chips and dip."
One week, he asked a girl to bring food the following week. She said she couldn't afford it.
"She was a painter," says Foote. "She made oil paintings that were 36 by 40 inches, and thick with paint. So I asked her how she afforded the paint, if she can't afford chips and dip. She said she Dumpster-dived for materials at the end of each year on campus."
Late one night shortly after that, he scribbled "Open art gallery for students" on a chalkboard he kept by his bed.
The odds were stacked against the idea. He didn't have the money to do it on his own. However, he was working at the Arizona Design Center, a wholesale outlet where interior designers and architects buy exclusive furniture and fabric lines. So he had ready access to potential collectors.
"That's where many galleries flop at the gate," says Foote. "I had clients to start with. And I knew what kinds of things they would buy. They all pretty much said they'd buy student work if it's good quality, finished properly, not cheesy -- like that cowboy and Indian crap around here. But they warned me that if they didn't have clients for it, they wouldn't bring people in."
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With backing from a few individuals, he began by showing students from the state's three universities, then took on students from the community colleges and a few high schools.
He came close to running out of money several times in the first few years. But word of mouth took hold about three years ago.
Since then, his success has led him to think about opening a similar gallery in other cities. And it's planted some unlikely thoughts in the minds of fellow gallery owners.
"I once had this great dream about Kraig," says Lisa Sette. "You know what it was? That I hired him."