Art and commerce took center stage during Arlink’s 18th Annual Juried Exhibition, held Thursday, September 15, at the Heard Museum’s Steele Auditorium.
The exhibition featured 50 works in various media by 45 Arizona artists. They were selected from 257 submissions by a three-person jury panel that included Nancy Hill, owner of Chartreuse gallery, artist Fred Tieken, and Ann Marshall, director of curation and education for the Heard, which specializes in American Indian arts and culture.
Artlink’s mission includes creating connections between local artists, businesses, and the community. For this show, Artlink brought together artists, one of the Valley's best museums, and Baron Properties, a development company that faced controversy for demolishing two buildings in the Roosevelt Row arts district so it could erect a pair of multi-level apartment complexes.
Baron supplied the $5,000 Baron Prize for the show's winning artwork, and chose the Baron Prize-winning art work. It's the largest cash prize offered for an Artlink exhibition, and the first acquisition prize. Past awards have been in the $350 range, says Artlink president Catrina Kahler, who suggested the prize to Baron Properties after learning they were looking for local works of art to purchase for their collection and display in their Roosevelt Row buildings.
First and second runner-up works were chosen by the three-member jury, and Baron Properties chose three additional works to purchase. All in all, Baron and other patrons spent a total of more than $16,000 on art from the Artlink show.
Instead of being inspired to create cutting-edge works, it seems that most of the selected artists played it safe, which isn't necessarily surprising. If you're submitting a work of art to a panel, it's because you want it to be chosen. Of course, there's no shame in artists wanting to be paid for their work. But it's hard to decipher how financial opportunity might — or might not — dampen creative impulses.
Phoenix photographer Wayne Rainey, a longtime artist and activist in Roosevelt Row who owns the monOrchid building, opted for provocative rather than pleasing. He showed a large-scale photograph that’s both strangely alluring and deeply disturbing.
Titled Illumination, it’s a nighttime capture of construction debris from the properties destroyed in March 2015 to make way for iLuminate, which is one of two Baron Properties multi-level housing developments currently under construction at the intersection of Roosevelt and Third streets, iLuminate sits adjacent to monOrchid, Rainey's arts and events space.
Rainey’s intention with the piece is clear. He’s voiced strong criticism of Baron Properties through social media, and expressed his concern that artists who partner with Baron Properties or other developers who demolish beloved buildings are taking part in the demise of their own arts community.
Within hours of Artlink wrapping up its single-day exhibition, Rainey posted comments on his Facebook page that included the following, and he's posted additional comments since:
"Well that was an interesting night. It had all the components of a good drama with no casualties except perhaps an arts district. If only there were an organization present, that promoted the arts and artists, that could have stood erect and told Baron Properties that we are not the cheap sluts you take us for and what you're trying to buy is not for sale."
After Baron Properties demolished a building bearing Lauren Lee’s Three Birds mural to make way for iLuminate, it commissioned Lee to create mural-inspired panels collectively called Three Birds in Flight, which they’ve already mounted on iLuminate’s west-facing façade.
Rainey also called out Artlink in his post on exhibition night, writing, "ArtLink is dead. It died the minute it wed the Dev that tore into our heart." For Rainey, art took the form of activism. And activism took the form of art.
His Illuminated is a clarion call from an arts district in distress. And its presence in this show shifts the entire exhibition from showcase of Arizona talent to conversation-starter about the relationship of art and commercial interests.
The bold nature of Rainey’s work, an exquisite composition even without its powerful context, made everything around it look safe – including the trio of works chosen for special recognition.
Artlink partnered with Baron Properties for this exhibition, which featured a $5,000 Baron Prize for an artist whose work would be prominently displayed in one of its Roosevelt Row properties currently under construction. Artlink also offered a $2,000 first runner-up prize and a $750 second runner-up prize.
Looking at most of the works in this show, it’s clear the cash prize didn’t prompt any significant risk-taking. For the most part, artists submitted fairly safe, predictable works. Chief among them were A.O. Tucker’s photograph Fountain of Feathers, one of many bird photographs he's shown around town this year, and Lexi Coburn’s lithograph Saguaro Ghost. Neither stretches boundaries in terms of subject matter, media, or technique.
It’s not that there weren’t any decent works or fun surprises in the show. Joan Waters’ welded steel with patinas sculpture titled Box for Secret Thoughts: Temple, purchased by Baron Properties that night for its collection, conveyed cathedral-like qualities with subtle references to nature. And Zach Valent’s The 19th of February — created with recycled magazines, concrete, quartz crystal, alum crystal, and concrete stain – introduced unexpected elements into his typically paper- and concrete-based work.
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Even so, decision-makers rewarded caution rather than risk-taking – awarding the Baron Prize to Tucson artist Onna Jeanna Voellmer for a primarily back-and-cream-colored abstract work titled Meditating on Love. Another abstract painting, Color Fields #4, by Phoenix artist Gloria Gaddis, was second runner-up. First runner-up was Graffiti Horse by Phoenix artist Kathy Taylor, which is pictured below.
It's not entirely shocking that a jury knowing its selections would be acquired by a corporation would play it safe rather than choosing something like Samantha Lyn Aasen's Big Head photograph with the distorted face of a tiara-adorned girl. And the problem isn't that the works recognized with cash awards, all by proficient painters, don't have merit. Instead, it's their relative sameness. Two are abstracts, and all share a similar color palette, prompting reflection on whether developers' presence in the evolving Roosevelt Row arts district could have a chilling effect on artistic and curatorial decisions.
Correction: This post has been edited from its original version to reflect the correct spelling of Onna Jeanna Voellmer's name. It has also been updated to reflect that the $16,000 spent on art at this exhibition was a total amount including Baron's purchases and those of other patrons, and that Artlink paid for the runner-up prizes.