Commercial Art Is Keeping Phoenix Artists Afloat -- But At a High Cost

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Collectives including MARS, Five15, eye lounge, and Artlink have been incubators for emerging artists who have settled in and built up Grand Avenue, parts of the warehouse district, and Roosevelt Row.

But unless you own and rent out the buildings (like Beatrice Moore on Grand Avenue) or run regular events in your building (like Helen Hestenes of the Icehouse), it's not likely you'll make a living.

Phoenix Art Museum Director James Ballinger has been heavily involved in the community since the mid-'70s, when he took a job as curator of collections at PAM. Since he started, Ballinger says he's seen a series of rises and falls in the local art community.

"Before the economic decline, local galleries were really on the right track," he says. "It'd be great to see a handful of galleries run by well-intentioned, smart people that represent the best of emerging artwork, where people from the community and all over can visit during the day to get a sense of what's going on in Phoenix."

Lisa Sette owns one of these galleries. Sette's been in business in Scottsdale for more than 20 years. On a Thursday afternoon in June, she talks over the phone while scrolling through the roster of artists she represents. The 53-year-old has owned her gallery for more than 25 years. She says of the 36 artists she represents, 13 are from Arizona. Two of them teach and one owns a meditation center. The others, she says, create art full-time.

"Is it possible to aspire to be a full-time artist? Yes," she says. "Is it realistic? Possibly . . . I can't estimate the number of artists who are really making a living creating artwork in Phoenix. It's a very small number — a couple dozen maybe — and to make it into that group, you have work, perhaps teach, or have a day job on the side for a long time to get to that point."

Sette's artists do well, but before you head over to Marshall Way with your portfolio, be warned: She rarely takes on anyone new. Every two years, her gallery hosts an open call. Two years ago, 500 artists from around the world submitted their work for her perusal. Sette chose one artist: Phoenix's Alan Bur Johnson.

"To be honest, some days, I don't know as a gallery owner how you make it here in the art community," she says. "Of course, the arts are important. Artists are at the forefront of every issue we encounter. They teach us about it, they feel it first, and they can help the general public understand it . . . but I don't know how anyone makes a great living while doing it."

Ted Decker has a few ideas. He sponsors dozens of local and international exhibitions and artist-marketing materials through his Catalyst Fund.

Decker grew up in Phoenix and has traveled extensively. He's been to more exhibitions, art fairs, and artist studios than he can count. But he can name only about 10 artists in the community who he knows are make a living solely creating art.

"The life of a contemporary artist is all very romanticized," he says. "And I think part of the problem is that there are too many people who are not qualified to be making art — they don't know how to draw. They walk around with a video camera and call themselves video artists, pile stuff in the middle of the room and call it an installation . . . It's absolutely possible to make a living creating art, but you have to be good, you have to have to be smart, and you need to have a plan, a website, and a portfolio so you can get a residency or a grant — and not have to be a waiter."

As for Phoenix Art Group, Decker says he's changed his mind.

"I used to be one of the people who was very dismissive of them or any commercial art producer, but now — and I know I can get slammed for saying it — I think artists really need to do what they have to do to survive," Decker says. "But don't get me wrong, if you're going to do commercial work, you better still be doing the best work that you can."

The romanticized view of starving artists and the struggle of the creative class is nothing new, and there is an obvious place for artists who teach other artists in the classroom and studio and those who create public projects. Those sentiments and gigs extend far beyond Phoenix. But 40 years ago, John Cline gave Phoenix artists another option.

In the 1970s, today's arts-focused area of downtown Phoenix was rezoned as a high-rise incentive district, with the goal of bringing in huge, dense residential and office buildings. The zoning stunted growth of the largely single-family home neighborhood, and as residents and businesses moved out, the value of the area plummeted. Boarded-up buildings and vacant houses became attractive to artists because they were affordable for studio spaces and galleries, but most artists still needed full-time incomes.

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton