An Art Makeover at a Roosevelt Row Hotel Stirs Controversy

Ronna Nemitz's sculpture was recently removed at FOUND:RE Phoenix.
Ronna Nemitz's sculpture was recently removed at FOUND:RE Phoenix. Lynn Trimble
FOUND:RE Phoenix is drawing criticism from local artists after deciding to take its art program in a new direction.

The Roosevelt Row arts district hotel, located at 1100 North Central Avenue, has replaced its original curator and swapped out a significant amount of art in recent months. That has some people crying foul, even as the hotel works to position itself as a leader in local arts and culture.

click to enlarge Mike Oleskow during his tenure at FOUND:RE Phoenix hotel. - DAN VERMILLION
Mike Oleskow during his tenure at FOUND:RE Phoenix hotel.
Dan Vermillion
FOUND:RE hired a cultural curator, Mike Oleskow, before opening in late 2016. He filled guest rooms and common areas with works by local artists, including a giant ear sculpture by Ronna Nemitz and a Randy Slack painting inspired by Burt Reynolds' iconic nude pose for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Those statement pieces are gone now. And so is Oleskow.

“We decided to expand our art programs,” says Tim Sprague, a principal with Habitat Metro, which worked with Bond Partners to transform a once-defunct hotel into FOUND:RE. “We reached out to Artlink last fall because they’ve done some neat stuff with other hotels.” (Artlink has worked with several downtown hotels on projects ranging from murals to artist residencies.)

“The idea was to take on a different look and go in a different direction and engage different curators,” Sprague says. Recently, FOUND:RE hired two associate curators, Brandi Read and Caroline Hubbell.

But the transition to the new program hasn’t gone smoothly, according to Phoenix artist Lucretia Torva. Earlier this year, Oleskow told Torva she needed to pick up her artwork from the hotel because changes were underway. Other artists whose work he’d featured there got a similar call.

Those changes included painting hotel walls white, which meant that two of Torva’s murals for FOUND:RE were painted over. “We were kept in the dark,” she says of the hotel’s plans.

click to enlarge Aileen Frick with one of her artworks previously shown at FOUND:RE Phoenix. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Aileen Frick with one of her artworks previously shown at FOUND:RE Phoenix.
Lynn Trimble
Another Phoenix artist, Aileen Frick, says she was scheduled to have a solo exhibition at FOUND:RE during Art Detour in March — but the show was nixed in the changeover. “It would have been nice to have more notice that the hotel was going in a different direction," Frick says. “Having art shows requires planning, and this is how I make my living.”

Artlink, FOUND:RE management, and Oleskow all declined Phoenix New Times’ request for details about the transition timeline and logistics.

Sprague admits that the process of shifting to a new art program hit some snags. “When you make a transition, you have to get things done,” says Sprague. “Maybe there were a couple of glitches, but we’ve respected the artists well over time.”

click to enlarge Looking north on Central Avenue towards FOUND:RE Phoenix. - LYNN TRIMBLE
Looking north on Central Avenue towards FOUND:RE Phoenix.
Lynn Trimble
For Phoenix gallerist and curator Laura Dragon, the abrupt notice to original FOUND:RE artists is only part of the problem.

“They’re competing with the little mom-and-pop galleries,” she says of the hotel’s arts program. “We’ve already lost galleries because of all the developers moving into Roosevelt Row.”

More hotels with a creative twist are planned for Roosevelt Row, including an Atari hotel and the first Meow Wolf hotel, which means the issue of how galleries and art hotels coexist in the same arts ecosystem will be part of the downtown Phoenix conversation for years to come.

For now, Sprague is focused on sharing the hotel’s “fresh look,” even as he recognizes that mistakes were made.

“We’re not perfect people,” he says. “I would apologize if anyone feels slighted.”
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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