Joseph Benesh, the new executive director of Arizona Citizens for the Arts, got stuck in rush-hour traffic coming home from Taliesin West last Wednesday. “I have had to pee for the last 15 miles,” he said as he arrived at Carly’s Bistro, where he’d come to talk about why local culture is important.
“Everyone here loves Joseph,” a waiter named Raul said as Benesh headed to the restroom. “We had his going-away party here last week.” Benesh had left his job as director of Phoenix Center for the Arts after eight years to take over ACA, a nonprofit arts advocacy organization.
“They put up a big banner and a lot of party decorations,” Benesh said as he settled in at a corner table. “I notice you took the banner down,” he said to Raul.
“Why can’t you just be nice?” Raul asked, then left to get Benesh a hummus plate.
Benesh recalled how he wound up in Phoenix 27 years ago. At the time, he said, he just wanted to get out of California. “I was about 19 and living a bachelor life. It was a fast track to nowhere. Sex, drugs, rock and roll. I went cold turkey on everything — smoking, drinking, all of it. I was abstinent for three years. I needed a Joseph reset.”
He joined his mother, who was moving to Arizona for a nursing job. “I need to get away from old friends and old habits,” he told her. “I stopped going by Joe and started calling myself Joseph.”
His mother moved into a trailer in Apache Junction. “That was my first introduction to Arizona,” Benesh said. “And no offense to Apache Junction, but it was not the most welcoming place to a 20-year-old from Southern California. I lasted three months and then I moved to Phoenix.”
Once here, he fell in with a group of thespians who were running downtown’s long-gone Planet Earth Multicultural Theatre.
“I spent two years almost living out of Planet Earth,” he said, shaking his head at the memory. “That was magical. And it couldn’t have been more DIY. All of us duct-taping legs on the risers and fixing the bathrooms so that maybe one of them would work on opening night. Chasing cockroaches off the stage during a performance. It was some of the best and worst theater I ever made — sometimes in the same show on the same night.”
It was a lesson, Benesh said, about how the product of theater is bigger than the sum of its parts. “It’s not just the set and the actors and the audience,” he explained. “It’s a synergy. That’s what the arts are.”
These lessons about DIY culture and the synergy of art stayed with Benesh, who went from acting at Theater Works in Peoria to running the company 15 years later. Somewhere in there, he said, he fell in love with arts management.
“If you had told me when I was 22 and naked on stage at Theater Works that I was going to love this type of work, I would have said you’re crazy,” Benesh insisted around bites of hummus. “It sounds cheesy, but I love arts administration. To me, it’s just another part of the puzzle.”
Benesh followed the arts puzzle to New York University, where he received a master’s degree in arts administration, and later to Brazil, where he worked with the Theatre of the Oppressed, which uses plays to promote social and political change. He said he always knew he would eventually return to Phoenix.
“A good day for me is floating in the pool with a beer. In New York City, there are no pools. I came back here and got married to my first love, and we spent five years learning that we had nothing in common.”
Benesh’s next marriage, to nonprofit Phoenix Center for the Arts, was more successful. “I started out as a part-time manager and ended up the artistic executive director. I grew the center by 800 percent in eight years. It was eight years of loving life and learning more about the arts than I ever had.”
Those lessons included a reminder that DIY culture is key to a successful arts community. Artists have to pull themselves up, Benesh said, and not wait for an audience or arts legislation to do it for them. He plans to bring that thinking to his new post at ACA.
“The first thing we need to do is not let ourselves or our friends do any art for free. Ever again," he said. "I’m not setting a price point, but I’m telling artists to stop giving their art away. Maybe if you’re just out of college, you sell your paintings for 20 bucks, because you’re not a world-renowned muralist. If we actually value our sector and want our friends and our family to think art is important, we can’t sabotage that by making art for free. We’ve inherited this culture that says art has little value. Artists can’t perpetuate that culture and expect to thrive.”
What they can do, Benesh insisted, is activate their audiences. “Theaters can invite their audiences to a cabaret performance, and then hand that audience a letter to sign and mail to legislators asking for arts funding. Artists can go to their legislators and demand funding. Gallery owners can invite legislators to their galleries to see what local artists are doing.”
Raul stopped by to refill Benesh’s water glass. “We’ll never get anywhere if artists don’t start treating themselves and their work as something of value,” he said as he loosened his tie. “Creative people can’t keep waiting for others to lobby on their behalf.”