Longform

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

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For this story, New Times tracked down 16 current and former members of Phoenix Art Group. Six declined comment, five never returned our calls and e-mails, and five agreed to talk.

Cline (who was interviewed by New Times in 1994 but declined to comment for this story) studied art at ASU. After graduating and living the life of a starving artist in Los Angeles, he came back to Phoenix and met businessman Joseph Grassia (who also declined an interview request — as we said, these guys are secretive). They joined forces, set up shop, and placed ads in local newspapers for talent.

According to former employees, Cline's idea was to gather and educate a large group of artists who would produce work for corporate clients. And from that idea came Accent Graphics.

Eight artists were hired to create work targeted toward the commercial market and worked under a number of pseudonyms. For Accent Graphics, this created an illusion of a large and permanent "stable." No matter who came or left, the names and profiles of the fictional artists would remain the same on promotion materials.

For artists, the pseudonyms created a mask. A number of different artists could reproduce designs and sign each painting with the fake signature of its designated fake painter. In short, it protected their value in a time when commercial art was frowned upon by the high-brow art community and often viewed as "selling out."

To the artists who agreed to share their Phoenix Art Group stories, commercial gigs pay the bills — but at a high cost.

Greg Gronowski answered an "artists wanted" ad in the paper. He became one of Accent Graphics' original eight but says he had no qualms about doing commercial work.

"To me, all art is commercial, whether it's sold in a gallery or it's in a hotel. The only thing that changes is the subject matter," he says. "A lot of artists will consider that below them . . . You really cut your chances of survival by doing that. "

Gronowski says the group started out painting butterflies and watercolors for local hotels but quickly expanded, added more artists (both on the production floor and in the fake-artist roster), and began selling internationally and playing the art market game in the '80s and '90s. Gronowski remembers traveling to the East Coast for huge commercial art shows where buyers knew him as "Barrett."

He says his pseudonyms probably are more famous than his own name (you can still find "Barrett's" work selling on Art.com, and he says he's seen auction resales of his commercial work for thousands of dollars), but ultimately, he says, it's not about his own signature at the bottom of the painting.

"If you want to survive in this industry, you can't really hold on to your ego. People look at Rafael or Michelangelo and don't know that a lot of this artwork was done by a staff of artists who were individually really good at hands or excelled in expression," he says. "Production of art has been around since the beginning . . . You just have to learn to bend a little. And that's what I learned from John Cline."

In the '90s, the economy picked up and construction in Phoenix and all over the country exploded — and for commercial art, that meant business.

Cline and Grassia expanded. They employed more than 100 people and sold prints and paintings for as much as $10,000 to hotels and hospitals from Las Vegas to Dubai under the name Phoenix Art Press (another commercial art venture of Cline and Grassia), according to former employees.

Gronowski says artists were paid about $150 per month, but as demand for their work grew, Cline and Grassia combined Accent Graphics and Phoenix Art Press into Phoenix Art Group. They started granting commissions based on the sales. Gronowski remembers artists taking home $4,000 to $5,000 per month — all for making artwork.

In the '90s, three young Phoenix artists submitted their résumés and samples. They were all in their early 20s and were looking for jobs that would pay the bills and let them paint.

It was inside Phoenix Art Group that Randy Slack, James Angel, and David Dauncey first met and worked together.

On a sunny Wednesday in March, Angel sits over an iced tea at a crowded Starbucks in the Biltmore neighborhood and compares the commercial art world to the music industry. To determine how well a piece will sell, he says, you have to push all the buttons that make something that will stick in people's heads.

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Claire Lawton
Contact: Claire Lawton